The typography of the Compact OED

The OED Compact Edition was printed from exactly the same typeset output as the OED Second Edition, photographically reduced. For the Second Edition, the typesetting system composed complete three-column pages at full size, complete with headlines, which were output on a Monotype Lasercomp, with a resolution of 1000 lines per inch. These bromide pages were sent to the USA for printing. For the Compact Edition, the bromide pages were returned to the UK and pasted up on to boards with nine pages to view per board. The first and last headline words for the whole board were then typeset and pasted on to the boards above the pages to act as the headlines for the Compact Edition. The artwork boards were sent back to the USA, where they were photographically reduced to 37% linear on to film. This film was used to make the printing plates of the Compact Edition. The this use of first-generation Lasercomp output, with only one intermediate film reduction stage, helps explain the sharpness of the type in the Compact Edition.

The proportions of Monotype Imprint (left) and Imprint A, used in the OED

The main type use for the Second Edition was Monotype Imprint A, a variant of the Imprint typeface optimized for setting at 6 and 7 point. Two sizes were used: the main part of each entry was set in a nominal size of 7.5 pt with line spacing of 7.75 pt (in shorthand, 7.5 on 7.75 pt), the quotation banks were set in 6 on 6 pt. The 37 per cent linear reduction means that the ‘point sizes’ of the type in the Compact Edition are therefore 2.775 on 2.8675 pt and 2.22 on 2.22pt. But these figures are difficult to comprehend, because typefaces with the same nominal point size can have different appearing sizes, depending on the weight and proportions of the letterforms. It may be easier to express the sizes in relation to normal reading text. A normal Oxford academic book of the same period might be set in 11 on 12 pt Imprint (the normal version of Imprint). This has a cap-height of 2.586 mm and an x-height of 1.6 mm. (Cap-height is the height of the letter H, x-height the height of the letter x.) The cap-height and x-height of the larger type in the Second Edition are 1.875 mm and 1.155 mm. The figures for the Compact Edition are 0.693 mm and 0.428 mm, so the larger type is about a quarter of the size we normally expect to read.

It should be remembered that the Compact Edition was supplied with a magnifying glass, and was not intended to be read unaided. The legibility of the Compact Edition is helped by the very short column width. I find that I can read both the larger and the smaller type in the Comact Edition unaided, but that it is tiring. I find it easier to read the shorter paragraphs in the larger type, but I find it difficult to read the smaller type without skipping or re-reading lines. So, for me, the practical limit for reading in terms of x-height is about 0.4 mm. Other readers may find they have different thresholds.

The Economist – getting better

Following near-universal criticism, The Economist has relented and improved the typography of its iPad app. The screen grab shows the smallest available variable text size, now with a much better ratio of nominal size to line spacing.


This had never occurred to me (despite passing my Intertype composition test as a student). The matrices in the magazine on a Linotype machine are ordered from left to right by English letter frequency (etaoinshrdlu…), as is the keyboard. So matrices from a cast line that are returning to the magazine drop from the distributor bar in letter-frequency order, meaning that the matrices most likely to be called next by the operator are most quickly replenished in the magazine.

See Circuitous Root.

What has The Economist done to its app?

The Economist’s print edition has a long tradition of careful design – from its carefully imposed house style to the presentation of its maps and graphs. It has worked with designers such as Eiichi Kono, Aurobind Patel, and Meta Design. So when it promises an app update, you think that, although the current version reads perfectly well, that something even better will replace it.

Unfortunately, version 4.0.8 is a disaster.

Screen shot from The Economist 4.0.8

Click here for full-size image

It replaces a multicolumn news magazine look and feel with a generic web page presentation from 10 (20?) years ago – down to the centred images. All credit to the desire to create an uncluttered, distraction-free page, but the overall mise-en-page and the typography are miserable. The Milo Serif font is too light, too widely character spaced, and too closely line spaced for the (fixed) column width. The vertical spaces between paragraphs are too large. There is no option to increase the line spacing – enlarging the font size does not change the size/line feed relationship.

There is no option to change the column width. The same column width is used for portrait and landscape pages. This is the clumsiest piece of app typography I have seen for some time – so here is a plea to The Economist take a leaf out of the Guardian, Le Monde, or NYT apps, below, which all have excellent font weight/size/line feed/column width relationships, and make the newspaper readable on the iPad again.

Information design: research and practice | chapter by chapter

49 daily blogs describing the 49 chapters in Information design: research and practice, and why you should read them.

Part 1 
Chapter 1. Early visualizations of historical time
Chapter 2. Images of time
Chapter 3. William Playfair and the invention of statistical graphs 
Chapter 4. Ship navigation
Chapter 5. Technical and scientific illustration
Chapter 6. The lessons of Isotype for information design
Chapter 7. Marie Neurath: designing information books for young people
Chapter 8. Future, Fortune, and the graphic design of information
Chapter 9. Some documents for a history of information design
Chapter 10. Moral visualizations

Part 2 
Chapter 11. Graphic literacies for a digital age 
Chapter 12. Visual rhetoric in information design
Chapter 13. Multimodality and genre
Chapter 14. Interactive information graphics
Chapter 15. Social and cultural aspects of visual conventions in information
Chapter 16. Textual reading on paper and screens
Chapter 17. Applying science to design

Part 3
Chapter 18. Does my symbol sign work?
Chapter 19. Icons as carriers of information
Chapter 20. Warning design
Chapter 21. Diagrams
Chapter 22. Designing static and animated diagrams for modern learning materials 
Chapter 23. Designing auditory alarms
Chapter 24. Design challenges in helping older adults use digital tablets
Chapter 25. On-screen colour contrast for visually impaired readers
Chapter 26. Contrast set labelling
Chapter 27. Gestalt principles
Chapter 28. Information design research methods
Chapter 29. Methods for evaluating information design 
Chapter 30. Public information documents

Part 4
Chapter 31. Choosing type for information design
Chapter 32. Indexing and information design 
Chapter 33. When to use numeric tables and why
Chapter 34. Wayfinding perspectives
Chapter 35. Designing for wayfinding
Chapter 36. The problem of ‘straight ahead’ signage
Chapter 37. Park at your peril
Chapter 38. Indoor digital wayfinding
Chapter 39. Visualizing storyworlds Chapter 40. Exhibitions for learning
Chapter 41. Form follows user follows form
Chapter 42. Information design & value
Chapter 43. The LUNAtic approach to information design
Chapter 44. Information design as a (r)evolutionary educational tool
Chapter 45. Design + medical collaboration
Chapter 46. Developing persuasive health campaign messages
Chapter 47. Information design in medicine package leaflets
Chapter 48. Using animation to help communication in e-PILs in Brazil
Chapter 49. Medical information design and its legislation