A Sense for Typographic Scale

Before I can really get to hierarchy, which is the next subject of our study, there’s one thing that needs covering on its own. The typographer (that’s you) needs to develop a sense for typographic scale. Unlike the five senses, this is a learned sense, an elementary principle of typography and one that easily and commonly goes unmastered. Experienced designers and the typographically immature tend to differ here most noticeably. So in this brief piece I’ll do my best to give a specific definition of the question and share a few exercises that may open the eyes of the young typographer. It will be difficult however to properly demonstrate, since for many the principle can feel quite nebulous, and also since this is being conveyed over the web – where you’re viewing it at who knows what size or at what distance. (It’s not safe for me to assume you’re seeing it at 96ppi like I am.)


Or more like 114ppi on my notebook computer. If you’re looking at this site on a mid-2011 Macbook Pro or similar model, the image above should be about actual size.


Just checking.


Okay. To start, We’ll focus on body text, though the principle extends to all settings, all media. Though digital fonts (or any vector-based artwork) are size-independent, text type is pretty size-specific. Ever read a book where the text is set just a little too small? It’s a pain to look at it. Too large and it loses its firmness. It’s no fun to read. Somewhere in between there, provided the measure and line-height are cooperating, the natural rhythm of the text begins to resonate with the larger composition’s own physical properties.

To get there

A starting point is to reduce the type size until its stems take on a linear quality. This is admittedly a bit subjective of a criterion, but after testing a tight range of text sizes for a given piece, I think the more successful options will speak up quite clearly. Insofar as you can, the tests should be in as near the final medium and process as possible. For example, if it’s a print piece, print out your initial explorations and plan several trips to the printer for tests. Below are a couple of explorations of scale set in Nick Shinn’s Scotch Modern Regular, less and more successfully fitting the dimensions of the medium.



Note that Scotch Modern comes in a range of optical sizes from Micro to Display for setting type at specific sizes. Micro is designed to work below conventional text sizes. Display is for larger settings. One easy way to test whether these various cuts are being sized properly is to compare the hairline strokes. All should be close to equal in weight. And if you use any borders or rules in the composition, the stroke weight of each should be conscious of the weight of the hairlines. Below: three optical sizes of Scotch Modern.


Other faces, such as FF Clifford by Akira Kobayashi, specify exactly at what size each cut is intended to be reproduced. Below is FF Clifford Eighteen, Nine, and Six.

FF Clifford optical sizes

Because all media is different, I’d recommend even further testing to see if 8.75 pt or 9.125 pt or somewhere in between works any better. Use similar fractional-unit testing with your line-height/baseline grid settings to make sure the body is optimally holding together. Through all the tests, and through using your eyes, I’m pretty confident your sense for scale will develop.

Lastly, remember to keep in mind the distance from which your work will be viewed. Even though a display cut sounds like just what you might need for a billboard-sized piece, if it’s going to be viewed from the road, the same principles of scale for text apply. Use a text cut.

That’s it for now. Let me know if this came out clear or hazy, and what questions I left you with. Thanks for reading. Using Type picks back up on Thursday.

One Comment

  1. Posted April 19, 2013 at 6:49 PM | Permalink

    I really like reading this and you should definitely keep writing, my only advice would be to make less assumptions about what people already know, you can give them too much knowledge. Other than that, keep this good stuff coming.

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