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Space Saving Fonts

July 01, 2015 by David Sudweeks

I love a good exercise in thrift. Let’s look at a few different ways to save space while maximizing the effectiveness of the piece you’re producing.

Ever write a research paper at school and near the end, fiddle with the font settings to meet the required page count? Of course you have; You’re a designer. You know that every bit of margin, fractional font size, and line spacing counts. And not least of all, the fonts you choose count. It was comforting then, and it’s comforting now to know that space, whether on paper or pixels, is finite.

As a designer you run into the constraints of physical or virtual space with every project you take on, each carrying its own set of priorities. A warning label on a bottle of eye drops is not a pocket novel, which is not a road sign, or Wikipedia in print. But all of these stand to benefit from the wise exercise of a few key principles of organizational logic.

First come the questions of expediency and concision: Does this piece need to be produced at all? Can this be communicated more effectively in fewer words, fewer paragraphs and pages? If so, consider working with the editor to cut it down to its essentials.

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If it's a long read and minimizing the page count is a high priority, set the reader’s comfort as the prime concern. It’s tempting in a situation like this to simply lower the type size and eliminate the margins, but this is the oft-traveled road that leads to mediocre results. Your thoughtful resolution of these difficult problems will lead to a more intelligible work and a reading experience that justifies the trouble of actually reading it. You’ll require a good sturdy text face, and there are many to choose from, but one major thing to consider here is how densely a typeface allows the body to be set.

The illustration below shows Peter Bil'ak’s Fedra Serif A setting the body. Note how its short ascenders and descenders don’t collide when line spacing is relatively tight. Contrast that with the subtly looser spacing on the left side of the second and third images below. More conventional text face dimensions require more line spacing to appear uncramped.

A side by side comparison of Fedra Serif B, with more conventional proportions, and Fedra Serif A, with shorter ascenders and descenders. The latter requires less vertical space.
A side by side comparison of Fedra Serif B, with more conventional proportions, and Fedra Serif A, with shorter ascenders and descenders. The latter requires less vertical space.

For such requirements, ones where you need a text face that can pack the lines in on a page, I started a fontlist called Space Saving Fonts that includes the above Fedra Serif A and others like it. No sanses yet. Those are coming though.

Now, there are other ways to save space—one is by printing at a small size. For that specialty, I'll first refer you to a fontlist compiled by my friend and fellow typographer, Nick Sherman: Small Text. There's a lot of overlap here, mainly because some of the most economical text faces happen to have been created for the purpose of setting fine print.

[link not found] And since we don’t carry every typeface, I thought it might be helpful to run through some of the names or suffixes that reveal a typeface’s intended size, if nothing more, to help you in your search. Because a uniform system of measurement didn’t exist in the early days of metal type (and arguably still doesn’t), names rather than numbers were used to represent a given font’s size. Seven point type was known as minion, six was nonpareil, and from around here and below we see the names of jewels and gemstones—emerald, ruby, agate, pearl, diamond—and the more generally named gem and brilliant. These latter names were appropriated presumably because they reflect the vigorous and gemlike texture inherent in the faces themselves.

Other font name suffixes seem a bit more forthcoming: Micro, Caption, Small, Six: or some other small number indicating intended point size, and News: robust faces designed to hold up under the extreme conditions that daily put ink on newsprint (and fit more characters in those tiny, justified columns).

The reverse is true. Suffixes such as Display, Headline, Big, or 72, are intended for large sizes to be viewed up close. Alright, I'm stopping short of covering ultra-condensed headlines, though these do fulfill an important space-saving purpose. Please let me know what else I left out.

Oh, and one final word: Don’t be afraid of being unconventional. Set the entire book in italic. It just might work.