This is the second of my pair of articles discussing some `subliminal refinements’ (coined by R. Schlicht, author of the `microtype‘ package in LaTeX) in typography and typesetting; the first article focused more on typefaces and glyphs while this one examines some higher-order structures.
Universal ratios found in nature are widely advocated for making decisions on page dimensions and margins in books. Perhaps the most prominent of them is the golden ratio, where the length:width ratio is approximately 1.6180339887. It turns out that in some typographical realizations of this ratio, all four page margins are of different width, sometimes increasing in a clockwise direction, determined by various geometric relationships. This setup, however, may look unbalanced to some eyes. An additional issue with the clockwise increasing margins is the jarring discontinuity at the corner of the page where the end of the incremental sequence (very wide margin, usually at the bottom of the page) meets the beginning (very narrow margin, along the spine of the book). Besides, having the narrowest margin along the spine seems awkward when one has to force the book flat to be able to read the text properly. This scheme has been used in a publication no less than Bringhurst’s seminal The Elements of Typographic Style, so there must be something about it that I do not yet appreciate; learning never ends. For now, though, I will explain my current sentiment.
[Exercise: rank the above in decreasing order of beauty: a human body, the golden rectangle God allegedly used to make the human body, and a regular tetragon. Photo of David: copyright Marcus Obal (licence). All images linked from Wikipedia.]
One of the amazing natural objects that are said to to conform to the golden ratio is the human body, but it is difficult to carry over that beauty to page layout because the golden ratio, if true, is only an underlying skeleton upon which the many features that really characterize the human body are overlaid, like curvature, muscles, facial contours and hair. When it comes down to setting text within the bounds of some straight-sided parallelogram, a square might be more elemental and attractive to some than a golden rectangle. It is alright to use ratios, but one should use them with judicious practical and aesthetic considerations pertaining to the task at hand. Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design may be useful here. Design thoroughly down to the last detail, but don’t let it get any more complicated than is necessary to do the job.
Back to page margins: so how about simplifying it to uniform margins on all four sides? This turns out to be none other than the classic look of mounted artwork that can hardly go wrong. The luxurious margins would set the text clear apart from its distracting external environment and give it space to breathe. I have taken this as a starting point and modified it a little. In my layout, the top and bottom margins are identical to each other but slightly wider than the side margins. This is because, unfortunately, the approximately 1.4 aspect ratio of the required A4 paper feels tallish (the golden rectangle is even taller at over 1.6). Although a towering text block tends to exude an air of lengthy, substantial discourse that is desirable in a dissertation, it begins to get too skinny with uniform margins all around. The right margin is wider than the left because it includes allowance for book binding; the end result should be identical left and right.
You may or may not have noticed that the dimensions of both the page (before book binding) and the text block (excluding header and footer) come close to my own favourite `universal ratio’, the Chandrasekhar limit. A white dwarf whose mass exceeds the mass of the Sun by a factor greater than the Chandrasekhar limit, a value of approximately 1.4, will become a supernova. The limit varies slightly from star to star because of centrifugal forces and other determinants. Alas, I succumb to the temptation of universal ratios.
There is a popular practice of using extra-wide margins on the outer sides of book pages for accommodating occasional margin notes and oversized figures or tables. This may cause discomfort because the margins are empty much of the time, making the page look unbalanced. These margins could be avoided when one’s particular subject matter is amenable to being presented in a continuous storyline. There are the reference books, however, that are not really meant to be read from cover to cover and in which the reader benefits from being able to locate and extract bits of relevant information easily and quickly. This is where mini-summaries, annotations, references and even auxiliary graphics in the margins, right next to the parts of the main text to which they pertain, can be a good idea.
The discussion illustrates an important philosophy in typography: that the design may obey or disobey the rules but it should always convey the message effectively. In fact, I even disagree slightly with this: in my opinion, it should convey your interpretation of the message in a way you, the typographer, believe is effective to the best of your logical and aesthetic judgement. One reader can be utterly convinced while another is utterly confused. You can’t please everyone but at least you can please yourself.
Page headers and footers (see illustration above)
The header text should probably not be in a SHOUTING or even SCREAMING type, such as FULL SIZE ALL CAPS or FULL SIZE ALL CAPS PLUS ITALIC (FULL SIZE ALL CAPS PLUS BOLD also occurs, but I haven’t seen FULL SIZE ALL CAPS PLUS BOLD PLUS ITALIC lately). The header is a somewhat repetitive if useful assertion of authorship and/or tool for locating chapters rather than the main substance of the literary work, so it should not be the first thing that grabs your attention when you arrive at a page. I reduce it to the same font size as the footnotes and make sure there is ample space between it and the text proper, instead of printing an extra black line to separate them (discussed further in the Decorations section below). The use of italic type, which resembles handwriting, helps make it look as if I lovingly annotated the pages by hand. But be careful—not all typefaces have italics that look handwritten.
Page numbers should be at the bottom for two reasons: to balance the header, and because the page number has a functional role that warrants a suitably unobtrusive location where it is easily accessible but only when desired. Sometimes both page number and lengthy page header are stuffed into the top margin, in combination with a ratio-inspired layout in which the top margin is considerably narrower than the bottom, creating a decidedly top-heavy impression akin to an overflowing glass of water—perhaps positively alluding to a `fountain of information’?
Sometimes page numbers are omitted from certain pages possibly on aesthetic grounds, such as the first page of every chapter (less of a problem if page numbering is at the bottom) and full-page illustrations. That is understandable, but extreme caution may need to be exercised in omitting page numbers or printing them in different locations on different pages, as it makes it difficult to flip through the book to find a particular page. I have had books and magazines, including those about typography, riddled with so many missing page numbers that locating any given page, whether or not it is numbered, becomes an infuriating ordeal.
I have a soft spot for centering rather than left- or right-justifying the page number and page header. Even in the double spread of a book, each individual page, corresponding to a block of text, could do nicely with a self-contained symmetry that seems to have been more fashionable in the old days (see illustration above). The contemporary trend seems to be to offset everything—page number, text, illustrations—to either the left or the right or both. It is true that page numbers at the outer bottom corner are easier to see during flipping, but I am willing to compromise a little. Unless it’s a massive book, the difference is likely to be negligible from a mechanical engineering or reading experience point of view.
I avoid using text boxes and ornamental dividers for practical typographic purposes such as demarcating supplementary explanations or separating sections. Good modern typography should achieve a large part of that by manipulating the spaces around characters, words, lines and paragraphs of text, without recourse to brute-force `beacons’ and `fences’. Ornaments are at their best in less practical roles, like beautifying the page and enhancing the appreciation of the subject matter. In all cases I make sure they don’t clutter up the page, creating special space for them if necessary. And to add that extra personal touch, I design the ornaments to my own artistic conception and to complement my particular subject matter, rather than use generic ones that come with the font or typesetting software.
Any illustration composed of lines, dots and/or text should be rendered as vectors. Even the reproduction of the music score shown below, near the end of my dissertation, is a vector graphic, converted from the original raster scan using Illustrator’s Live Trace; blow it up to 2000% in the pdf file (not available here) and there is no pixelation or degradation of image fidelity whatsoever. It looks as if Bruckner actually scribbled his music on my page; this is achieved by manually tuning the Live Trace parameters to faithfully reproduce the variable stroke weight.