Well, black and white, right? No, not exactly. Color comes into play in book design in three ways; actual printing with inks of two or more colors, which I’ll discuss in another installment; paper and text ink color, which I discussed last time; and what typographers call the color of the page, which has to do with font choice and spacing; that’s what I’m covering here and in the next installment.

A little font history: Metal types for letterpress were (still are, in the fine press world, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion) three-dimensional. The type bit into the page surface, whether it was paper or vellum. Browse in a library or antiquarian bookshop and run your fingertips over the pages of old books. You’ll feel the indentations made by the type. The printed image on the page was a tiny bit thicker than the top surface (face) of the metal type. A little bit of the shoulder pushed into the page and deposited ink. When digital type started to be manufactured, type foundries used the drawings they had on file for their metal types. These drawings defined the faces of the types but not the shoulders. As a result, older computer fonts are too thin in comparison to their historical namesakes. Eventually, this problem was corrected and new digital fonts were issued. The lesson here is that if you bought fonts from Adobe in the 1980s or if you are using freeware fonts that you downloaded from some anonymous site or grabbed off a five dollar CD, you should probably discard them and purchase newer versions. Font names have not necessarily changed, but you can check file sizes, dates, and version numbers easily enough. (Modern fonts have many other improvements, too.)

Parameter selection: When typographers looks at a page, they see a text block that has an overall color. Is the color light or dark? Is it too light (poor quality font, loose letter spacing, too much leading, poor printing)? Is it too dark (too heavy a font weight, insufficient leading, tight letter spacing)? Is it a comfortable read? Color is a design choice: you may want a lighter color for lyric poetry and a darker color for a mechanical engineering text. Choosing the right typesetting parameters to get the color you want can make a much greater difference to the appearance and readability of a page than typeface selection alone.


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[Brian Jud invited me to contribute short articles on book interior design to his Book Book Marketing Matters newsletter, a biweekly e-zine. This page is adapted from one of those articles.]