Book Design: Don’t Get Confused By Typeface Point Sizes

by Joel Friedlander on February 1, 2012 · 22 comments

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Book typography can get a bit complex at times, although good book pages usually end up looking quite simple to the reader.

One common task you encounter as a self-publisher is selecting typefaces, whether you’re designing your own book or using an author services company.

Today I want to show you why you don’t necessarily want to pick typefaces and sizes just “by the numbers.”

For instance, if you like the way a friend’s book looks, and find out that she used 11 point Minion, you might think you can get pretty much the same effect with 11 point type of another style.

But that isn’t always the case.

In fact, book designers are often more concerned with the typeface’s x-height in relation to the point size. The x-height is the height of the lowercase letters.

You might think this is pretty standard, that one design is much like another, but that isn’t so. Here’s a sample of 100 point Bembo:

x-height Bembo

This graceful oldstyle typeface has a small x-height. Typefaces like Bembo look elegant, partly because the ascenders and descenders (parts of letters that extend above and below the lowercase letters) are long in relation to the x-height.

Here’s a more modern roman face, Callisto.

x-height Callisto

Even though this is also 100 point type, the x-height is almost 20% larger than Bembo’s. The entire “color” of the page will be affected, and it will appear much denser than Bembo.

How about this sample of Impact:

x-height Impact

Obviously, Impact is a display face and you wouldn’t use it to set text like Bembo or Callisto. But it’s interesting to see how the proportion of the letters has been manipulated by the type designer to get an extremely dense, black imprint from the same size type as the Bembo sample.

So when it comes to choosing type, make sure you know what it will look like on the book page. Factors like x-height have as much—and sometimes more—to do with how your page will look than just the size of the type might indicate.

Keep running proofs, if you can, to see how different typefaces look with your book and your page layout. It’s the one sure way to make certain you know what your book will look like when it comes back from the printer.

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    { 22 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jaime Buckley October 11, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Thanks for the lesson Joel.

    I slammed on the breaks here, going back to reformat all my books (7 in total) for 2014. New covers, artwork and the like…then it hit me that I needed to do my educational rounds. So much I’m still learning and “good” just isn’t good enough for me anymore.

    So of course, I came here. =D


    Ian February 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    Do you think there is enough value in the professional font packs from say Adobe, or is the standard compliment of fonts that come with Quark or the CS suite pretty much representative of “the best of”?

    I tend to find too many font choices overwhelming sometimes and I rarely consider fonts outside of the half dozen I usually rely on, but I also haven’t ever invested in a proper font pack.


    Joel Friedlander February 2, 2012 at 10:40 pm


    If you are planning on doing your own books, you should be just fine with a limited range of typefaces. If you’re going to design books for a wide variety of authors, you’ll need a pretty comprehensive font collection. The fonts I’ve seen that ship with high-end layout programs are good, so I wouldn’t hesitate to use them.


    Ian February 3, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I was thinking along the lines of uses beyond necessarily books (as I do produce direct mail and other printed materials). I tend to stick with the same font families. But mostly I’ve been wondering if its worth pushing to invest in dedicated font packs or not, especially since my preferences tend to be confined to a finite list.


    Joel Friedlander February 3, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Ian, in the advertising world where you create direct mail and collateral pieces for companies you are likely to need a much larger collection of typefaces than even a sophisticated book designer. The fact is that most typefaces are unsuitable for use in books so the designs we use are usually very traditional and within a pretty narrow range.


    Henry Hyde February 1, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Here’s a tip for typography newbies: create a single page of the size your book is going to be and fill it with, say, 300-500 words of body text. You can use dummy text, or “Lorem ipsum” as it’s commonly known (see , if you haven’t already got words of your own. Now try out different fonts and leading (that’s the vertical space between lines of text) on the whole lot, as well as adjusting the margins, to discover what emerges as the most balanced result. A good designer will always keep in mind their target audience and optimise legibility accordingly.


    Joel Friedlander February 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Thanks for the great tip, Henry, I do the same thing myself.


    Michael N. Marcus February 2, 2012 at 3:08 am

    Ironically, substituting nonsense Latin like “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.” is often called Greeking. It’s common in advertising design as well as book design. I don’t know what Greek designers call it, or what designers in Vatican City use as temporary text.

    I once saw lorem ipsum wallpaper, and a crappy Arnold Schwarzenegger movie used upside-down Hebrew text as lorem. Sometimes lorem shows up in newspapers where it was intended to be a temporary “place holder” but was never replaced with real text.

    The letters ETAOIN SHRDLU were the first two vertical columns on the left side of a Linotype keyboard, and the “phrase” sometimes showed up in print — even in the NY Times. See the last item at There’s other funny stuff on the page.


    Henry Hyde February 2, 2012 at 3:24 am

    That made me smile, Michael. One of my favourite versions of Lorem Ipsum was generated by Quark XPress (I’m having to think hard because I use InDesign these days) and it was called Jabberwocky. One of the options used Klingon — great for mocking up sci-fi products!


    Joel Friedlander February 2, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Henry, I used to use that Klingon generator regularly, hadn’t thought about it in years. Too bad Adobe didn’t build something like that into InDesign, thanks for the memories.


    Joel Friedlander February 2, 2012 at 11:02 am

    There’s actually are a couple of reasons to not use the commonplace Lorem Ipsum text. For one, the text, which is Latin from a work of Cicero’s intentionally mangled so it cannot be read, contains no K, W, or Z characters. But the reason I’ve never used it for typographic modeling is that English has many many more words with ascenders and descenders. So a passage rendered in lorem ipsum will look smoother than a similar passage in English.

    Although some typesetters prefer the nonsense of lorem ipsum so the text itself doesn’t attract the eye while you’re examining graphic details, I prefer standard English because it gives the same overall look you’ll get with the final text.


    Henry Hyde February 2, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Good point, Joel. Perhaps one should just copy and paste “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper” a hundred times — that should give you all the ascenders and descenders you need!


    John Morris February 2, 2012 at 8:07 am

    It is nice to hear someone talk about leading. I remember using particular typefaces which could take extra leading because of the x height and long descenders, which meant less lines per page and the book made more pages which helped if you wanted the book to look value for money, especially if using a bulky book wove. Do designers still insist on avoiding widows and orphans in book design.


    Henry Hyde February 2, 2012 at 8:53 am

    @John: widows and orphans — when it comes to printed work, yes, I always try to eliminate them. One of the banes of Kindle/HTML publishing is, of course, that the user can completely change the font and size and thus destroy any hard work you’ve done! I suspect that many (most?) readers don’t care, but it’s really nice when someone notices that you *have* gone to this trouble.


    Sharon Beck February 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    My partner and I were designing the book cover for one of our books and could not find exactly the font we wanted. (Interestingly enough, we both seemed to have the precisely same view of what we each envisioned.)

    I finally found a font close enough. What made it work for us was stretching it vertically by about 10%. You can see the current version ebook cover at
    The print book cover have a different but related design since it will include a subtitle.


    Joel Friedlander February 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    While some designers frown on adjusting the proportions of typefaces, many display fonts can be adjusted a bit to fit circumstances or to get a special effect, and the type distortion on Sharon’s cover looks quite acceptable to me, thanks for the link.


    Sharon Beck February 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for the feedback! This is a book we are writing as well as publishing, but it is getting delayed since we decided on writing a different book first.


    George Angus February 1, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Joel, Once again I come to your site and learn something interesting and new.

    Don’t know how you do it, but I’m glad you do. :-)



    Susan Russo Anderson February 1, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Thanks to you Joel and to your contributors for educating us indies. Your posts are always helpful.


    Michael N. Marcus February 1, 2012 at 1:42 am

    I was surprised to discover that type width can vary considerably among faces with the same height, and not just standard vs. condensed or compressed.

    Because of differences in letter thickness and spacing, changing a face can affect how type wraps around an illustration and the lengths of paragraphs, pages, chapters and the entire book; and can create or eliminate annoying widows and orphans. For example, 12-pt. Adobe Garamond Pro takes up less space than Constantia, which takes up less space than Trebuchet.

    Doing a “select all” to change the face throughout a book may lead to many hours of modifications to get the book to look right.

    Also, in AGP and Constantia, italic type takes up less space than roman, but there is little or no difference between ital and roman in sans serif faces such as Trebuchet and Tahoma.

    Michael N. Marcus

    — New: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:


    Joel Friedlander February 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks Michael, good info on what typographers call set width which can have a huge effect on both the look of your page and the length of your book. That’s another blog post.

    And to all amateur book designers: I hope you never ever do a “select all” on the interior of your book. Learn to use master pages, paragraph and character styles, and you’ll have much better control of your book designs.


    Sharon Beck February 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I find it necessary to remove all formatting to from an author’s manuscript since authors don’t tend to use styles at all. This way I can apply styles properly throughout from the beginning of the project. If I need a special setting for any portion of text, I just create another style suitably named based on the functionality, but I never manually modify a text element.

    BTW, Word automatically creates a style for each unique combination of font, type, emphasis, size, and language, named using all that info. I recently received a manuscript with at least 60 styles. When I stripped them all out and redid it, it only needed about a dozen styles.


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