Proper Column Usage

candice's picture


What's acceptable and unacceptable in column usage? I read somewhere to avoid too narrow columns as it compromises readability, understandably so. But are newspapers and magazines exempted from this rule? Is it not acceptable to apply the same narrow columns in a text book?

Case in point..
- 9pt ITC Stone Serif, 14pt leading
- 2-column layout
- each column 2.375 x 6.5 in
- 0.25 column gutter
- 0.5pt rule in between columns

Would appreciate any thoughts.. Also wondering if this type layout is reasonably accessible to both high and low level readers.

Thanks so much, anything helps!

PS. I've searched the forums best I can for this topic, I apologise in advance if it's been covered before.

blank's picture

What’s acceptable…

Readable typesetting.

…and unacceptable in column usage?

Unreadable typesetting.

Aside from not justifying columns without enough characters to balance the spaces, there aren’t really any solid rules. The nature of the text, the press, the paper, the font, character size, and so on all come into play, and the only way to really know what works is to set it up, print it out, and look at it. Convention is important to consider, but conventions vary and can’t really be used to generate rules that apply to anything but conventional designs.

i cant delete my username's picture

The textbooks will tell you an ideal line length is around 60-65 characters, but there's always exceptions...

aluminum's picture

Newspapers, IMHO, do tend to have annoyingly narrow columns.

Anyone know the history of it? I imagine it maybe makes for easier scanning and allows more headlines at the top.

charles ellertson's picture

- 9pt ITC Stone Serif, 14pt leading
- 2-column layout
- each column 2.375 x 6.5 in
- 0.25 column gutter
- 0.5pt rule in between columns

Lets see, that's a 14.25 pica column width, 1.5 pica gutter, and 39 pica column depth. Setting 9-point Stone serif (sets a bit large) with 14-point linefeed. Off the top of my head, I don't remember the characters-per-pica data for Stone Serif, but I'd guess is equal to or less than 10-point Times.

You don't say what the trim is (assuming this a book). The thing is, all spaces relate. My gut feeling is you have too much leading for what will amount to a pretty cramped column. The second thing is that the column gutter is wide enough that you probably don't need the rule.

In any case, this is a fairly narrow column; a lot will depend on the author's word selection. Scholarly prose not only has a lot of long words, equally important is the relative absence of short ones. Newspapers have an advantage here; the prose is suppose to be terse.

There is a big difference between "elegant" and "unacceptable"; it will be the details that determine if it is unacceptable

candice's picture

Chipman, thanks so much for the tip, will look into it.

Aluminum, easier scanning is why I pursued a double column layout. The textbook isn't so much a textbook as it is a manual. It's a how-to that has lots of quick reference features and some selective in-depth information.

What's a bit confusing is that newspapers do have lengthy articles that are set in narrow columns. These articles, I assume, aren't meant for scanning, like classifieds (granted an unfair comparison as the two have drastically different column widths). But yes, would be good to know the thinking behind newspaper layouts, or if there's been any sort of usability studies on columns.

Charles, thanks so much for the insight. The top/bottom margins are 1 in, the inside/outside margins are 0.75 in. Apart from the occasional medical term, the prose is a bit informal so fortunately I don't have to worry too much over long words.

charles ellertson's picture

A lot of what is behind newspaper columns is flexibility. The have advertising to sell, and you can buy a variety of space. The more columns, the greater variety of advertising space available. There is some of this thinking in magazines as well.

But the article too can vary in column width, depending on how the editor/layout person chooses importance, copyfitting, etc.

* * *

It is unusual, in a book, to have equal top & bottom margins. It happens, but it is also unusual to have equal inside/outside margins. I don't know magazines very well; I do know scholarly journals, which tend to take on book characteristics.

The best advice I know of when you're unsure about something is to steal. Look at a popular/respectable publication in your field & steal & adapt everything useful. But watch out for differences in spacing; as I said, spacing all interrelates.

BTW, we once did a book on Spina Bifida, & used the entire Stone "Clan" (serif, sans, and informal). Living with Spina Bifida: A Guide for Families and Professionals Chapel Hill, UNC Press. What shows on the web isn't the text as set, but here is a link:

The following link shows the book as set, though the book was obviously scanned (in the book, the side-rules are in red), so the type isn't as clear as if a PDF was used,M1

If you have obviously different voices or audiences, the different but related typefaces can help.


candice's picture

Thanks again Charles. :)

Now that it's almost 8pm in NYC, I finally averted my eyes from my screen to the small book shelf behind my monitor. There, smiling at me, is Josef Müller-Brockmann's "Grid Systems."

Pages 30-33. Ha!

pattyfab's picture

You don't specify whether your text is justified or FL/RR. I wonder if the rule will look odd and off-center if the text isn't justified. Or whether it's necessary with .25" btw the columns, as Charles said.

Another thing to be careful about with columns is the proportion of the gutter between the columns to the leading. If you have generous leading, as you do, make sure that it doesn't visually exceed the space between the columns and thus get confusing to read.

BTW it would have been nice to see a sample rather than use our imagination.

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