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What is a book font family?

David Bergsland

Many (if not most) of you are probably thinking that this is a simple question with an easy and obvious answer:

David Bergsland

For that answer you probably got a silver star in your beginning typography class.
However, the question "Why?" was not asked or answered in most cases. If the question why was asked, the answer was usually, "...because you can fit more copy in a given space and use narrower column widths."

That is not what the title asked. The question is, "What is a book font family?" Reworded a little the question becomes:

What do you need in a font family to make it exceptional for designing books?

That is what I want to talk about here. Some of you may know that my original impetus to begin designing fonts was to deal with the problem I had - namely I was constantly looking for a font family that was truly useful for graphically intensive book design. I had a long list of needs.

Readability: Body copy set with the font had to be exceptionally easy and comfortable to read. Reading comfort is imperative when the competition is producing textbooks that are so dry you need your pencil to simply prop open your eyes.

Legibility: The fonts need to be quickly absorbed when being used for captions, pull quotes, and the like.

True small caps: Proportionally reduced capital letters make unacceptable body copy. They look non-professional in headers also because the caps that attend the small caps are obviously much darker.

Extremely smooth type color: That smooth, medium gray type color generated by the body copy is the background that you must have to easily use to contrast of the headers-to make heads & Subheads pop off the page, as it were.

Oldstyle figures: It would probably help if we called them what they are: lowercase numbers. They are essential for good type color-where lining figures are shouting in that instance just as all caps is shouting in an email.

Small cap figures: In copy set in small caps, small cap figures are obviously essential for the same reason I just mentioned and oldstyle figures simply look silly in small cap copy.

Variety of weights: I found that I really needed light, regular, bold, & black weights. Many of the fonts that were available had bold versions that were just barely bold and therefore were very irritating because of the lack of impact. Bold means you need impact. You are trying to get attention.

True, readable italics: Obliques simply look wrong to an educated reader. Many italics are closer to a script with all of the attendant readability issues.

Discretionary ligatures: This is probably simply a personal desire. But I really wanted those miniscule ornamentations to help keep the easy reading from being too boring.

Fractions: I became really tired of the need to custom build all my fractions.

Amitale Book I could add more to the list, but that should be enough for now. In the 1980s and 1990s, fonts that could do these things simply were not available. Fontographer came free with the FreeHand 7 Graphic Studio. This gave me the tools to try to solve some of the issues. I was forced to start with small cap versions of each weight just to hold the oldstyle figures and small cap letters.

Font families were a definite need (in my opinion) that had no readily available solution. As I designed more and more books & booklets for my classes I discovered that I knew nothing. What I saw in the textbooks perpetrated on my students angered me. Most of the textbooks I was given to use were useful for little other than readily available examples of terrible typography. My students all complained how hard they were to read.

So, I made student reading comfort the primary focus of my textbook designs. I started hearing student comments like: "I started reading my assignment for the first week and read five chapters before I noticed how far I had read." Actually, I've only heard that particular comment a few times-but it was (and is) really gratifying.

As I went along, yet another major block to readability became obvious. The bolder versions of fonts were often very hard to read because the counters (holes in the characters) were almost completely plugged. It wasn't that the black designs were poor or ugly. They were just hard to read.

As you can see above, Gill Sans Ultra Bold is going to be very difficult to use if you need more than a couple of words.

For me, the eureka moment came when I was forced to deal with Times again. I've always hated Times , primarily because of the Bold font. It was decided that the bold had to be the same width as the Regular for newspaper use-faulty reasoning, as far as I can see. Regardless, the result is a bold that looks compressed with horrible narrow counters. I found that I could tolerate it if I made it nearly 150% wide.

Times Roman Regular, Bold, Wide, and Wide Bold

Obviously, I couldn't simply stretch my fonts out horizontally. The ms and ws were especially bad. But conceptually it really seems to help. My latest font family, Amitale, incorporates these experiments with these weights: Regular, Bold, Wide, and Wide Bold. The concept still needs more works, but at least I find these fonts usable.

Though like all artists, I immediately see all the flaws in my works and am forced to try and do something better.

David Bergsland

See David's Amitale Book Font page

Return to the Type Department, the Fonts Festival or the DTG Front Page

Amitale Book font

Also from David Bergsland:

BEST Gradient Paragraph Rules
BEST Art from Dingbats
BEST New Typography: What difference does it make?
BEST Complex Tables in Adobe InDesign
BEST Using Numbers in the proper Case

David Bergsland

David has been a graphic designer, art director, teacher, and author on digital printing and publishing for nearly forty years. He has written several books, See his books and tutorial materials) designed well over a hundred fonts, and taught on the digital publishing industry needs for the past fifteen years. Presently he is working for a large printing company developing training materials for InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat. Most of his recent works are published by Radiqx Press and available on his Website: bergsland.org

Further learning on Humanist type faces:

See: Humanist Movement, Textura, Uncial The Middle Ages 1450: the invention of moveable type by Johann Gutenberg; 1458: the development of the first standardized type face by Nicolas Jenson -- known as "Old Style ... and
* Heritage Fonts historic flavor of tradition The founders of typography such as Claude Garamond, Nicolas Jenson and William Caxton had set forth the basic fundamental structure of letterforms and fonts ...

Copyright ©2008 This is reprinted here with permission and kudos to David for contributing some of is extensive knowledge for DTG readers!

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