Butterick’s Practical Typography—book review

A review by Dave

When it comes to publishing on the web, whether it’s websites or eBooks, typography comes pretty low down most people’s lists of priorities. As long as the words are legible, that’s good enough. Now, where’s my hi-res cover illustration and my snazzy logo?

Matthew Butterick’s here to tell us why this approach is all wrong, with his book Butterick’s Practical Typography.

The book

It’s an unusual book in several ways. The first is that it’s only available online as a series of web pages. Butterick devised the publication system himself, and also designed the typefaces that the book’s set in. So it’s even more of a self-published work than most books that go under that description. (There is a brief explanation of how the navigation system works, just in case, but it’s more or less redundant. Like all good navigation systems, Butterick’s is intuitive.)

The second is that you don’t have to pay upfront for it. Butterick has been arguing for some time that the Web needs a better way of making people pay for worthwhile content, and believes that it’s a team effort: the author needs to write content that’s worth the reader’s time, and the reader needs to sustain the author’s effort by paying an appropriate amount. Imaginatively, he gives several options by which you can do this, many of them involving paying for one of his other products. Not so much an upsell as a special offer: “Buy my other product and get this book free!”

The content

On to the book’s contents. It’s prefaced by a “tl;dr” summary of the most important rules, which may be as far as many people get. If they heed the advice (which can be absorbed in ten minutes: five minutes to read, five minutes to re-read), Butterick claims they’ll be a better typographer than 95% of professional writers and 70% of professional designers. A bold claim, as he admits, but a reasonable one—although his suggestion of 15-25 pixels for body text size seems rather on the large size. (Thank goodness for the Ctrl+hyphen option.)

Then there’s a summary of 26 key rules, which repeats the rules in the ten-minute guide and adds some of the more specific egregious errors to be avoided—for instance, using (c) instead of ©, using single and double primes (' and ") instead of proper inverted commas (‘’ and “”), or using underlining for anything but a link. All good, sensible advice that alone makes the book worth a couple of dollars, and we haven’t even got into the main body of it yet!

After a brief foreword and introduction, it’s on to the first main chapter, explaining “Why typography matters”. Butterick argues convincingly, with powerful visual examples, that typography has a vital role in helping or hindering the professional writer’s ability to communicate meaning. If the reader gets frustrated or confused by what he sees on the page (or road sign, or ballot paper…), the writer’s message can’t get through.

A chapter on type composition follows. Here we look at the individual spaces and glyphs (characters) available to the writer on the modern computer keyboard—far more than were available even on an electronic typewriter. Butterick explains the use of proper quotation marks, the differences between hyphens and dashes, and where and how to use all the different kinds of white space. And much more!

Having looked at the creation of individual words, sentences and paragraphs, we move on to text formatting: what shape and size the characters should take, how to use headings, and how to ensure that letters aren’t stuck together too closely or spread apart too thinly. Typefaces (or fonts, as they’re commonly known—Butterick explains the difference, then advises the reader to ignore it, as most people do) are touched on, then dealt with at length in the following chapter—after a brief excursion into the history of Times New Roman, the ubiquitous vanilla typeface, which he advises us to discard as unimaginative. Which of course it is.

Now it’s time to look at page layout: setting all the text onto the page in a way that pleases the eye and leads it through the material in a natural and sensible progression without unnecessary jars and bumps. Overly cramped line spacing, excessive hyphenation of words at line breaks, and headers divorced from the text they’re supposed to be introducing are just a few of the cardinal errors Butterick covers.

To round off the book, Butterick shows us some sample documents; not as rigid templates to be followed without deviation—for he’s at pains to point out that one size does not fit all—but as models of good practice to show the reader what can be achieved. An appendix gives a few more useful hints and tips, such as how to create a PDF file, identifying fonts, and how to type some of the common accented characters using keystrokes rather than relying on a character map tool.

The verdict

Any criticisms? Not really. Butterick has pronounced views on typographical rules, which is hardly surprising given his background as a type designer—and he argues them eloquently, which again is no surprise since he’s also a lawyer. You don’t have to agree with absolutely everything he says, but you should at least think about why you disagree.

Buy the book! Oh, hang on; you can’t. But do buy one of his other products, or send him a payment after you’ve read it. If you have any interest in the presentation of what you write—and if you write at all, then you really ought to care about how it’s presented—I’m sure you’ll think it’s worth it.

Read Butterick’s Practical Typography


Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS