Legibility and order; style and chaos

I get a little nervous when I look at a page of text in a layout program like InDesign; how ought it to be arranged, I wonder, and how (pardon the pun) shall I justify my arrangement?

Take leading and font size, f’rinstance: determining how much is enough of one changes the other, and both are subject to multiple forces acting upon them like the shape of the page, the colour (and the color) of the text block, the length of the line and, not least among many others, the intended function of the text. If you’re writing instructions for the operation of a hand grenade, clarity ought probably to trump style definitively.

But suppose you’re not writing instructions for hand grenades. Suppose it’s a thesis for your graphic design diploma. How far apart and how big ought the letters to be? Fortunately, Joseph Muller-Brockmann¬† thought this through decades ago.

It's hard to trump Muller-Brockmann for cool, rational clarity in the explication of graphical complexity.
Muller-Brockmann: cool, rational clarity in the explication of graphical complexity.

In Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Muller-Brockmann lays out the law in no uncertain terms. You don’t have to do it his way, but know that if there does exist one way in which to do it that is the right way, it’s probably the way he says it is.

I’m particularly grateful for his treatment of the subject of leading. From page 34 of this crimson tome:

“Too open a pattern disrupts the cohesion of the text, the lines appear isolated and figure as independent elements. […] [When] the lines are set too close together… the lines forfeit their optical clarity and restfulness. The eye is overtaxed and incapable of reading the individual lines […].”

So how do you get it right? I’m always a little skeptical of entirely subjective judgements about things like leading. If only there were some repeatable system or formula for working it out….

Well of course there is. Muller-Brockmann gives us this example worth quoting at length as did Moses the commandments:

“Let us assume that in our draft the column is 57 lines deep. We want 4 grid fields in a column, i.e., the column is to be divided into 4 grid fields of equal size, there being a space between the fields. For this intervening distance we choose the space occupied by one line of text. This space is known as an ’empty line’, i.e., the space in which a line of text could stand remains empty.

“From the 57 lines making up the depth of the column of text we subtract 3 lines which are needed for the spaces between the grid fields. We are now left with 54 lines which are to fill 4 grid fields. We divide the number of lines 54 by 4 and obtain 13.5 lines per field. As there are no half lines in typography, we look for the next smallest number which is divisible by 4 If each of the 4 fields contains 13 lines, we now have, including the 3 empty lines, a column depth of 55 lines, 4 X 13 + 3 = 55. We make the necessary adjustments to our draft. We now proceed a step further and determine the number of columns. If we choose 2 columns, each column has 55 lines or 4 grid fields. The grid fields are intended for the illustrations.

“The corrected column with 55 lines fits precisely with 4 grid fields of 13 lines, each field being separated from the next by 1 line. The depth of the column is now 54 ciceros and 8 points or 24.7 cm” (Muller-Brockmann 57-59).

This arrangement has the added attraction of keeping all elements on the page (not just the text) lined up in an orderly manner: “…the upper and lower edges of the picture always align with the ascenders and descenders of the lines of text.”

In his preface Muller-Brockmann credits his exegesis to the typographers of antiquity, but it ain’t likely they every laid the rules down with such lightning bolt certainty.


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