Text columns

I got embroiled in a slightly odd argument about columns recently, although as a consequence I learnt a few useful things

Columns are used to improve page composition and readability and also mean you get more text on a page. However, if they’re too wide or too narrow, you’ll only succeed in reducing reading speed (which is why you’ll hardly ever see a column spanning the width of an A4 page in a typeset book, although it seems to be quite normal for Word publications produced in offices). The author was insisting the publication should be A4, with one very wide column.

Now there aren’t any exact rules on this, but some searching on some typography websites suggest a reasonable rule of thumb was not to exceed 60 characters or 12 words in a column.

In these examples of single column layouts on an A4 page, both pages follow these general rules — page 1 of the PDF is set in 12pt Frutiger and page 2 in 10pt Frutiger.

Page 1 looks fairly okay, although 12pt seems slightly large for this particular typeface, for what is essentially a reference book. Page 2 has a lot of unnecessary white space on either side and it would make sense to make the book smaller if you wanted to use this point size.

We eventually compromised on 11pt Frutiger over two columns, which you can see here. The Quark master page I set up for this project is essentially the same as the one I showed how to set up in this article.

It was interesting to see that turning on Quark’s automatic hyphenation made little difference to the total number of pages, although you would probably have to use hyphenation if you wanted fully justified columns. If you were typesetting very narrow, newspaper-style columns then it would be essential.

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