Inherent to layout and typographic design is the use of the paragraphs. Usually other layout elements such as headers, sub headers, captions, quotation marks, quotes, captions, margins, page numbers tend to get all the attention the designer has to spare. Sometimes this is due to the project requirements. In the case of web layouts it is due to browser support or lack thereof, and issues with legibility. A paragraph must be read. It is after all the reason paragraphs exist—to be read.
In its simplest definition a paragraph is a collection of lines placed on top of each other and neatly arranged within a certain width forming a nice looking rectangle. If you take a moment to think about it, a paragraph is either a horizontal rectangle or it is a vertical rectangle in the case of narrow columns. The importance of seeing form in a rectangle is what allows designers to create experimental layouts or even simple layouts with some anomalies that call our attention. Sometimes these anomalies are perhaps out denting the first line, changing to bold weight the first line, perhaps doing both of those things in a middle line, indenting few lines creating another rectangle in the negative space, and sometimes these rectangles can be placed in a diagonal creating interesting compositions.
A paragraph must be read. It is after all the reason paragraphs exist—to be read.
Paragraphs are often carefully crafted based on column width and the chosen font’s x-height. Careful attention to these two factors allows the designer to keep paragraphs’ lines following typographic rules of good layout composition. Or as Ellen Lupton puts it on her book Thinking with Type, to avoid committing a “type crime.”
Two of such crimes are extremely long lines and/or extremely short lines of text. According to Rob Carter in his book Digital Color and Type, a line of text should be about “70 characters (ten to twelve words) per line (p.155).” Robert Bringhurst in his book The Elements of Typographic Style explains this rule farther by offering instances in which longer or shorter lines might be acceptable. Examples of such cases might be multi-column work where a “better average is 40 to 50 characters (p. 26).” Or cases where the text breaks and it is not continuous such as bibliography.
These rules, widely accepted by designers, allow the designers to take in consideration the readers’ interaction with the text. The act of reading might be considered as an active process through which the eye and the brain are in constant communication assimilating information. Information that needs to be communicated, data, dates, numbers, subject matter to be studied, and others are of course topics where adherence to the rules or guides, makes information accessible. After all, as Bringhurst states “Typography exists to honor content.” Thus, typography’s function is to be visual facilitator of information.
However, not every topic or subject matter is strictly intended to be memorized or remembered in a dry and direct manner. Material intended to be analyzed or remembered would include things like bank statements, bank notices, bills, stock report, health information, medicine and nutrition labels, and others. By utilizing simple design principles of organization we can break or flex some of the guides or rules to facilitate the assimilation of information in a more memorable but still effective manner. In some instances, the content or subject matter might call for an experimental use of paragraphs such as poems, songs, and others.
Typography exists to honor content.”
A paragraph’s form depends on its purpose, content, and audience. These will influence what font to use based on the word count and quantity of pages. The consideration of the font will be based on its x-height, color or density, legibility, and its personality. These factors will be interacting with each other to create a unified appearance that visually communicates who is its audience. A paragraph set in a children’s book will look very different than a paragraph in a young adult’s magazine or book. Though we rarely sit down to dissect a paragraph, we know its purpose as soon as we see the page. That is because form and function in the case of a paragraph go hand in hand.