A Tribute to Font Sizes

Reading a book can be a wonderful, sublime experience. I say CAN BE because there are so many different factors that contribute to towards a seamless reading experience, and when you remove or mess up one of those things, the whole reading experience becomes awkward, and you are never sure why.

Let’s give some examples. When you read a picture book, you are primarily noticing the illustrations. The words you read enhance the pictures you see, and when all is right in the world, you don’t notice the font, or text placement, or font size. They just feel right. The reading goes smoothly, the book feels put together and fun, and you finish the book either loving or hating the story, but still with a certain satisfaction of reading a book that was well done.

But what about when the picture book is NOT well done? We’ve all seen those. Books where you have to bring the page up to your nose to read the text, or tilt it so the light catches the page in just the right way so the elusive words on the page become legible. Or a font that is so kooky that the letters are ambiguous – “Is that a U? No – it’s a V. But that doesn’t make sense… it’s a U. Definitely a U.” Reading that picture book is a very trying experience, and when you are done, many times you are lucky if you paid any attention to the story and the pictures at all. Those are the books that when your kid crawls on your lap and asks you to read, you sigh, and proceed to make up your own story that goes with the pictures just to avoid the pain of trudging through the muck of the bad design.

The importance of book design follows through to adult books as well. Have you ever read a novel where the inside margins were so tight that you had to press the book flat and pull the pages outward to read every word on the inside of the page? How about where the text was so small you found that your head was spinning by the end of the chapter? Or that ebook that forced a text size so you couldn’t enlarge the point size to something you were comfortable with? I could go on. Today though, I want to focus on the importance of one specific aspect of book design, and that is text size.

Font Sizes in Picture Books

We have already established the importance of font sizes in book design, but it bears repeating. There are standards, but every project is different and you need to know what the book is for, what genre it is, and how people will be reading it before you set a proper font size.

A picture book is read either by little kids, or big people reading to little kids. The font size needs to be big. The words have to be easy to read and legible. They should be large enough for the youngest child in the target age group to read it on their own, or for someone else to read it to them without stumbling, squinting, or having to raise the book closer to their face. They need to be able to read it with a child on their lap, and the book on top of that, without any difficulty. When I lay out a picture book, the smallest size I usually start with is 18, depending on the font. I have gone smaller in special cases (usually if the age target is a little higher, and the font being used runs slightly larger), but the visual size is always roughly the same.

Case in point: this is a closeup of How I Met My Monster, a new book coming Summer 2019 from Flashlight Press. The font is Kingston, and was designed for this book by the illustrator, Howard McWilliam. We set the point size to 18 here, which makes for a clean, easy read:

Compare that image to this one, which is a closeup of a book I designed for Apples and Honey Press called French Toast Sundays, where I set the point size to 16. We used a font called Avenir, which is large and round and legible, so I was able to take it down a couple sizes without sacrificing legibility at all.

Font Sizes in Novels

A novel is a different type of reading experience. When you read a novel, the book is naturally going to be closer to your face, and there are no pictures. You don’t want to disrupt the reader’s flow by making the font too large (thereby forcing them to turn pages often), but you don’t want them to squint or get a headache either. Many times people read novels in large blocks of time, as well. The text has to be comfortable to read without causing them to tire out. I generally try to follow the principle here of between 11-13 words on a line. So depending on the font, that comes out to about 12 or 12.5 point size. Take this novel as an example. This is Queen of Jihad by A.C. Schneider. It is a military thriller, and we set the point size here to 12.5 (after setting it to 11.5 point, and printing it out and realizing it was way too uncomfortable to read):

Font Sizes in Nonfiction Books

Typesetting nonfiction (specifically books that are not neccesarily written to be read in one session – reference, philosophy, religion, business, etc) is a little different then typesetting a novel in that because the book will probably not be read all at once, you have a little bit more leeway in font size. Here you can probably get away with a slightly smaller font (think: 11.5 point, compared to the 12.5 point example above). Here is an example from a book of Torah essays called Hear Your Call from Mosaica Press.

There are many more elements that go into making a book a pleasant reading experience, but those are for another day. Happy reading!

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