Book Design Basics Part 2: Optical Margins, Indents and Periods

Part 2 of Fundamentals of Book Design explores opti­cal mar­gins, para­graph for­mat­ting and spaces.

Read about mar­gins, lay­out and lead­ing in Part 1.

wood typeThe self-publishing rev­o­lu­tion is (aside from the Internet) the great­est thing ever to hap­pen to free­dom of speech and expres­sion, but self-published books are widely stig­ma­tized as poorly pro­duced. Why? Because they almost uni­ver­sally are. Moreover, the declin­ing stan­dards of main­stream pub­lish­ers do not jus­tify the medi­oc­rity of self-publishers. In fact, self-publishers will find a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage in apply­ing basic book design prin­ci­ples to pro­duce books that are com­fort­able to read and pleas­ing to the eye.

After all those hours writ­ing and edit­ing, why not pro­duce a book that con­veys your good taste, atten­tion to detail and care? Here are some sim­ple but pow­er­ful book design tips to help your book achieve excellence.

Book Design Tip: Optical Margins

Optical mar­gins are one thing you won’t get your word proces­sor to do, but with a ded­i­cated type­set­ting pro­gram like Adobe InDesign, you can improve the look of your book design with a sim­ple but under­used feature.

Let’s look at an ordi­nary block of text (from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens).

text without optical margins

At first glance, it looks leg­i­ble enough, but on closer inspec­tion, the text looks awk­ward wher­ever there’s a punc­tu­a­tion mark at the begin­ning or the end of a line. Those places are high­lighted in the next figure:

text without optical margins - problems highlighted

Notice how all the punc­tu­a­tion stays strictly within the bound­aries of the text box. In longer blocks of text, this cre­ates notice­ably ragged edges. In cases where there are quo­ta­tion marks at the begin­ning of a line, the appear­ance of an indented new para­graph is cre­ated whether that’s the inten­tion or not.

What we need to improve our book design is opti­cal mar­gins; mar­gins that line up the let­ters while let­ting the punc­tu­a­tion hang over the edges. Though this tech­ni­cally intro­duces less even mar­gins, the tiny punc­tu­a­tion marks use less ink than the let­ter­forms and are more or less invis­i­ble. When we turn opti­cal mar­gins on, the effect cre­ates an illu­sion of straight, tidy margins.

optical marginsThis looks straighter, but take a look at the punc­tu­a­tion with the guides turned on:

optical margins detailThe hang­ing punc­tu­a­tion makes the edges of the text look straighter even though we have pushed por­tions of it past the guides we might intu­itively rely on to pro­duce “straight text.” It looks straighter even though it’s not. Optical mar­gins make bet­ter book design. Here are some blown up examples:

Optical Margins DetailsTo turn on opti­cal mar­gins in Adobe InDesign, sim­ply select any text box you wish to apply them to and then open up the (not very intu­itively named) “Story” dia­log box. You can adjust the degree to which the punc­tu­a­tion hangs over the edges of the text box to match to match the size of your text or suit your own preferences.

turning on optical margins in Adobe InDesign

Book Design Tip: Paragraph Indents

One of the first things I do when I’m given a man­u­script to type­set is do a global find and replace to make sure none of the para­graphs begins with a tab (I search for para­graph breaks fol­lowed by a tab and then replace them with only para­graph breaks). Putting a tab at the begin­ning of a para­graph is a holdover from type­writer days when that was the eas­i­est way to put a half-inch indent at the begin­ning of a new para­graph. There are worse ways to indent a para­graph, but we’ll get to those shortly.

For some time after the intro­duc­tion of word proces­sors, attempts were made to “legit­imize” them by get­ting them to mimic the look of a type­writer. Half-inch tabs and indents are a legacy of this and sadly, both the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Modern Language Association (MLA) still spec­ify half-inch para­graph indents in their style guides for man­u­scripts. It’s a recipe for ugly aca­d­e­mic papers that ignores basic, long-standing prin­ci­ples of book design.

Typesetters have tra­di­tion­ally used an em as the stan­dard size for a para­graph indent. What’s an em? Back in the days of hot metal type­set­ting, an em was lit­er­ally the width of the let­ter “m” in a given type­face and type size. With dig­i­tal type, there’s no need to mea­sure the let­ter “m.” Simply use a mea­sure­ment equiv­a­lent to the point size of your type. If the text is set in 12-point type, use a 12 point indent. A point is 1/72nd of an inch so with 12-point type, use 12/72nd or 1/6th of an inch. Or, you can use your eye to adjust the para­graph indent to suit your tastes. I often let mine vary from a dig­i­tal “em,” because every type­face has char­ac­ters of dif­fer­ent widths and pro­por­tions, even at the same point size. As always, when in doubt, defer to a trained eye. If stranded on a desert island, use a hair shy of 1/8-inch.

To adjust the para­graph indent (you can—and should—do this in your word proces­sor, too), high­light your text and use the tab ruler.

In Adobe Indesign, use command/control – shift – T to bring up the tab rulers.

Setting Paragraph Indents

Notice that the right-facing arrow at the left side of the ruler (high­lighted in the fig­ure) is split in two. The top half of the arrow rep­re­sents the first line of the para­graph. The bot­tom half of the arrow rep­re­sents the rest of the para­graph. Slide the top half to the right to set the size of the para­graph indent. Easy!

Book Design Tip: Spaces

Invisible as they may be, from a typesetter’s per­spec­tive, spaces are prob­a­bly the most abused char­ac­ter in book design. An explo­ration of how spaces were treated by type­writ­ers and metal type­set­ters reveals their impor­tance and the prob­lems asso­ci­ated with them.

Back in the days of type­writ­ers, mono­spaced type­faces were used; a let­ter “i” was the same width as a “w.” This hap­pened because each key­stroke caused a gear in the type­writer to advance the car­riage one gear tooth to the left. Letter spac­ing was absolutely con­sis­tent, but it appeared absolutely incon­sis­tent because of the rel­a­tive shapes of adja­cent letters.

typewriter text spacing

In print­ing, gaps occurred between let­ters because the let­ters were carved or cast into wood or metal blocks. Here’s a wood type sam­ple from David Wolske’s LetterPress Daily.

wood type sample

Notice the gaps around the “W” in “NORWICH” and between the “R” and the “D” in “BIRD.” Of course, typog­ra­phers like Wolske and Letterpress print­ers like Hatch Show Print will argue that the impre­cise spac­ing of wood type is part of what gives it its charm. I agree with them fanat­i­cally, though con­tem­po­rary Letterpress print­ing has more to do with fine art than with pro­duc­ing clean, leg­i­ble text for book design. Interestingly, though design­ers have access to dig­i­tal repro­duc­tions of wood type­faces, they almost always fail to repro­duce the spac­ing idio­syn­cra­cies of Letterpress print­ing that give the work its authenticity.

Book Design Tip: Kill the Double Space

Don’t ever use con­sec­u­tive spaces in book design—ever.


Monospaced type­writ­ers had enough prob­lems with spac­ing; added to their dif­fi­cul­ties is the con­ven­tion to use a dou­ble space after a period. But with the excep­tion of inten­tion­ally mono­spaced fonts like Courier (used most often today to des­ig­nate com­puter code), dig­i­tal type­faces are pro­por­tion­ally spaced. Digital fonts con­tain inter­nal kern­ing (let­ter spac­ing) tables that define how close one let­ter should be to another. This makes for much more ele­gant type. An “A” can nest inside the com­ple­men­tary angle of a “W,” some­thing that was impos­si­ble back in the days when each let­ter sat on its own block of wood or lead. This means every let­ter “knows” how close it should be to the char­ac­ter next to it. Simply put, a period already has just the right amount of space to the right of it. (CMOS and MLA now spec­ify a sin­gle space after a period in their style manuals).

proportional vs monospaced type

One of the other first things I do before I type­set a man­u­script is con­vert dou­ble spaces to sin­gle spaces over and over until there are no more con­sec­u­tive spaces left in the doc­u­ment. This solves—or at least reveals—several com­mon book design problems.

  • It gets rid of dou­ble spaces after peri­ods, elim­i­nat­ing a pos­si­ble source of white “rivers” run­ning through the type.
  • Using a tab before the first line of a para­graph is bad enough form, but some writ­ers use five con­sec­u­tive spaces instead. Removing the pre­ced­ing spaces from para­graphs allows the type­set­ter to con­trol para­graph indents pre­cisely using the tab rulers.
  • Some writ­ers attempt to cen­ter or oth­er­wise adjust the hor­i­zon­tal posi­tion of por­tions of the text by using con­sec­u­tive spaces. This may look fine on an 8 ½ x 11″ man­u­script, but when you set up a 4″ x 5″ book block on a 6″ x 9″ page, the con­sec­u­tive spaces will cause the line breaks to change com­pletely, utterly wreck­ing the effect the writer is hop­ing to achieve. Writers who want to request spe­cial for­mat­ting need only send a note to their book designer.

Typesetting for Better Book Design

The goal for dig­i­tal type­set­ters is to pre­serve the warmth, charm and craft of hot metal type while lever­ag­ing the advan­tages of today’s tech­nol­ogy. By com­bin­ing an under­stand­ing of the his­tory of print­ing and the typesetter’s craft with knowl­edge of how to work with type­set­ting soft­ware, things are pos­si­ble in book design that print­ers could only fan­ta­size about a few decades ago.

As a self-publishing advo­cate, I like the idea that the tools for set­ting ele­gant type are within reach of the aver­age per­son, but, as a book design edu­ca­tor, I cringe when­ever some­one type­sets their own book with Microsoft Word. The intri­ca­cies of type­set­ting are clearly beyond the scope of most writ­ers’ knowl­edge and it’s easy to get duped by the “pretty good” text dis­played by a word proces­sor. Like a good edi­tor, an edu­cated type­set­ter is one of those nec­es­sary expenses that always pro­duce a bet­ter book design. In cases where bud­get or busi­ness oppor­tu­nity limit a book’s pro­duc­tion resources, defer to a trained eye to develop some styles and stan­dards for your book before you head off on your own.

Addendum: After I posted this, Dick Margulis was kind enough to point out a few things worth men­tion­ing.

1. Kerning did exist before dig­i­tal type. It required phys­i­cal cut­ting of the let­ters with a “kern­ing saw.” Now that it’s easy to adjust, few typog­ra­phers bother to tweak the default kern­ing specs built into their dig­i­tal typefaces.

2. Paragraphs should either begin with an indent OR be sep­a­rated by a dou­ble line break (prefer­ably the former)—not both.

The com­plete Book Design Basics series:

Book Design Basics Part 1: Margins and Leading
Book Design Basics Part 2: Optical Margins, Indents and Periods
Book Design Basics Part 3: Running The Numbers
Book Design Basics Part 4: Dashes, Hyphens and Dots
Book Design Basics Part 5: Small Capitals – Avoiding Capital Offenses
Book Design Basics Part 6: Drop-caps and Initial Impressions
Book Design Basics Part 7: Use Hyphens for Justified Type
Book Design Basics Part 8: Fine Control Over Justified Type
Book Design Basics Part 9: Simulating the Appearance of Traditional Print
Book Design Basics Part 10: Page Layout: Illustrated Books and the Rule of Thirds
Book Design Basics Part 11: Book Cover Design: Moving from Screen to Printing Press


Book Design Basics Part 2: Optical Margins, Indents and Periods — 1 Comment

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