Large X-Heights = More readable?

Dan Gayle's picture

Someone explain this to me:
Everywhere I look, people declare that typefaces with large x-heights are more readable than something with small x-heights. For instance, many people don't like Futura for body copy because of the long ascenders/low x-height (aside from the sans/serif debate). They say it breaks up the color too much. Same thing for other typefaces with low x-heights like Venetians.

But that doesn't make sense to me. Presumably, the larger x-height makes the letters appear larger. But that means that you need to increase the leading proportionately to compensate. If you used a typeface with a low x-height at a larger point size, wouldn't you basically have the same results?

Dan Gayle's picture

Ok, bad question. I'm looking at a Mac Rhino typeface called Tarocco. The description says this: "Tarocco is a traditional book face. Its rather tall x-height improves readability." As compared to what? If you take this at a smaller point size with a larger leading, and compare it to something with a low x-height but smaller leading, doesn't the color and readability of the text remain the same?

Or what about this sample? Which is more "readable," solely based on x-height?

Stephen Coles's picture

It isn't directly proportionate. A typeface with a large x-height may need more leading, but it's still more efficient.

In your example, Utopia could be set at 14/17 and still be as readable as Metropolitan while occupying less space. You can't reduce the leading on Metropolitan or your 'cenders start to knock.

Tim Ahrens's picture

Isn't the term x-height outdated anyway? In hotmetal it made sense but today we can choose type size and leading freely so why not take the x-height as given and then speak of cap height and ascender/ descender length?

Stephen Coles's picture

True, Tim. But "x-height" doesn't take as long to say or type and the result is essentially the same.

Dan Gayle's picture

So tell me how decreasing leading increases readability? And even if it were 14/17, the only difference is that you can cram more text onto a page, which is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, depending on circumstances, for readability.

In and of itself, how can someone claim that large x-height increases readability, as so many type foundries insist?

Stephen Coles's picture

Maybe I wasn't clear. I wasn't saying that decreasing the leading improved readability, I was just implying that you could decrease Utopia's leading and it would still be as readable as Metropolitan in a smaller space.

> how can someone claim that large x-height increases readability

Yeah, that statement isn't very clear. Instead: "Tarocco is very space efficient due to its large x-height. Set more text than you could using traditional typefaces without sacrificing readability."

muzzer's picture

“Tarocco is a traditional book face. Its rather tall x-height improves readability.”

DOn't believe everything you read!! Those font boys will say anything to get a sale.


Stephen Coles's picture

Muzzer's such a cynic! Cut Hattenbach some slack. English is not his first language.

dan_reynolds's picture

Nah… Muzzer's totally right ;-)

English IS my first language, but I'm a font boy, and I've written far more obtuse prose to try and generate sales!

Stefan H's picture


Sorry if I'm confusing anyone. The fact that "one thing" could be expressed in several different ways and that the "typographic language" itself is sometimes diverse could make things complicated.

And yes Muzzer, even if type design mostly is driven by passion and for myself even work like a drug, you do have to live as well. I could think of many other more prosperous things to do. :-D

Dan Gayle's picture

I hope no one thinks I'm pointing fingers here. That's seriously not my intention. I'm just very curious as to what the effect of x-height to readability really means in practice.

muzzer's picture

No worries Stefan Mate! We all have to make a crust. " I could think of many other more prosperous things to do. :-D" Is it not really working out too well? I reckon the font world would be a hard one to make a crust in.

Stephen Coles's picture

It's a very interesting question, Dan. I'm glad you posed it. We can examine low-res images here, but the best way to test the relationship between x-height and readability is to print various typefaces at various size/leading settings. I will post a PDF when I have a moment.

Nick Shinn's picture

Typographers aren't generally concerned about the issue of readability and x-height if they have some space to play with. So the statement should be taken to refer to the situation where there is copy-fitting pressure to squeeze a lot of words into a layout and not have the text look too small to read, especially to boomers and older.

So in that sense, I think Stefan is pushing it a bit, and in fact has things backwards.
Many of the traditional book faces, such as Bembo, have small x-heights.
And of all the Garamonds, the one with the biggest x-height (ITC) is least suitable for book work.

The reason is that books have a wide measure, and therefore need generous leading between lines. A large x-height face looks dull and flat in that kind of layout, like a lot of horizontal bars. You need the play of extenders to enliven the page.

hrant's picture

This is a complex issue. Almost nobody has an adequate grasp of it, and
too many people just use it as an excuse to further their canned stance.


Stephen Coles's picture

Nick, thanks for the reminder that setting has everything to do with typeface selection. Faces with large x-heights definitely work better with shorter line lengths, such as in a newspaper or brochure.

What sort of work do you do, Dan?

hrant's picture


Nick Shinn's picture

An interesting side issue is the question of what distance the x-height is compared to: ascender, descender, cap, or em.

The trend in news faces, since Olympian, really, has been to differentiate the cap and ascender height, reaching the present extreme in faces such as H&FJ's Mercury, in which the x-height is small-to-average in relation to the ascenders, but large in relation to the caps.

But context is crucial, newspapers and books are poles apart.

Nick Shinn's picture

Hrant, am I thinking what you're thinking?

Stephen Coles's picture


Miss Tiffany's picture

For those of us who don't read minds ... care to explain?

hrant's picture

Not impossible, just very unlikely. :-)


Do note that those are only quasi-numerical.
It's the general shapes of the curves that counts.

The 0-1 in "x-height" is in relation to the ascender height.

V: Visibility (mostly size)
D: Decipherability (non-scalar)
L = V + D: Legibility (non-immersive)
R: Readbility (the hard one)


Dan Gayle's picture

I come from a news design background, so I can appreciate several factors of large x-heights. Economy of space is one. Having things set in narrow measures means you can bump the leading down just a tiny bit. Having larger counterspaces to offset the effects of cheap newsprint is also a good thing.

But readability is not something inherit in any of these.

William Berkson's picture

[Edit:This was cross-posted with Nick & Hrant's interesting observations.]

I am also interested in the relationship of readability and economy in type design.

With a larger x-height, you will generally get higher legibility at smaller sizes. However, from what I've learned so far the x-height is is only one of a number of interrelated factors, and that in fact determining what is the best 'value' in terms of the combination of readability and economy is quite complex.

If you normalize two faces so that their x-heights are the same on the paper, you will find the following make a difference to the readability-economy issue.

1. Set width.
The length of a lower case alphabet in different fonts will be very different, even when their x-height are made the same. Eg. Baskerville is wider than Times New Roman. The narrower font would be more economical, other things being equal (which they never are).

2. Ascenders and Descenders.
If you use less leading, you can get more letters on the page. The length of the ascenders and descenders will limit how tightly you can lead, as Stephen notes above. However there are other factors that also affect how tightly you can lead with good readability so this may not in fact be an advantage.

3. Darkness of the typeface. I just learned this from Mitchell & Wightman's 'Book Typography'. They compare Quadraat, a dark face with a relatively large x-height and Spectrum, a light face with a relatively smaller x-height. Quadraat requires more leading to look not excessively dark on the page, and Spectrum needs to be relatively tightly leaded not to look too light. In their illustration 11/15 Quadraat and 12/14 Spectrum are about equally readable, and Spectrum ends up being more economical, even though it has a smaller-x-height.

4. Optical Size. What makes this issue particularly tricky is that the trade-offs are different at different optical sizes. For example, if you go down to 9 point, probably Spectrum will be not very readable, and Quadraat will shine.

In general my feeling is that at smaller text sizes, large x-height becomes a distinct advantage, but at larger text sizes, it can be even a disadvantage. And then at display sizes it can even reverse again. So in fact this issue is really complicated.

I haven't even mentioned letter spacing and sans-serifs, both of which add more wrinkles.

I would be interested in the observations and experience of others in handling this readability-economy issue.

Dave Bayer's picture

"...I began by getting myself a fount of Roman type. And here what I wanted was letter pure in form; severe, without needless excrescences; solid, without the thickening and thinning of the line, which is the essential fault of the ordinary modern type, and which makes it difficult to read; and not compressed laterally, as all later type has grown to be owing to commercial exigencies."

Aims in founding the Kelmscott Press, William Morris, 1895

Interesting how the original post asked only about readability, but economy immediately crept into the discussion.

In academic textbook publishing, "economy" tilts the other way. Publishers are desperate to produce a physical object that appears worthy of a $125 price tag, with no regard for the future back health of students slinging bookbags over one shoulder. Considerably down-market, technical how-to guides e.g. "Make Windows Sing" are bought by the word, sold by the pound. Economy in the sense discussed here isn't at issue.

If one designs without concern for economy, there's an optimal size and leading that shows each font at its best. Then, and only then, one can ask which font provides the most comfortable long-term reading. I'd say the x-height sweet spot is clearly somewhere in the middle. For example, Lucida Bright is often used in top-drawer technical guides, but to my tastes its x-height is too large.

To me, a small x-height font like Bernhard Modern screams "I'm upper crust!" I can't get past that, I wouldn't want it on anything but a concert invitation. Yet, it's surprisingly readable. Go figure.

Remember that much of the world does just fine reading arabic, which at first glance looks like a flatlining EKG, with barely any x-height at all.

I'd say that what goes on within the x-height strip determines much of readability. The height of that strip may be largely immaterial.

Nick Shinn's picture

If one designs without concern for economy, there’s an optimal size and leading that shows each font at its best.

That begs the question--the opposite is also true.

William Berkson's picture

Dave, Nick finds your post question-begging; I am just confused by it. You say that there is an x-height 'sweet spot' for reading comfort, but you also say that for readability "the [x] height may be immaterial". These seem to me to be saying opposite things.

Nick, I find your comments on ITC Garamond and on Newspaper type extremely interesting.

One of the things that I have admired in metal Caslons is the way they could be set with relatively little leading, and form a lovely woven texture on the page.

You said wrote that this advantage of longer extenders is important in longer measures, such as in a book. But I am wondering whether the failure of ITC Garamond as a text type is more because of other features.

Carl Crossgrove wrote in an interesting post in another thread that the problem with ITC Garamond is that it has a huge x-height suitable for a very small size, but the tight spacing, fine serifs and other details suitable for a display type. I'm wondering whether its problems in text aren't for these reasons. If Carl's analysis is correct, I would expect ITC Garamond also not to work in narrow columns for extended text.

What do you think the other factors are, in addition to extender height, in making a type work for narrow columns on one hand, and broad columns on the other?

My other question concerns the reducing of cap height that you pointed out in newspaper type. What is the advantage of it in your view? Have you followed this model in your own newspaper types?

dezcom's picture

It is quite difficult to fairly compare readability using x-height variables without the economy issue as part of the equation. Type is never set in a vacuum. there are always other factors which determine the range of useable possibilities. The old "X-height uber alis" days of ITC proved that Porgy was right, "it ain't necessarily so". You have to factor in usage and objective along with the physical determinates such as line length, leading, cap height, and so on. Better to query, what am I asking this setting of type to do, and seeing if it succeeds at that than to pluck one factor out and give it holy grail status.


William Berkson's picture

BZZZT! Mixed metaphor penalty! Lose 10 points for using 'Porgy', 'über alles' and 'Holy Grail' all in the same paragraph :)

dezcom's picture

I belong to the "Shepard's Pie" school of writing William :-)


PS: n e x t t i m e i w i l l l e t t e r s p a c e l o w e r c a s e

Nick Shinn's picture


I had a lot of trouble with ITC Garamond as a text face in the 1980s, photoset, it was too fine and fell to pieces easily during production. So I concur with your comment about its fine-ness being problematic. The same thing with Galliard. However, ITC Garamond was great in heads, and for that genre of 1980s ad with 18/16 pt text type wrapped round a close-cropped image. (Yes, it is possible to reverse-lead ITC Garamond! -- although my favorite for that kind of setting was ITC Berkeley).

It's also the weight of capitals that has been reduced in news text type, as well as their height.

In general, I think that solid leading has become unacceptable, across the board. It used to be a quite legitimate setting style (Morison's "Principles" was set solid in a large Bembo), but no more. Perhaps we can put the blame on Microsoft, and the 20% leading default of word processors, which, now that everyone with a computer is a typesetter, has become the norm.

Also, now that designers have become typesetters, and are not a s skilled as the pros of yore, an easy way to make your text type look upscale, professional and artful, is to lead it copiously.

Dan Gayle's picture

I recall reading somewhere that the early scribes wanted a heavy, textural pattern on the page, hence the name "text." Keeping wordspacing tight and setting solid are two definite ways to add that quality.

But I imagine that only applies to oldstyle fonts with low x-heights, since cramming some types solid, like Times, makes for unreadable bla.

It would make sense then for people setting metal to want lower x-heights, since setting solid would make things faster to arrange.

hlvtca's picture

still need more proof about x-height.....

martay's picture

Nearly non sequiter: Actually, it was the character Sportin' Life, a drug dealer, expressing his doubt about statements in the Bible in the song "It Ain't Necessarily So"—in the opera Porgy and Bess.

Remember the vogue in the early 70s when ITC blew up the x-heights of fonts, creating such monstrosities as ITC Garamond, where the counters were so wide as to confuse letterspace with counter, strokes mashing into each other, impeding legibility. As well expressed here by others, legibility and spatial efficiency are controlled by a variety of variables.

pstanley's picture

I only have a few observations to add to this fascinating discussion. As usual, largely those of a reader of books.

My basic point, I think, is that so far as I can see all generalizations about readability are suspect. So much depends on the context: what measure something is set at, how it is printed, what sort of type the reader of that sort of work is used to seeing, how the book is printed. Take even ITC Garamond. Quite close to universally loathed, the acme of unreadability. But I remember having to spend quite a lot of time with the computer books published by O'Reilly, which were set in ITC Garamond, and I don't recall them as unreadable at all. For their purpose, given the overall design and the way you read that sort of book, they worked very well.

So generalizations are suspect. But, having said that, let me offer one of my own. For extended reading most types that are in any way extreme tend to be difficult. Maybe that's because they are obtrusive. Maybe it's for some other reason. For that reason I would be suspect of statements like "larger" (or "smaller") X for greater readability ... because I would tend to think that "very average" X was likely to make, in general, for good readibility, allowing for a fairly wide variation. (This applies not just to x-height but to other features too: "very dark for good readability", "very light for good readability", "very low cap height for good readability" etc etc: all suspect.)

And finally, on the topic of economy, I do think that one tends to find that a saving in one area tends to mean a loss in another. In general (I don't say always), large x-height tends to want more leading, so that the fact you can set in a small nominal point-size does not save so much space as you might at first hope. And compressed type means you can fit more letters in the line, but again tends to call for slightly more leading (or a shorter line) to prevent doubling, etc etc. From that point of view I suspect that large x-height types are most useful from the point of view of economy where neither readability over an extended period nor beauty is really a concern, but where cramming in matters. In other words, where one's concern is not so much readability, at least over any extended period, so much as legibility (e.g. dictionaries, tables, . For "classic" book-width type intended for extended reading, I suspect that large x-height letters are no great advantage.

And I think they're ugly ... but maybe that's just me.

crossgrove's picture

All the variables of typesetting/printing affect how comfortable a text is to read; not only x-height, leading, width, etc. but length of text, paper texture, ink coverage, ink color, contrast, show-through, measure, page size, etc. It is probably not worth making any generalizations (despite the constant demand for them) in this area. Within the actual typeface, I think the most important variables are these (for a general-use book face):

Weight/color; is the type strong on the page, not thin and light?
Contrast: Not too high (Bodoni), not too low (Futura)
Default spacing: the sweet spot where the words knit together evenly and clearly and word spaces are "just right"
Clear, strong, differentiated character shapes; ambiguity is bad
Cap/lc/extender proportions: not aboslute numbers but a pleasing relationship

Even with these variables optimized, there are the intangibles; is the type too showy, is there any movement or activity in it, or is it static, regular, dull? Some of the most comfortable, and I might even say inspiring, text faces out there have moderate x-height, low contrast or some other "flaw" but so much about them is ideal, we enjoy reading even chemistry textbooks set in them. Because of this, I think it's useless to pursue the discrete ingredients of readability. See Michael Pollan's recent articles on "nutrition" in the NYT for a parallel.

William Berkson's picture

Interesting post, Carl.

>Weight/color; is the type strong on the page, not thin and light

I would just add that type can be too black as well. Hitting the middle, sweet spot is the goal--and that as you say relies on the printing process as well as the type.

>not aboslute numbers but a pleasing relationship

In this context, Walter Tracy's comment (Letters of Credit p. 51) is worth noting:

"For my own taste, if x to h is a proportion of about six to ten a face will look refined and be pleasant to read. If the x height is much less than that the face may be stylish but will be unsuitable for a long text. A larger x-height conduces to dullness."

The only qualifier I would add that is that for small point sizes, greater x-heights seem to be an advantage for readability.

Nick Shinn's picture

As prompted by another thread, on classical proportions, be it noted that the ratio of x-height to cap height in the classic text faces is at or close to the golden mean.

dezcom's picture

"it was the character Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer, expressing his doubt about statements in the Bible in the song “It Ain’t Necessarily So”—in the opera Porgy and Bess."

I know it was Sportin' Life but was trying to shorten my post, sorry.

"Remember the vogue in the early 70s when ITC blew up the x-heights of fonts, creating such monstrosities as ITC Garamond,"

That is exactly what I meant when I said “X-height uber alis” days of ITC "


Dan Gayle's picture

Here's an interesting insight from Jean-François Porchez regarding the design of his Le Monde typefaces:

"He had researched newspapers and their use of type, from The Times to Le Midi Libre and the current Le Monde. He found that the print in Le Monde - composed in Times New Roman, which The Times of London itself abandoned in 1971 - was less than ideal compared to the other papers'. The types used nowadays had greater x-heights and smaller capitals and ascenders. Because little of the text is set in capitals, there was no need to make them monumental as Stanley Morison's committee had done for Times New Roman in 1931."

Nick Shinn's picture


Nice term.

For news text trends, note that the first of Linotype's "Legibility" faces of the 1920s, Ionic, has a massive x-height -- proportions of a micro-type, blown up.
It also has caps with much bolder stems than its lower case, which was traditional and customary. I believe that it was the application of kerning tables to text setting in the early 1970s phototype, and the tight look that infatuated typographers for a couple of decades, that prompted the abandonment of monumental capital proportions, and the move to more similar stem weight between the cases -- the terrible grayness of photoset text. During the digital era, the balance is somewhere between metal and photo era.

hrant's picture

There are two potential reasons to make caps stand out: to make it easier to pick out proper names when "scanning" (as opposed to reading) a text; and to give all-caps setting more punch (since the point of it is typically punch). Some aspects of these reasons are less relevant now, but most remain.

One thing I'd like to know BTW is exactly why
Dan gave his new Morris Sans such dark caps.


Nick Shinn's picture

Another reason for the heavier stem weight of caps is to get a similar "ink coverage" (overall weight) as lower case. With this principle, the smaller the capital, the less heavy its stem weight need be.

William Berkson's picture

Nick, in light of the Porchez quote--thanks, Dan--and your interesting analysis, I am interested in comparing the new Matthew Carter Le Monde faces which have replaced the Le Monde Journal by Porchez. Here is an article on the change. I will try to get some screen grabs on both the Porchez and the Carter faces.

hrant's picture

> ... to get a similar “ink coverage” (overall weight) as lower case.

But that's on a different magnitude (smaller) and
more significantly of an opposite intent: even color.


dan_reynolds's picture

Well, I don't think that darker caps really contributes to even color of a text at all, especially when a text is capital letter intensive. But the caps do look a bit more "right" when they are a bit heavier. I fretted about this a bit while finishing up Morris Sans, but I have a feeling that it is the slightly different structure of the caps that makes them require a bitmore weight. Dunno… do they jump out at you that much?

William Berkson's picture

Here are some comparisons of the new 2005 Carter Le Monde faces currently in use, and the Porchez face Le Monde Journal.

First, from, Le Monde Journal:

Second, from, a screen grab from today's front page:

Unfortunately the image on the Newseum site is not clear for the text type, which is probably different from the display.

What is striking is that the ascenders and cap height of the Carter fonts are taller than in the Porchez fonts. Also the Carter font seems lighter than Le Monde Journal, whose color was designed to match the earlier Times New Roman that Le Monde used.

I don't see the relative weight of the caps and lower case as being that different.

Is there a general trend for less extreme shortening of ascenders and caps in Newspapers?

hrant's picture

> I don’t think that darker caps really contributes to even color of a text at all

Visibly darker caps, no, quite the opposite. But it shouldn't be news to anybody that mathematically slightly heavier caps prevents them from looking too light next to the lc. My point was that visibly darker caps are generally intended to break even color, but this can be useful sometimes.

William, concerning the headline font what would be nice to add to that comparison is what came in between: De Groot's superb Floris; serious but attractive, and very French in my eyes.


Nick Shinn's picture

Is there a general trend for less extreme shortening of ascenders and caps in Newspapers?

I doubt it, given the pervasive down-sizing.
I've just finished a new text face for one such redesign; we went from 9 on 10 to 9 on 9.5, which preserved the word count despite the smaller page size.

Stems are 98 (caps) and 92 (lc).
By having the join with the main stem in h etc. cut down straightish, rather than spring out as a curve, this makes the ascender look tall, as, I think, does the difference in cap and ascender height, keeping air in the setting, despite tight leading. There are some quite light strokes in there, and the much improved (less gain) printing of newspapers today also allows for a compact setting, without an overly heavy overall effect.

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