Design With Reason: "Newspaper Body Text"

Newspaper Body Text



Legibility: The technical quality of the printed text. Crisp, clear, defined letterforms (as often associated with offset printing) are more legible than smudged or degraded text (often typical with aging letterpress units).
Readability: Often confused with the above, but very different. Readability is the level of comfort a user has with a certain kind of text, and how accustomed their eye has become over time to the print specifications. While the legibility of any small text on an aging letterpress unit may be poor, it very well may be considered "readable" by the newspaper's readers, simply because the face has become so familiar to them over a period of time.
Font: A family of typefaces, such as Univers or Times, which come in various weights (roman, bold, light, italic, etc.).
Face: A specific cut of a font (i.e., Univers Bold Condensed).
X-height/point size: X-height is the distance from the baseline of a lowercase letterform to its top edge (as in a lowercase "x"). This is distinct from the point size of a letterform, which includes ascenders or descenders (as in the lowercase "y" or "h", or the upper portion of any capitals).
Leading: The spacing between lines, measured by the point size plus the accompanying white space. Often the leading will be about one point size larger than the typeface (as in, "Century, 10 point on 11 leading").
Kerning/ tracking: Kerning is the spacing between individual pairs of letters, while tracking is the uniform spacing between letters across a block of letterforms - a line or paragraph or story.
Economy: The number of letters or words that are achieved per line of type in a column of text. Influenced by point size, typeface, and kerning and tracking.

"To Redesign: Why? How? Who?" A Q&A of commonly asked questions about the redesign process.

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(Note: The author was part of a team of faculty from the Poynter Institute who researched and developed the design of The Poynter Fonts, but is not involved in distribution or sales in any way. For information about the Poynter Fonts, please visit the Poynter Fonts Readability Pages on the Font Bureau's web site, which will show you what the fonts look like, albeit in electronic form. You may contact the Font Bureau for samples of the fonts printed on newsprint. Direct all other questions about purchasing or testing these fonts to the Font Bureau. You can contact them through
By Ron Reason

Materials commissioned for, and republished from, Presstime Magazine

Not to be republished without permission or recirculated without attribution.

From Miami to Seattle, from Los Angeles to Boston, more U.S. newspapers than ever seem to be redesigning. Publishers are seeking fresh designs in response to a variety of factors: upgraded press technology, conversion to new pagination systems, competitive pressures, and, increasingly, the reduction to a narrower broadsheet web width. (In an effort to reduce newsprint costs, smaller measurements for the standardized advertising units used by most U.S. newspapers are expected next year.)
In almost all redesigns, the newspaper staff struggles with whether, or how, to change the one design element that just may be most dear to reader's hearts: body text. There are no easy answers. And in a time when many newspapers are juggling multiple changes - like smaller web widths for the broadsheet format, additional color or changes in headline fonts - the body copy will look different whether its specifications have changed or not. Surrounding elements, including white space, effect readability and familiarity tremendously.
Says designer/author Tim Harrower, who consulted on The Oregonian's new look which debuted early in 1999: "Ultimately, when you reduce your web width, you face a frustrating tradeoff: if you miniaturize design elements to gain back space - your headlines, your photos, and especially your text - you may sacrifice impact and legibility. But if you just leave everything the same, your reporters and readers may feel cheated, since you're shaving 5-10 percent off every story. It's a perilous balancing act, and somebody's sure to complain."
The following categories outline some of the criteria that design experts consider when weighing typeface options for body text.

How many letters and words do you print on each line of type? Depends on the specific typeface and size, of course, but also technical factors such as hyphenation and justification. Many designers seek a minimum of five or even six complete words per line of text in a column of copy fewer than five words per line and the reader's eye begins to strain. This is a sure challenge for a page with the reduced image area of 11 and 1/2 inches, especially if working with a 6- or 7-column grid. (Many papers are considering a five-column grid on open pages for this reason; inside pages partially filled with ads will remain six columns for most broadsheet papers.)
"It's extremely important that the character count and word count per line is high," says Deborah Withey, (formerly) design consultant to Knight-Ridder's newspapers. The balancing act is to make the point size large enough to maximize readability but also provide a sufficient number of words per line.
Some fonts allow greater economy of words per line than others. ITC's Charter and the new series of Poynter Readability fonts for newspapers are among those whose "x-height" is designed to make the letter appear larger than other fonts at the same point size.
"The Poynter Fonts have a large x-height (the bulk of the letterform's body) and are distinctive and stately," says Lucie Lacava, the Canadian newspaper designer who extols the economy of the Poynter Fonts and has recommended them extensively. (Her work includes the acclaimed design for the National Post, the new Canadian broadsheet introduced in 1998.)
The aging of newspaper readers has been cause for concern for experts like Mario Garcia, who has redesigned more than 450 newspapers worldwide during the last 25 years. "I now use 10 point text uniformly on all projects, knowing that we have an increasing number of baby boomers who need reading glasses, and they are likely to be readers for another 30 years or so."
Adds Lucie Lacava: "Bigger is better!" She advises not to be too concerned with the point size. "Disregard the point size, its the x-height (visual appearance) that counts." (In a redesign), "never give them a visually smaller font than what they currently are accustomed to."

In an effort to take a shortcut to greater economy, designers are often tempted to try several techniques that the experts caution to avoid.
First is artificially condensing the character width of the current face in the typesetting process. While some faces can accommodate a condensation down to 95 percent without noticeable loss of readability (in QuarkXpress, this is the "horizontal scale" feature), few can endure anything beyond that. The typeface designers themselves often loathe this manipulation of their original designs; in quality fonts, every detail of the design of a letterform has been carefully considered in relation to other elements. While increasing letters and words per line, excessive condensing, the creators say, will disrupt this integrity.
A second shortcut is called anamorphic conversion, or disproportionately reducing the width and height of the newspaper page to match up with the narrower page dimensions. Both will result in a loss of integrity of the original type design, and often, a distortion that makes the type look awkward and hard to read. Though a few fonts may survive this process relatively unscathed, depending on their design, other visual elements like photos of people's faces, or product logos, may suffer. As Lacava puts it: "Oops! Type looks okay but what happened to the logo on that Mercedes ad!?"
Most newspapers that have considered anamorphic conversion have ruled it out when these distortions become apparent on press tests.

A variety of technical concerns impact readability of body text, including the following:
Pagination systems: Many newspapers are just now coming on board with pagination layout systems, many of which restrict the style of font that can be considered for body copy. For example, newspapers adopting a system like CCI often have to decide quite early on what the body text face will be, as much of the laborious coding process is centered around that decision. "CCI will work with anyh Adobe postscript compatible font except multiple masters. We tested all our faces on the system and printed them on our press," says Jeff Glick, creative director at the Sun-Sentinel, which adopted CCI.
"CCI's type-tweaking tools are OK, but don't rely on them to fix any problems you may have with the way a font is set. I highly recommend that anyone using the system kern their type (create additional kerning pairs or edit those from the type manufacturer) before loading it into their pagination system and associated servers, output devises and work stations. You can gain tighter and more efficient typography." This attention to detail is recommended for headine typefaces as well as body text.
Press quality: Whether your paper is printed on letterpress, flexo or offset will impact the body text you select. The fine detail that can be achieved on offset, for example, is not available from letterpress units (which often suffer from advanced age as well as being a more crude technology). Any upgrade in your printing technology may suggest that you consider a new body text font.
The Sun-Sentinel decided to change its text font in its recent redesign partly because the original font had been selected to work best on the paper's old letterpress presses. It "seemed too rough and crude" when printed on the company's offset units, which have been in use since 1989, according to Glick. The paper tested five fonts before switching to Imperial, using 10 points on 11 leading.
The Poynter series, in addition to a large optical size or X-height, offers a range of thicknesses that users can select. The series was designed partly to give users the option to print on varying quality presses. "I love the option of using just the right weight from the incremental offerings," says Lacava. "Every text font should offer weight options."
Press speed: While most redesigns involve running the press for testing on a limited run, often at a slower speed, this may not translate into quality printing under normal conditions. One editor cautions not to be too confident in press tests run at a slow speed, or the focus groups who contemplate them.
Says Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the recently redesigned Oregonian: "While the type in our new design appeared neat and readable, and got rave reviews in focus groups looking at a prototype, once it got on the real press on deadline it (the quality and detail) wasn't as good." After the launch of the new look, a number of readers responded negatively when the paper asked for their views; the staff responded by slightly increasing the point size of the type. Now, says Bhattia, readers seem to have grown accustomed to the new text as well as other updated design elements.

Last but not least, any body text printed on prototypes will elicit "I like it/ I don't like it" comments from throughout the newsroom - and the board room - that ultimately will determine its fate. Often, the shock of seeing anything new makes a proposed face seem alien and unfamiliar; it's a good idea to let the new face sit around a while, and revisit prototypes by reading them over a few days or weeks. And make sure the decision is made based on actual stories (not Greek text!) printed on newsprint. Dummy copy printed on white office paper from a laser writer cannot give an accurate impression of what the face will look like in the newspaper with the types of stories you print.
One universal bit of advice is reflected by Glick at the Sun-Sentinel: warn your readers. "Beginning one week before the launch we ran stories and briefs on the changes culminating in a column by the paper's editor on the day of the redesign," says Glick. The paper had the advantage of being able to forwarn readeres about a perceivable increase in point size. "Overall it went very well. Most readers responded positively."
[If you have questions about body text, typography in general, or other newspaper design issues, feel free to email here and I'll try to answer as best as I can. Your question may even be added to this essay, or help me clarify the information above for other readers.]

2006, Ron Reason. Not to be republished without permission or recirculated without attribution.

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Web posted: April 30, 2000.
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