## The Magic Polygon: How to define type sizes, widths and spaces

July 06, 2016 by
Ferdinand Ulrich

“How do I define the line spacing in my text?” Well, the first response would typically aim at your choice of type and the size it is used in. However, the space between the words is not to be underestimated and ultimately the width of your column is an eminent factor. You easily end up with four parameters that are all inseparably interlinked with one another, a concept that has been called the “magic square of typography.” Let’s take a look at the formula of the page and we’ll notice that this concept can easily be extended to a pentagon or hexagon and beyond.

In the subtitle to Detail in Typography (London 2008) Jost Hochuli lists the cast of his famous publication: letter, letter space, word, word space, line, line spacing, column. He also points out the mutual dependence of some of the factors, such as type size, line spacing and the length of the line and concludes: “With an increase of line width of the same typeface and size comes a demand for more leading.” 1 (Leading is a letterpress term, from a time when the space between lines was made from lead. It describes the space between the descenders of one line to the ascenders of the next, while line spacing is defined from one baseline to another. When your type size is 10pt and the line spacing is 12pt, then your leading equals 2pt.)

Friedrich Forssman goes a step further and includes tracking as a significant factor, thus forming a “magic square” that he has proclaimed in past lectures and very recently published in his manual Wie ich Bücher gestalte (Göttingen 2015, Engl. How I design books). Similar to Hochuli, Forssman emphasizes what he thinks is the core trio: type size, line spacing and the width of the column. 2 In a very recent lecture however, Forssmann admitted that the four parameters in his magic square regularly change and that this diagram could easily be extended to a pentagon. 3 In fact there are several factors that need to be taken into account; let us take a look at them:

## Typeface and type size

The choice of the typeface may be made due to aesthetics as well as technical considerations, but most importantly we should not forget that different faces displayed at the same point value in a page description language might appear differently in size. This is due to micro-typographic characteristics such as ascenders, descenders and counter forms. Lowercase letters usually dominate a text and therefore define the appearance of the face. In fact we cannot compare typefaces well if we match their capitals, instead we should bring the x-heights in line – and only then we can properly mix typefaces, but this is a different story.

## Word space and tracking

Tracking is a value that defines space between letters and it is a part of the design. Frederic W. Goudy and Erik Spiekermann have expressed it in metaphors involving sheep: don’t letter-space words set in lowercase! 4 However, there is a certain extent to which letter-spacing is allowed and necessary (this cannot be expressed in a particular value, because – again – this depends on the selected typeface). Usually large type such as headlines has less tracking, while small type, e.g. in captions, needs more. What was once done at advertising agencies in the 1970s on Madison Avenue in New York City, decreasing the tracking to a point that letters began touching (then called “sexy spacing”), is better not applied from a legibility standpoint. Word spaces are also a fixed element of a typeface design. When they appear too big (that is commonly the case with early digital typefaces), increasing the tracking may help. While there is no commandment on how large the ideal word space should be, a helpful rule of thumb comes from Spiekermann, who suggests a space equal to the lowercase ‘i’ in headlines. 5

## Line spacing

There is a general rule out there among most typographers, that descenders and ascenders should not be touching. In his first book on typography, Rhyme and Reason (Berlin 1987), Spiekermann expressed an exception to this rule: “Touching is allowed if it looks better.” 6 While this may be true for headlines and posters (which is the point Spiekermann is making), this is impossible to control in long reads. Also word spaces should not be larger than the line spacing – this usually results in a distraction of the eye. That is a particular problem with monospaced typefaces, where word spaces are as large as an M-space and your eye begins to see grids in the text. You would want to select a space that enables the eye to jump gently from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. Lighter typefaces have large counter forms and therefore need more line spacing, while bolder faces can usually cope with less. It is also good to keep in mind, that an increase or decrease changes the grey “color” of the type on screen or paper. Ultimately the width of the text column has a saying in this.

## Column width and layout size

If we’ve found the ideal line spacing for our text in a column that is 10cm wide, the selected value will appear tighter when the column increases to a 15- and 20cm-width. The simple rule is: With an increase of the text column we need to add to the line spacing. However, depending on our selected typeface and type size, we should not increase the column width endlessly – long lines make you tired and while the movement of your eyes should suffice to catch a text, head movement is inappropriate in book typography. Decreasing the column width to 3–5 words in a line works well for short unjustified captions. If you’re typesetting a book in a justified layout, make sure you have selected a count of at least 55–60 characters per line to end up with reasonable word spaces. In a way the decision for a column width is also based on the complete layout size and ultimately on the page size – be it analogue or digital.

In the end we’ve counted six or more values that have an effect on everything else. Each parameter is interlinked with the others; resulting in a diagram we should from now on call the “magic polygon.”

#### Footnotes

1. Jost Hochuli: Das Detail in der Typografie, Sulgen/Zürich 2005, p. 49
2. Friedrich Forssman: Wie ich Bücher gestalte, Göttingen 2015, p. 45
3. Recently pointed out by Friedrich Forssman in his lecture about readability and legibility at Schriftenfest Dresden, 18 June 2016
4. According to legend, Goudy once said: “Anyone who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep.” Spiekermann later used that quote for his popular book on typography Stop Stealing Sheep.
5. Erik Spiekermann: Stop Stealing Sheep and find out how type works, San Francisco 2013, p. 145
6. Erik Spiekermann: Rhyme and reason: A typographic novel, Berlin 1987, p. 42

Bibliography

Forssman, Friedrich: Wie ich Bücher gestalte, Göttingen 2015
Hochuli, Jost: Das Detail in der Typografie, Sulgen/Zürich 2005
Spiekermann, Erik: Rhyme and reason: A typographic novel, Berlin 1987
—: Stop Stealing Sheep and find out how type works, San Francisco 2013

#### FontShop Letternews

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive amazing offers, useful type tips and information about the latest font releases.