Design and Spacing of Divided Letters

William Berkson's picture

In The Modification of Letter Forms Stanley Hess wrote:

"The horizontal line of some letters creates a lateral axis, causing these letters to appear inordinately wide. This is most apparent when there is not only a juncture at mid-point, but the letter contains horizontal elements as well. In order to restore stable proportions, such letters (B,E,F,P,R,S,a,e,s,2,3,5,6,8,9) need to be optically condensed."

Hess goes on to give other optical principles, including this one:

"Top units of letters with stacked shapes are contracted 1/20th the module in relation to lower units on either or both sides of the letter."

In another thread I referred to these optical principles--without citing the source--and also argued that the narrowing of stacked letters generally serves to maintain even color in words.

In arguing about how narrowing helps even color I was following ideas from David Kindersley, as well as testing things with my own eyes. According to Kindersley, the total advance width of a character is affected by the total amount of black in the letter. However, this total is a weighted sum, with the black at the left and right extremes counting for more than the black in the middle.

Kindersley's theory has complex implications, but it does mean that the dividing black strokes tend to push the ideal side bearings out wider. This need for wider side bearings may contradict the need for visually even spaces between letters. Thus in order to achieve both even color and even spacing, narrowing stacked letters helps. It reduces the need for wider side bearings, and hence brings the color and spacing into line with non-stacked letters.

Now this narrowing is not an absolute rule, as thinning some of the horizontal stokes will affect how wide you can go, and weight on the ends of strokes will also affect things. Thus for example the wide S (compared to Classical forms) in Bodoni and other "Modern" or "Romantic" (Bringhurst) faces, has thinner horizontal arches, and the thinness is maintained further toward the double curved diagonal stroke. "Moderno," currently the display type here, is an example.

In that thread Eben responded:

"I am sorry but I think the idea that an a (or s) has to be narrow to make it look even on the page is silly. It’s an optical question not a question of tradition or anything else.

"Carl’s point about this [typeface under discussion] being designed with display in mind is a more important point even than mine. A great text face with great even color wouldn’t work well in this context. It would be far too dull."

Eben, I didn't say that the narrowing of divided letters was "a question of tradition". I pointed out that traditionally admired letter designs *reflect* this optical principle pretty consistently. To me this lends weight to its being a correct principle. The fact that eg the higher contrast S goes together with a wider S in much-admired designs to me confirms that Hess and Kindersley are on to something real, even though they only have part of the story.

In other words, a designer is not at liberty to push individual letter forms every which way, and have the typeface not suffer in terms of optical balance of individual letters, and evenness in color in word forms. You can mess with one letter, but then what you do in one is going to have to be harmonized in all the other letters.

For this reason I think your implication that evenness of color is "dull" is a fundamental misunderstanding of good type. Type is still type, not lettering, and it needs to be able to set words at will, not find a design that suits one or two words, as lettering can do. Great display type--which is where I put Bodoni and Didot--can have even color, and is the better for it when it does.

Text type needs other qualities in addition to even color, qualities that make it work at small sizes. But great display type also needs even color, in my opinion.

William Berkson's picture

Nick, you're right, my title "stacked letters" was misleading. I was influenced by Hess's terminology that I quote. I've now changed the thread's title to "divided letters".

ebensorkin's picture

Yes, Nick that was a low blow. ;-) Okay, maybe not that bad.

Bill, I will have a look at some things to if I see what you mean & see if there are solid counter examples to offer.

I suspect that what I will find is that the way you describe doing things works; but that there is more than one way to skin that cat.

Still, I think it's work examining better & more fully.

I'll be baaack.

kris's picture

So, in summary: "if it looks right, it is right"?


William Berkson's picture

>“if it looks right, it is right”

That's true, but here it sounds to me like you are using that truth as a reason to dismiss study and discussion of theory as useless. And I think that is a mistake.

Because there are still the questions "looks right to whom; and how right is it?"

To me, it's something like cooking. A person who doesn't know a cuisine, say Chinese cuisine, experiencing it infrequently may be blown away by some dish. But a person who eats that cuisine regularly, and knows the best, will know that same dish can be way better. And an expert chef will be able to tell you exactly how to make it better.

The experience eating good food is like experience using and drawing type. How to fix it is where theory comes in. A chef will learn all kinds of tricks to make dishes better, while educating his or her palate at the same time. The tricks are theory, so to speak. They're no substitute for the gifted and experienced eye--or gifted and experienced palate in my analogy--but the theory teaches you the right questions to ask, and some things to do to that will on occasion improve your dishes, or type designs.

At least that's my working hypothesis, and why I read this stuff like Hess and Kindersley.

By the way, have you read Doyald Young's "Fonts and Logos"?

kris's picture

That’s true, but here it sounds to me like you are using that truth as a reason to dismiss study and discussion of theory as useless. And I think that is a mistake.

I'm not dismissing your theory at all. It's a bit hard to understand for a simpleton like me. I think I need pictures, like the lovely ones in the Young book.

Do you think that those whose types you admire have a theory, or do they run on instinct?

Because there are still the questions “looks right to whom; and how right is it?”

Does this negate any theory you come up with?


William Berkson's picture

Sorry about not providing pictures. I should be kerning right now. I'll try to sneak in some time to scan a few bits from Hess and Kindersley, to illustrate.

Edit: I forgot how confusing Kindersley's stuff is. It took me reading his book, and an interminable thread on Typophile before I understood it.

>Do you think that those whose types you admire have a theory, or do they run on instinct?

I don't think it's either-or. I think type designers have a few conscious ideas they could articulate on what they want to do, and then most of the rest of it is their eye telling them what works in executing the idea. The idea may have some theory about perception or readability in it, or it may be purely aesthetic.

For most of the old timers, we don't know what they were thinking. Dwiggins had his "M theory" about how angles at small sizes turn into curves, and that inspired some of his work.

Mark Simonson's picture

I've just been revisiting Hess's book, and I can't find the passage you quote at the top of the page. In any case, looking at it now after it has sat on my shelf for a fair number of years, it seems to me that Hess is a bit long on theory and short on results. His type designs are rather dull and flat-footed for all their technical and optical correctness. I don't necessarily think his theories are invalid, but he seems to be over-thinking things a bit. I still think the book is valuable, but I would take his theories with a grain of salt. (Of course, you may want to take my opinion with a grain of salt. In my world, intuition usually trumps theory when they conflict. ;-)

William Berkson's picture

The first quote is from Page 24, and second from p. 28.

Mark, I completely agree with you about Hess. I think the factors he mentions are generally valid, but they are only part of the story. As he acknowledges, different factors can clash with one another, so their practical consequences are often not clear.

Because of all the real complexity, intuition should in general trump theory. It is only when theory is rock solid, as in some parts of science, that it can go the other way around. Certainly not in type design.

I find Hess's book valuable in raising questions to ask about a design in process. But it is the eyes that have to give the answer, not the theory.

kris's picture

Is this book worth getting?

William Berkson's picture

Kris, that is debatable. It is certainly not one of the great books on type, like "Letters of Credit". But my attitude is that if I can learn one valuable thing from a book, it is worth it. In my case, Hess's points about divided letters were interesting enough that I figured it was worth it to me. You might find something else. The design of the book in my opinion is poor and the letters he draws dull, as Mark said. But the guy did have some interesting ideas. So the question is whether you want to take a shot and see if anything in it is interesting to you. It is cheap on the internet. I see that there are several editions--mine is the first, 1972. It might be at a library somewhere near you.

I got it after reading about it from someone here on Typophile.

Mark Simonson's picture

I have the 1981 revised edition. It has the second passage you quoted, but not the first (at least I haven't found it, and it's not on p. 24). Maybe he had second thoughts about the "divided letters" problem? The second passage seems to be the standard rule about making the top part of a letter a bit narrower than the bottom (e.g., B, S, 8, etc.). This has more to do with making the forms look balanced, but it does affect and is affected by spacing, although not much.

Mark Simonson's picture

@William: I got it after reading about it from someone here on Typophile.

That might have been me. :-)

William Berkson's picture

Mark, yes, it was probably you who discussed that Hess's book. Thanks!

I would guess that the revised edition more likely has additional material, so the pagination is different, and the passage would be on a later page. The discussion is opposite the picture of the "hat effect". In my edition it is a paragraph with no spacing between it and the previous paragraph--on the hat effect.

Hess I think discusses the narrowing of divided letters in relation to the question of their looking balanced in relation to other letters. The impact on spacing is my conclusion from applying both Hess and Kindersley.

William Berkson's picture

Kris, here are some of the illustrations from Hess and Kindersley.

From Hess, here the top line is uniform width, and the bottom adjusted according to his guidelines: round and diagonal characters made wider, and divided characters narrower, in relation to the H.

From Kindersley, here is his illustration of different 'centers' of a character. The 'optical center' is different from being equidistant between extremes of the letter. In the following the lines from left to right are supposed to be the centers of: 1. area 2. gravity (first moment) 3. inertia (second moment) 4. optical (?) and 5. mathematical (equal distance to right and left extreme of black.)

Here is Kindersley's illustration of how a serif on an L moves the optical center right. Note how the addition of the serif according to him enables you to move the L left, and to have a narrower advance with. "The secret of a good fit and an economical one lies precisely in moving the optical centre towards the mathematical centre." (p. 38, Optical Letter Spacing, 2001 edition.)

Nick Shinn's picture

"Spacing" has as many parameters as there are thematic elements in a typeface, which is to say, a lot.
There are several different strategies for spacing, and what's appropriate varies with size, tracking, and kerning, as well as the genre of typeface.

The spacing of Richler was informed by faces such as DIN and News Gothic Condensed, the idea being that if the round side strokes of letters are upright and the letters squarish, then those strokes should be spaced more like straight vertical strokes. It looks a bit strange at display size, or when closely inspected, but in text works fine, and the "breathing room" between adjacent rounds--as in the "p-o" combination--is arguably preferable to the near-collision one gets in old-style faces. This kind of face does need an open fit (wide serifs).

Richler would benefit from a different set of metrics for display use, something more along the lines of the old "tight but not touching" aesthetic of the phototypositor.

William Berkson's picture

Thanks, Nick. It's interesting that your different approach worked. Did you also experiment with tighter, more conventional spacing on the round letters? Was it worse, or just different?

aszszelp's picture

"[...] round and diagonal characters made wider, and divided characters narrower, in relation to the H."

Erm,... 'H' is a "divided" character :-)

William Berkson's picture

>Erm,... ’H’ is a “divided” character :-)

You're right. Hess used the term 'stacked shapes', so that's my fault, not his. I initially used the term 'stacked letters' which is misleading, as Nick pointed out. I see now I should have stuck to Hess's terms.

Hess doesn't include the H as a 'stacked shape', perhaps because it has no top and bottom, unlike all the other letters he mentions.

It is interesting that Tracy in 'Letters of Credit' says that in the H the cross bar visually draws the stems together, reducing how wide the side bearings need to be. So Tracy thinks the effect of the cross bar in the H is the opposite of what Hess thinks it is in the E and other letters with a top and bottom. Both could be right, which shows how complex the optical effects are...

Nick Shinn's picture

Did you also experiment with tighter, more conventional spacing on the round letters?

No, this was the direction I determined to take. "Squared rounds with wide sidebearings" was axiomatic. However, I did play around with the metrics, tweaking them. As part of the commission, I developed an alternate, more conventional design with rounder curved letters and normal sidebearings; I actually thought it was classier and hoped the client would make the conventional choice, but fortunately they had more sense!

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