Better living through typography

By | March 14, 2016

Typography is the art and craft and arranging text on the page and screen for maximum legibility and comprehension. We may not be aware of it, but every time we create a Word document we’re making typographic decisions – even if that only involves accepting Word’s default settings for things like line length, leading and paragraph spacing.

With a little care and attention, though, we can improve the typography of our Word documents, and therefore make them easier to read. We can create more white space on the page, for example, which can make a big difference in legibility.

Here are some typographic considerations.

Line length – a good range for readable body text (the paragraphs of your document, as opposed to the headings) is 50 to 75 characters. Word 2016’s default line length is about 105 characters, if our document is set to Calibri, 11 pt, or Times, 11 pt., with standard margins. If we change to Arial 11 pt, the line length shrinks to 86 characters.

We have several options if the line length is a little too long. We can set a larger point size (e.g., increase it from 11 to 12 points), increase the margins left and right, or move to an asymmetrical layout by indenting all text one to two inches from the left.

It’s standard to do asymmetrical layouts with user guides and other technical materials. The layout looks like this:


And yes, the document will be longer. But if our goal is legibility and comprehension for our readers, it’s a price worth paying.

Leading – this is the space between the lines. In traditional print typography, leading is expressed by two numbers. The first number is the point size, the second number is the point size plus the amount of space between the lines. So leading of 11/14 means the body text is 11 pt, and the space between lines is 3 points. Increasing the space between lines can have a dramatic effect on legibility.

Here’s is Word’s default setting with Arial 11 point text (11/12) on the left, and increased leading of 11/18 on the right:


You can change leading in Word by selecting the text, and then in the Paragraph dialog box, change the Line Spacing setting to the sum of the body text and the leading amount. In this example, 18 pt:


If you know how to edit the Normal style, you can change the line spacing setting there, and it’s applied to all Normal text in the document.

Spacing before and after paragraphs – by default in Word 2016, the space before every paragraph is 0 and the space after every paragraph is 8 pt. This eliminates the need to press Enter twice between paragraphs. I usually reset this to 0 before and 6 points after, but the default setting is fine too. This setting is also controlled in the Paragraph dialog box.

Spacing before and after headings – main and subheadings should always be closer to the paragraph following the heading than the paragraph preceding the heading. Otherwise the heading appears to “float” in the space between the paragraphs. In the following example the heading “Contact details” has six points before and six points after.


We can edit the heading style so it’s 12 before and 6 after, and then the heading moves down just enough to be visually connected with the paragraph that follows it:


Font sizes – in traditional print typography, graphic designers selected font sizes from a fixed set of sizes. Body type was typically 9, 10, 11 or 12 point. Display type for headings and subheadings was 14, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48 or 60 pt. These are not arbitrary numbers. They evolved over time (centuries in fact) and became standard sizes because they looked good on the page.

The computer lets us set any point size we want, including fractions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can wreck the relationship between font sizes on the page, making some headings seem too large and others too small. Try working with the standard sizes.

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