Ben Oliver

Practical Typography

17 June 2020

Readers may have noticed this site has gone through a bit of a re-design of late. This book had quite a lot to do with it.

Kev Quirk posted a few days ago1 that he’d been researching typography for his website, and linked to Butterick’s web book as a resource. I’ve been thinking about legibility and good typographic design for a while now on this site, and I’ve read a few books on the subject in the past. This is one of the better ones.

Butterick never gets bogged down in the minutiae of fonts as some books are wont to do—he instead takes a broader view on basic principles of laying out type across various document types and media. Think about line width. Line height. Font size. White space. The font family is an element of this, but it’s not the whole story.

On the subject of fonts—for years I’d refused to use web fonts, and this book persuaded me to try it out (along with various technological advances when it comes to loading times, font rendering and screen resolution). One simple web font has transformed the look of the site over system fonts, and I can’t see myself going back.

Butterick is opinionated but never wordy, always backing up what he says with concrete examples and references. He provides useful information on how to actually accomplish what you want in different types of software, including HTML/CSS (I now can do three dashes in HTML — – - without having to google it each time).

The book is online-only, which would have put me off were it not so well put together. Butterick is sure to abide by his own principles, even going so far as to create a publishing system2 for online books so he could get this one just right. When he wants to show an example of something, he can simply show it off in the text of the web page.

You can access the book for free3, but Butterick requests you pay something if you got some use out of it. He even sells beautiful fonts he designed, which he uses on the site. The project has no ads, so it lives through reader contributions.

Even if you are a nerd like me and have always used “curly quotes” where possible and real ellipses… this book will still likely have something it can teach you. At the very least it lays out all the vague thoughts I’ve had on the subject in a logical and concise format.

A must read for anyone who has to make documents, be it online, on paper, as a PDF or on a projector. In the 21st century we are all typesetters to some extent, so we owe it to our readers to think about how we lay out our writing.