Picking the font: A case study

Having just gotten back from the weeklong holiday and totally forgotten how to do my job, while blathering about choosing text faces the other day I omitted two very obvious considerations:

  1. What kind of type is used in similar books?

  2. What typefaces are used on the book cover or jacket?

Today I whipped up a design for an epic, Bible-related fantasy novel that was compared on the sell sheet with J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. So first I went to Amazon.com and Google Books to try to find interior scans from old bibles, LOTR, and His Dark Materials. I also did some Googling around to try to identify typefaces typically used for bibles—not only because I thought they might look distinctive, but also because the book I was designing is very long, and I thought a Bible-ready typeface might help me cram it into the requested castoff.

I was able to confirm my hunch that a very understated, centered design would be most like the “if you liked x, you’ll also like y” examples, and I was also able to identify some typefaces that have been used in, or even designed specifically for, setting bibles. Of course, we don’t have Lucerna or Veritas. We do have ITC Giovanni, but when I saw that Elisabeth’s standby, Sabon, had some biblical work experience, I decided to try that first.

Our library contains two versions of Sabon—Adobe and Monotype—and I wasn’t sure what the difference was, so again, I Googled around. I learned that the Adobe Sabon is based on Linotype’s version, and that some people seem to prefer the Monotype version. I was already leaning toward the MT version because it has semibold, whereas the Adobe has bold. (I don’t use any kind of bold much, but sometimes a semibold is nice for heads, especially if there’s no display weight.)

Unfortunately, as soon as I started using it, I noticed that the Monotype Sabon wasn’t displaying properly in Quark. FontReserve said it was okay, but !@#$% Quark showed it all pixelly. So I swapped in the Adobe version, fiddled with leading and margins and type size until it just fit in the 704 allotted pages (this is not a shoot, so I could set whatever margins I wanted), was about to start designing the frontmatter, and then . . . remembered that it might be a good idea to see if there was a book jacket yet.

I connected to the various art department denizens’ shared directories, searched for the title, and found that there were, in fact, already a dust jacket and a trade paperback cover. And these both used Columbus MT.

Le sigh.

Now, at this point, I could have just ignored that fact. Nobody would notice or care besides me and the jacket designer. And although at my last job, it was almost a requirement to pick up whatever typefaces were used on the jacket, at this company we’re not encouraged to take this into account. But I happen to have actually met and talked to the designer in question (before coming to this job; I haven’t met anyone else in the art department for longer than two seconds), and quite recently we exchanged some e-mails about titles we’ve both worked on. Said designer expressed mild regret about some cases in which I had not picked up the fonts used on the jackets. I experienced mild remorse. So even though I think of Columbus as a little too tricksy for most projects, I decided to give it a go.

More fiddling, to make the newly fonted text fit in the same container. (What had been 10.5/14.5 Sabon became 12/14.5 Columbus—another example of how point sizes are almost meaningless.) Decided Columbus was actually fine for the book in question. Picked up the display type (which I didn’t much like) from the jacket for the part titles. Made sure my design didn’t call for any font variants that didn’t exist. (For example, I wanted to set the first word of each chapter in small caps, but then I saw that some chapters began with italicized text. Columbus doesn’t have italic small caps, and I’m never happy with the look of ones that have been slanted by Quark, so I nixed this element and turned up the volume on the chapter titles, instead.)

Printed some spreads and determined that they didn’t look stupid. Slapped an approval form on it and dropped it off upstairs on my way out of the building.

The End.

9 thoughts on “Picking the font: A case study

  1. This is all really interesting. Seems a shame that the jacket design is completed before the book design starts — I spend a lot more time looking at the words inside the book than at the words on the book jacket, so it would make sense to me that the book design takes precendence. But of course, I know nothing of the business and the production process. Maybe this makes sense in some other way.

  2. But the jacket’s needed for marketing eons before the text gets underway.

    Here’s a new wrinkle: the editor doesn’t like the design I did. Thinks the text is too big. I think he’s just being misled by the fact that the specs say “12/14.5” when he’s used to seeing much smaller numbers for the point size. As I said, in Sabon I needed 10.5pt type for the same layout. Furthermore, this is an editor who’s notorious for cramming too much text into too small a package. He compiles a lot of huge anthologies and then asks that the interiors be set in ways that make the Norton Critical Editions look luxuriously roomy.

    He asked me to cut it by a hundred pages.

    So I’ve redesigned it to be sixty-four pages shorter—doing away with chapter sinks, and reducing type size and margins. We’ll see if that’s close enough. To get it smaller than that, I’d have to run the chapters in.

    Or, you know, make it hideous. Which is always an option.

  3. Update: The shortened version was approved, but with a note that “I would be more pleased if we could reduce the page count further without compromising this attractive design.”

    Well, there’s the rub, ain’t it? Reducing the page count further would compromise the design. Not to mention readability, as well as ease of typesetting. (When chapters are run in, it’s harder to make corrections on later passes without causing massive reflow; when each chapter starts on a new page, you’ve got more wiggle room.)

  4. Ouch! Sorry to hear about your battles with the editor . . . that’s so frustrating. You make your design process sound so fast! Do you have to write up type specs for the compositor, or do you just send them your Quark file and they figure out the specs from there? I feel like I spend so much time after a book design is done, writing specs for everything . . .

  5. Hi, Maia.

    Yes, my design process is often a bit faster than it should be, I’m sure. And I did have to write up specs, which takes me about half a day per layout. I wrote about that process over here.

  6. Oh, goody. A post about writing type specs! I don’t believe it. I just discovered your blog today, and you can sign me up for the fan club right now. Thanks for sharing so much about your process. I love the design you showed for The Best Stories of the Am. West (although it showed up at a squinty-small screenshot size, so I couldn’t fully appreciate all the details).

    I’ve been working at the University of Chicago Press for over a year now, and one of the great things about this job is that I get to design both interiors and jackets. I don’t know much about the commercial publishing industry, but it sounds frustrating to have to switch typefaces to match the jacket designer’s choice.

    Love your sense of humor! Good luck with the new job! I’ll be back to read more about your design travails — thanks!

  7. Glad you like the blog! I hope you’ll comment at length about how you do things; I’m always curious about how other designers work, esp. since I make it up as I go along.

    I don’t suppose you could use some of your in-house leverage to encourage UChiPress to fix and support the Mac version of the CMS CD-ROM . . . ?

  8. Oh dear, I just read your post about your problems with the CMS CD-ROM, and I feel the need to personally apologize, even though I have absolutely no knowledge of anything that goes on in that department! Sounds like the Mac version is a real beast. The only people I know here who use the CD-ROM are all on PCs… the Press didn’t offer complimentary copies to the designers, who are the only people in the building using Macs. Sounds like we would have been a good test audience, so they could have sorted some of the bugs out!

    Hope you’re enjoying your time off (?) (hope you were able to take time off) before you start the new gig. It’s encouraging that you went from book design to web… I sometimes wonder if I’m willfully making myself obsolete by taking jobs that don’t require any web work. The last website I designed was in high school! I’m terribly rusty.

    Good luck with the new job! I’ll look forward to posts with a more of a web bent — maybe it will inspire me to try my hand at web weaving again… back to checking proofs. oof.

  9. Eh, I’m over the CMS thing, mostly. The technical problem itself was merely disappointing. What I find appalling is that they quoted me in their press release but nevertheless could not be arsed to respond to my tech support request. Mindbogglingly dumb.

    I did not have any time off, alas, unless you count the completely unproductive first week I’ve had. I finally, just today, put together a first draft of a 6 x 8″ party invitation, but that’s the first piece of tangible work I’ve gotten done. Of course, it would help if they had actually ordered me a computer before I arrived, so that I wouldn’t be doing everything on my own 12″ laptop screen. My computer’s fine for blogging and e-mail, and for doing layout in desperate situations on airplanes, but it’s not suitable for, say, working on a tabloid-sized publication in InDesign. (I’ve requested a 24″ iMac with a second monitor; we’ll see what happens.)

    As for going from print to Web, it’s rather the other way around. Or I picked up both at the same time, to the extent that I learned them at all. (Shaggy-dog story over here.) And in the new job, I’m still doing print design but also adding some light Web . . . crap. Design is not the right term, since there are two outside designers already working on it. But, for example, I’m about to be the person who stands over the designers and asks, “Um, that code is going to validate as XHTML 1.0 Transitional, right?”

    And then they’re going to look at me. Blankly.

    I can hardly wait!

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