Contrary to what was expected a few years ago, printed books are not about to disappear, so it is best to know how to make them.
Before I was a designer I was already a reader. I did not know the secrets of good typography, but I was aware of the mysterious power of a good story. Books were my favorite objects long before I dreamed that one day I would design them. In fact, I loved books even before I could read them (that smell of ink and paper!), but it was the discovery of reading—that alchemy of letters coming together to reveal words, unravel sentences and tell stories—that transformed THE BOOK into the holy of holies for me. It is still the same today.
“Books were my favorite objects long before I dreamed that one day I would design them..”
When I first learned to read I did not realize that part of the ease with which I turned page after page of my first “grown-up” books, the ones with flowing text and no images, was due to the quality of the typesetting—a light grid with nice leading and kerning, well-planned margins and, above all, good typography.
I still didn’t know that, no matter how well a narrative arc is resolved and how enthralling the characters are, if the book’s layout isn’t good, the reader may be tempted to put it down in the first chapter. Today I’m sure I never finished the copy of “Doctor Zhivago” that sat on my parents’ bookshelf because the font was so tiny and poorly chosen that it created a dense, unpleasant block of text. We can also speculate here that the myriad of Russian patronymics were too much for me, but that didn’t bother me at all when I read a more modern, better-conceived edition of “The Idiot” that lived on the bottom of that same shelf. Was Pasternak a worse storyteller than Dostoievski? Probably, but that’s not the point. What happened was that poor Doctor Zhivago was a victim of bad layout options. And that is saying it all.
“… no matter how well a narrative arc is resolved and how enthralling characters are, if the book’s layout isn’t good, the reader may be tempted to put it down in the first chapter.”
Today, with the huge variety of free and paid fonts available, it can be a challenge to start designing a book. Should we follow the traditional path or be bolder? It is worth remembering that creativity and originality are important, but when it comes to book-design, easy reading should always be at the top of our concerns. So my advice on tackling the intimidating blank page is just this: Don’t reinvent the wheel. If it has been done before and with good results, learn from it, listen to the voice of experience. For classic typesetting, classic fonts. And for me that means serifs. They never fail.
“ …creativity and originality are important, but when it comes to book-design, easy reading should always be at the top of our concerns.”
These are “my” five fonts, the ones I trust and love to use to ensure simple, elegant layouts and optimal reading from the first page to the last. Besides that, they are beautiful. Can we ask for more?
I fell in love with this serif font while still in college. At the time I used it for all my art history essays because it’s a font that provides great readability even in small points. (Yes, I always wrote a lot more than I should…) Besides, for a font that has been around since 1750, it looks very modern and sharp. Baskerville makes beautiful, easy-to-read pages with a nice mix of a traditional/modern feel, making it perfect for works of fiction. I also love to use it for titles, posters and book covers, but it is in typesetting that its excellent qualities stand out. It is available in several typologies but I have never needed more than regular, bold and italic. Keep it simple…
Thank you, John Baskerville!
The classic of the classics, or, since we’re talking about a French font, “La crème de la crème!” Jorge dos Reis, who was my teacher at Faculdade de Belas Artes de Lisboa, and who taught me to love typography, used to say that one can guess the nationality of the font maker based on the design of the font itself. Garamond is a good example of that. When we look at that capital G, the figure of a very French Claude Garamond pops out, with effortless sophistication and loads of charm. And if we consider the italics…“Oh, la, la!”
This was the first font I got used to recognizing as a text block. Most of the books on our shelves are set in Garamond. Go take a peak. And there’s always that nice warm feeling of opening a book set with this font, even if we don’t understand right away why it feels so good. As popular as it is versatile, neutral and of simple beauty, it never lets us down…Great for that 400 page tome, the font is available in six weights in the Adobe Garamond Pro version, so there are no excuses not to use it all the time. That’s what I do.
The 1960’s gave us more than social revolutions, psychedelic patterns and eternal songs. In the field of typography, Sabon means to Jan Tschichold what “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” means to the Beatles. “Rolling Stone” considers Sgt. Pepper’s to be the best album ever cut and I don’t overstate the connection in considering Sabon to be one of the 5 Best Fonts Ever—for book typesetting. After following the New Typography movement coming from Bauhaus, and even becoming one of the greatest representatives of this style, the German typographer Tschichold returned to his origins after reaching the height of his career. He created what is considered to be the most elegant of the Roman style re-inventions. Reminiscent of Garamond, Sabon is considered romantic, feminine, even, and this may be because of the clarity of its modern lines and the sweet reading it provides. Not that women are always clear…or sweet. But you get the idea.
If you have a thick text in hand, Sabon is always a great bet!
If Garamond is the quintessential French font, Caslon is the greatest representative of classic British fonts. Considered the first original English font, it was created in 1722 by William Caslon and was so popular at the time that it crossed the Atlantic and became the font in which the first printed United States Declaration of independence was set. Impressive, right? It has known some less popular periods, but never truly ceased to be used. A great favorite of the Arts & Crafts movement in the nineteenth century, it is still preferred today by many designers who love the solemnity it adds to the text, immediately turning any page into something “serious.” Although not a font that fools around, we can use it without fear because its eighteenth-century class never fails us and has adapted beautifully to the twenty first century. Adobe’s new version (Adobe Caslon Pro) works great in digital media and remains lovely as always. I just used it to design a poetry book’s cover and pages and the layout turned out particularly good.
5. Goudy Old Style
This list already includes French, English and German fonts…now comes the American! There are a lot of Goudy fonts, but here we are talking about Goudy Old Style – perfect for lengthy…and boring texts. This is a modern font, created by Frederic Goudy for the American Type Founders in 1915. Its main feature is being so, so LIGHT! Inspired in the Italian Renaissance, an influence much in vogue in the early twentieth century in the United States, this font is a result of the exhaustive study of sixteenth-century italics, which Goudy loved. Maybe that’s why, even when it’s in the regular version, it always seems to be about to take off… Italics, of course, are beautiful, but I especially love the clear tone of a full-text page. Even with tight leading and kerning, we can easily get a very nice looking text block with that…Old Style feeling! It’s mandatory to use at least once. No wonder the famous Harper’s Bazaar magazine was originally set with this font.
Bonus font: Rongel
And now, if I may, this is an out-of-box choice. Let’s add one more font to the list. First, a confession: I have never used this font myself, but I admire it a lot…from a distance. Rongel, is a font a Portuguese designer, Mário Feliciano, created. I first encountered it in Portuguese editions of Zadie Smith’s books “On Beauty ” and “Swing Time” designed by Henrique Cayate’s atelier and…what shall I say? It was love at first read!! It is a Spanish inspired font full of salero. Solid, elegant and very fun, with whimsical details to discover. It creates bold, attitude-packed, very expressive pages. Yet it never loses sight of that serif font classic tone. I love reading pages set in Rongel…or I really love Zadie Smith. Probably both! I am waiting for the perfect project to try it out. If you’re tempted also get to know it better here:
Now that you know my preferences, why not share yours, too? Which fonts do you like for classic books? Any of these? What book have you read recently with a very good layout? Or, on the contrary, did you give up reading something because it was terrible? How do you choose the right font for each project?
Let’s exchange ideas! 😉