Five Rookie (and sometimes seasoned pro) Typography Mistakes I See Everywhere!

Typography book stack
What sets a designer apart from the average Joe when it comes to setting type? Expertise. They have expert knowledge and skill in the field of graphic design. When it comes to typography, they have gained these skills and knowledge over the years from many different sources such as typography classes, books, mentors and their peers. Therefore, good typography doesn’t just happen by chance. Nothing makes a great design look more unprofessional than a glaring typography error. Attention to detail and the correct application of typography rules are paramount! Here are five rookie typography mistakes I see everywhere!

As a note, in future articles I’ll be expanding on each one of these issues to provide more detailed instructions to the outlined solution.

Widows and Orphans

There’s some debate on the difference between widows and orphans. I don’t really care. As far as I’m concerned the terms are interchangeable—lets just focus on ensuring we don’t have any throughout our text. For the sake of this article I’m going to call a Widow a single word (or two very short words) sitting by itself on the last line of a paragraph. An Orphan is the last line of a paragraph that is situated at the start of a column or even worse, on a different page to the rest of the paragraph. The image below should paint a better picture. So why are they bad? Because widows cause unsightly (and unnecessary) chunks of white space throughout the text and orphans disrupt the flow of reading.

widow and orphans

The solution to both Widows and Orphans is the same—you need to rework the paragraph. This can be achieved through small adjustment to tracking (both negative and positive); decreasing or increasing word spacing; manually adding line breaks; adjustment of hyphenation settings; or, the one method I wouldn’t suggest, but is regularly used, glyph scaling (expanding or condensing the width of the characters).

Auto Leading /Linespacing

First of all what is leading or as it is called by it’s more contemporary name, linespacing? Well, if we go with the latter it is pretty obvious—the distance from one line of type to another. As a side note, it is commonly referred to as leading (pronounce lead – as in the metal) because back in the day when type was set using hand-set, strips of lead were used to space out each line of type.

So what is auto leading? Page layout programs such as InDesign have this feature to ensure when you set lines of type they don’t appear too tight or touch each other as this hinders readability. By default, this amount is usually set at 120% of the font size—so 10pt type would have a leading amount of 12pt. This is a safe guard, not the optimal leading amount. Therefore, designers need to consider a number of factors including the typefaces anatomy and size to pick a leading amount that will ensure optimal readability.

auto leading vs optimal leading

Excessive Paragraph Indication

As we are all aware, when you type large amounts of text it is important that we break it into paragraphs to help with the reading process. When a designer is formatting text, they need to ensure that they indicate where a new paragraph begins. The most common of these indications is a full line space closely followed by a first line indent. With a first line indent, the first line of each paragraph is indented a small amount which indicates a new paragraph has began. My issue is when I see both of these combined—a full line space followed by a first line indent. Why? Well, there’s no need for it. All you are doing is creating unnecessary white space in your layout. Oh, and another tip. If you are using first line indents, there is no need to indent the first paragraph within the layout, as it’s pretty obvious this is the start of a paragraph!

excessive paragraph indication

Bad Kerning

When a typeface is created one of the tasks the typographer has to complete (apart from drawing each character) is to create kerning values. What this means is that a decision has to be made regarding the distance that individual characters (the letters and symbols that make up a word) sit next to each other, so they appear evenly spaced. As you can imagine this is an extremely tedious task—think about all the combinations of characters that could sit next to each other! Furthermore, these are based on mathematical calculations so when you increase or decrease the type size the spaces will be adjusted accordingly. So basically what I’m saying here is that these are not perfect and that the skill and experience of the typographer has a major impact on the quality of these kerning pairs.

While certain software packages such as InDesign do have automatic functions to correct poor kerning the results are only marginally better. So, these errors need to be fixed by the designer by manually adjusting the space between individual characters. Usually this only applies to display type (14pt and above), so it only takes a few moments per page to fix with a little practice.

Bad Kerning


This one probably takes the cake. Nothing looks more shocking than a bunch of big white holes in a block of justified type! Even worse, is when these holes join up to make flowing rivers of white throughout your paragraphs—take a look at the picture below. Oh, the humanity! The rule is simple: if you use justified type, you must use hyphenation; however, be careful of stacks (two hyphens in a row). Also, adjusting the column width may help. So what if you don’t like hyphens? Well, don’t use justified type!

Justified Type: Rivers

Where to Learn More

If you are looking to learn more about typography I can highly recommend the book Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton.

Final Words

So now you are aware of these five rookie typography mistakes, make sure you are not caught out with one of these issues in your own designs.

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