Fine Print: Fonts for Small Sizes

Type designed specifically for use at small sizes attempts to solve the problem of too much to say in too little space. When conserving resources (ink, paper, etc.) comes at the cost of legibility, it’s best to plan your type palette around faces made to perform below conventional text sizes. How will you know which faces hold up small? Here are a few principles to consider:

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Choose something generally robust.

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The x-height should be relatively large. Counterforms need to be accentuated. Spacing should be pretty generous. And careful with fine lines—they tend to disappear. Notice above how ITC Bodoni Six differs from a larger optical size Bodoni Seventy Two. This brings up another point. Sometimes a font’s name includes a reference to its optical size, such as a number, or the terms agate, pearl, or micro. Any others come to mind?

Size-specific optical corrections

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As if reproduction concerns weren’t enough on their own (managing inevitabilities such as ink spread and so forth), at small sizes your eyes tend to further distort the letterforms. For example, when strokes intersect, (especially at acute angles) the negative space closes up near the intersection. This is remedied by forcing white up into the crotches and joins by way of light wells or ink traps, as you can see above in Matthew Carter’s Bell Centennial. Other phenomena, such as the flattening and squaring off of curves are counteracted by enlarging the gestures of each form. These are easy to compare in faces that have a range of optical sizes. Without, it just takes testing and practice recognizing what works and why. To get you started in the right direction, here’s a FontList of type that works at small sizes curated by a friend and fellow typographer, Nick Sherman.

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Take these principles into consideration and you’ll find they apply not only to print, but also to screen media that’s meant to be viewed from a distance. You may also find, as many have, that the unusual texture of faces designed for small print, such as  Joshua Darden’s Freight Micro above, can be quite appealing at larger sizes. That’s it. Using Type continues here Thursday. Thanks to Nick Shinn’s Scotch Modern for setting the opening title.

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