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Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign: Leading

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Nigel French discusses the details of leading (the space between lines of type) in Adobe InDesign, including general rules of thumb, exceptions, and the use of auto leading.

LEADING (pronounced "ledding") is the space between lines of type, sometimes referred to as line spacing. The term comes from the days of hot-metal typesetting when thin strips of lead, known as reglets, were inserted by hand between the lines of type to add vertical space. Lines of type without these strips of lead were — and still are — referred to as "set solid." Leading plays a big part in the readability of your text. Body text is usually made more readable by a positive amount of leading (a leading value greater than the point size of the type). Headlines and display type, however, may benefit from negative leading (a leading value less than the point size of the type).

Getting the Lead Out

When it comes to leading there is no "one size fits all." On one hand, tight leading increases the density of the type and gives your type authority. On the other, if you go too tight your type looks claustrophobic, and the descenders of one line may collide with the ascenders of the next. On one hand, loose leading can create a luxurious look. On the other, if the leading is too loose, the lines of type look like individual strips that don't belong together as paragraphs. This is especially true if the leading value is greater than the size of the space between the paragraphs.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Leading is indicated by the red strips between the lines. The total leading is measured from the baseline of one line to the baseline of the next.

Leading is measured in points from one baseline to the next. The leading value includes the point size of the typeface and the actual space between the lines. Thus, 10-point type with 12 points of leading really means two points of space between each line. This is written 10/12, spoken as "10 on 12." Other common type size and leading combinations for body text are 9/11, 11/13, and 12/15.

How Much is enough?

Bad leading makes your text harder to read because the eye has trouble locating the next line of type. Getting the leading just right depends on several variables:

  • The nature of the text. While text intended for continuous reading benefits from some breathing space, a short burst of advertising copy or a title might be more effective if the lines are tightly leaded.
  • Type size. As type point size increases, you will want proportionally less leading. With display sizes, the same relative amount of space between the lines appears larger, so much so that it's common to use negative leading for display type.
  • The width of the column. Increase leading as you increase column width. Increasing the leading anywhere from 0.5 point to 2 points improves readability by keeping the lines distinct and preventing the eye from dropping off to the line below or doubling back to reread the same line.
  • The width of the column gutters. Leading, like all type attributes, needs to work in harmony with everything else on the page. The width of the column gutters should be the same as the leading value or a multiple thereof. If the gutters are too small there will be a tendency to read across the columns; too large and the separate columns will look unconnected.
    Figure 4.2

    Figure 4.2 You can measure the leading value used on a printed piece with a leading gauge.

    Figure 4.3

    Figure 4.3 An excerpt from Beatrice Ward's influential 1932 essay on typography The Crystal Goblet, showing common leading and type size combinations.

    Figure 4.4

    Figure 4.4 Positive leading works OK for body text sizes (A), but as the type gets bigger (B), proportionally less leading is needed (C).

    Figure 4.5

    Figure 4.5 Leading and column width. In the top example the leading is too tight; below, the leading has been increased to compensate for the wide column.

    Figure 4.6

    Figure 4.6 In the example on the left, the gutter width is the same as the leading value. In the center, the gutter width is too big and the columns lose their visual relationship to each other. On the right, the gutter is too small so that the two columns look almost like a single line.

  • The size of the word spaces. Justified type in narrow columns, such as in newspapers, may result in word spaces that are larger than the leading size. This causes the eye to jump to the next line rather than to the next word. In such situations, adding extra leading ensures that the space between the lines is at least as wide as the space between the words. Better still, don't set justified type in narrow columns.
  • The color of the background. Because we're used to reading black type on white paper, when we use the opposite, we're guaranteed to get attention. However, reversed type tends to "sparkle," making it hard to read. A slight increase in leading — as well as avoiding fonts with delicate serifs — can compensate.
    Figure 4.7

    Figure 4.7 With justified type on a narrow measure, it helps to increase the leading to ensure that the space between the lines is not less than the space between the words.

    Figure 4.8

    Figure 4.8 Type that reverses out of a solid color benefits from increased leading (right).

  • The characteristics of the typeface. Typefaces with larger x-heights, such as Helvetica, are perceived as bigger than other typefaces at equivalent sizes. The lowercase letters are large relative to the size of the overall character, and thus require more leading.

    Didone (also called Modern) typefaces, like Bodoni, that have a strong vertical stress guide the eye down the page rather than across the line. Adding more leading with these typefaces keeps the eye tracking horizontally rather than vertically.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 Typefaces with a large x-height, like Helvetica, require more leading. Didone or Modern typefaces, like Bodoni, that have a strong vertical stress require more leading to keep the eye moving along the line, rather than down the page.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 Even though Bernhard Modern has elongated ascenders, it has a low x-height and short descenders, and so can be leaded tightly (bottom).

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 Raniscript has elongated ascenders and descenders, but its low x-height means it looks good tightly leaded.

Typefaces that combine a low x-height with particularly tall ascenders require special treatment. The low x-height begs for tighter leading, but tighter leading might lead to the ascenders and descenders colliding. Much depends on the characters themselves. If you're working on display type, rewording — if you have editorial license — might make all the difference. Let common sense prevail — and be open to the possibility that colliding ascenders and descenders might even look good in certain situations.

Bold and Semibold typefaces benefit from extra leading to prevent the type color — the darkness or blackness of the letterforms as a block — appearing too dense.

Typefaces with small x-heights, like Garamond, appear to have more horizontal space between lines and thus require less leading.

Type set in all caps requires less leading because the lack of descenders makes the lines appear farther apart.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 The same headline in all caps needs less leading because there are no descenders.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 Stacked all caps with negative leading to create a wall of type.

When you work in points, there's an easy way to determine the leading value for a specific number of lines in your type area. First, draw a rectangle between the top and bottom margins of a page. Then, insert your cursor in the Control Panel after the height value of the rectangle and type /N (where N is the desired number of lines). Press the Tab key to divide the height of the rectangle by the number of lines. The new height of the rectangle is your desired leading value. You can now delete the rectangle.

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14 By default the Auto Leading value is 120% of the point size of the type. When Auto Leading is chosen the value appears in parentheses on the Control panel.

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