Tag Archives: good typography

Type Tip #3: Widows and Orphans

Sounds like the plot of a Charles Dickens novel. Despite these curious typographic terms, avoiding widows and orphans is an important concept graphic designers, and writers for that matter, should remember.

A widow is a single word or two very short words at the end of a paragraph or column. It is considered poor typography because it leaves too much white space between paragraphs and tends to draw the eye toward the hanging word. It interrupts the reader’s flow, diminishing readability, and gives an unintended visual emphasis on this dangling word. The rule of thumb is at least two words, three if the words are short, on the last line of a paragraph.

To accomplish this, the designer should manually break the previous sentence apart. Keep in mind that doing this requires a “soft return,” (shift + return key) rather than a “hard return” (return key), the difference being that a soft return is a simple manual line break whereas a hard return inserts an invisible paragraph marker in the middle of the sentence. This bad habit will cause problems with text formatting and style sheets.

Creating a similar visual distraction, an orphan is a single line of type that appears at the top of a column or page. This creates poor horizontal alignment at the top of the page. Again, the rule of thumb is at least two lines of a sentence at the top of a column.

These rules apply to writers as well as designers. Screenwriter Mark Sanderson’s informative article on avoiding widow words when writing scripts is an interesting read. He observes that widows in scripts look sloppy and notes that the cumulative effect of dozens of widowed paragraphs can add unnecessary pages to a script. The effect is even more pronounced in novels where hundreds of widowed paragraphs can really add up.

Look professional by assiduously avoiding widows and orphans in your typography. Remember, if it’s not good type, it’s not good design.

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Type Tip #2: Script Fonts

Formal script fonts, sometimes thought of as the divas of fonts, can convey a visual effect like none other, but they don’t take kindly to being “modified” like one might do with one of their sturdier sans-serifed cousins. Not all script fonts are formal — in fact, some can give a design an extremely casual look — but for elegance and charm, nothing beats a beautiful script font. But as I said, they can easily be misused by overeager designers. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Avoid all caps
Most scripts have decorative capital letters that are designed to be read with their less decorative lowercase letters. These caps are much too ornate to be easily read together so setting scripts in all caps should be avoided.

Don’t set on a curve
Scripts usually have a right-handed tilt, which, when set on a curve, is exaggerated as the word progresses around the curve. Symmetry is lost. Additionally, most scripts have connecting strokes that join each letter to the next and, if set on a curve, distort this connection and break the letters apart so they no longer read as a single word but as a series of floating letters with little tails. You can compensate for this by decreasing the tracking but a better design solution should be explored.

No tracking
Along the same line, you should not change the tracking or kerning of scripts with connecting strokes. This will break apart the carefully designed letterspace joiners and look like a series of floating letters with little tails. Very amateurish. With non-connecting scripts, proceed with care, keeping in mind that each letterform has been painstakingly designed to fit together visually.

Go easy on the swashes
Many formal scripts have alternate swash characters that are even more ornate than the original letters. Nothing beats a well-chosen swash for that special flourish but a little goes a long way. Less is more.

Let them shine
You picked a script for a reason… it’s a big personality and needs to be the star of the show without any competition. Don’t combine different script fonts, they’ll clash, and when choosing non-script fonts (serif or sans-serif) to accompany, choose something more neutral—you don’t want the divas pitching a fit and ruining your design.

Look professional and avoid committing type crimes by using script fonts properly. Remember, if it’s not good type, it’s not good design.

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Type Tip #1: The Hyphen

Today I’m beginning what will be an occasional series of posts on good typographic principles all designers should remember.

Many may not even realize that different hyphenation marks exist, or if you do, you may still be confused as to their proper usage. You’re not alone. Many typographic errors that exist today have their origin with the typewriter. Remember those? There was a “dash” or hyphen to the right of the zero key. That’s it. Want anything longer? Repeat and repeat.

Professional typesetters, before their extinction, had three different characters to choose from when it came to this diminutive piece of punctuation. The hyphen (-), the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). Today’s computer keyboards contain these characters but they are what are called hidden characters, meaning they do not appear on the keyboard but can be created simply by using modifier keys (shift, option and command) on the Mac and unnecessarily complicated codes or character maps on the PC. These codes can be found here and here. My advice — get a Mac.

With the onset of desktop publishing, graphic designers, who should have a strong command of typography, are now their own typesetters, so to speak, and should know the nuanced use of these three similarly looking but very different characters.

A hyphen (-) is the shortest of the three and is the key we all know to the right of the zero key. It is used to divide words that are too long to fit on a line and therefore automatically break at the proper syllable. We may remember learning these rules in school. It is also used to connect a compound word or two related words that should be read together.


An en dash (–) is longer than a hyphen and is created by holding the option key and striking the hyphen key. On the PC it’s alt/0150 on the numeric keypad. It is used to divide a range of values such as a span of time or numerical quantities and can be though of as the punctuational equivalent to using the words “to” and “from.” It is best used with an added space on each side of the dash.

Monday – Friday
9:00 – 11:00 am
1995 – 2011

An em dash (—) is the longest of the three and is created by holding the shift and option keys together and then striking the hyphen key. On the PC it’s alt/0151 on the numeric keypad. It is most often used to demarcate a break in thought in a sentence and is stronger than the use of parentheses. It connects independent clauses with interrupting thoughts.

I’d better have passed my test—it’s ninety percent of my class grade—or I’ll have to go to summer school.

No typographic detail is too small to be considered. If it’s not good type, it’s not good design so look professional and avoid committing type crimes by the proper use of the hyphen, en dash and em dash.

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