Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Which Direction Does Type "Face"?
Part 2 of "Why Stacked Type Just Doesn't Work."

The collection of 26 symbols known as our alphabet appears unified because each letter is made up of repeating primary strokes--vertical strokes are called stems, horizontal strokes are called arms, curved strokes are called bowls, etc. Sometimes letterform strokes are known by the same names as parts of the human body--the curved main stroke of the "S" is called a spine, the counterform of the lower case "e" is called an eye, the serif at the top of a lower case "g" is called an ear (and the short stroke that connects its upper bowl to its lower bowl is called a neck). With so many visual clues that guide the viewer's eye around the page, it's not too surprising to note that individual letters appear to face in a certain direction, much like actors on a stage or a band marching in a parade.

Most of our letters, such as the "E," the "F," the "C" and the "G," contain visual clues that guide the reader's eye to the right, reinforcing our conventional Western left-to-right reading direction. The letters all seem to be "facing" to the right, as if each one were trying to talk to the letter immediately to its right.

Even the more vertically symmetrical letters, such as the "A" and the "H," contain horizontal strokes that help reinforce horizontal eye movement.

The vertically symmetrical letters that do not reinforce this horizontal eye movement are relatively few: the "I," the "O" and the "U."

The two remaining letters, "J" and "Z," contain visual clues that guide the reader's eye back to the left. But the point is most letters in our alphabet contain visual clues that reinforce eye movement in a conventionalized Western left-to-right reading direction.

Stacking letters vertically, one atop the other, ignores this fundamental attribute of our alphabet, and creates an awkward-appearing type layout--another reason why stacked type just doesn't work. Resist the temptation!

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