Font and layout

I first started producing RPG material for my friends in hand writing (which was slow and not especially legible) and using an electric typewriter, in the 1980s. Then I got access to Macintoshes and a Laserwriter in 1987. In those early days of layout with WriteNow and Superpaint we all had good eyesight, but operating the laser printer to make photocopy masters seemed expensive. So it was my habit to lay out my text in 12-point Times or Galliard on the Macintosh screen, but to print it at 80%, 70%, or even 60% to get more type on the page. I have an old thing here, an encyclopaedia for my defunct fantasy setting Gehennum, which has 73,000 words on a shade fewer than 63 pages of tightly-leaded 7.2-point Times.

These days the constraints are different. I am composing my Flat Black material using Apple Pages, from which I can export it both as PDF and as re-flowable EPUB, and I am distributing it almost entirely over the Internet. A few of my readers may be printing out my PDFs (which for the Americans means having the text slightly mis-centred on US letter paper), but I think that most of them are reading the material on screens. What indications I have are that PDF is more popular than EPUB yet, but I expect that to change as EPUB-reading software for laptop and notebook computers proliferates. Either way, I am reconsidering my layouts.

My custom at present is to lay out text in two columns on A4 letter paper. I use Times New Roman because I like serif fonts for body text and because it is built in to PDF and EPUB readers, saving the overhead of embedding a font. If I use type larger than 12-point it seems huge and cartoonish, but with full-width lines of 12-point type on letter pages the sweep is too wide to read comfortably. (Letter paper is wider than is truly good for books – 5"×8" trade paperback is as big as pages of text ought to go — but letter paper is what everyone feeds their printers). So I lay out text in two columns. However, with the smallest margins and gutter that I feel comfortable with, 12-point Times New Roman in two columns is okay in ragged right, but too large to justify pleasingly. And readers complain about ragged right. So I use 11-point.

So there I am with 11-point Times New Roman in two columns of justified text on letter pages. And really not confident that it is a good choice. Two-column layouts just aren’t good to read on a screen. And I think my text is mostly being read on screens.

The EPUB is less of a problem. It gets converted to single-column anyway, and if my 11-point fonts are perhaps smaller than ideal, users are supposed to feel free to over-ride default font sizes anyway. Do they, though? Or do they stay in 11-point and grumble about it? Unfortunately Pages doesn’t do relative point sizes in its styles, so changing the font size before exporting the EPUB isn’t as trivial as it ought to be.

The PDF, though! Is double columns of 11-point Times New Roman even a little bit fit for purpose? What ought I to do instead?

We had similar decisions to make for The Path of Cunning.

We work to a custom paper size of 210×279mm so that each page will fit on either A4 or 8½"×11" without shrinkage.

Line length matters. Even at a generous 12 point, the full width of A4 leads to lines that are too long for comfortable reading. If you want to go with a linear layout, then perhaps A5, or A4 split lengthways (105×297mm) to get the effect of two-column while being friendlier to readers. But then people reading on a modern wide screen will get a stripe down the middle, or very large text; and it restricts your possibilities for tables and illustrations.


Screen size makes a big difference here. On a laptop or full-size tablet, two columns is OK IME, as it is on larger screens. But it’s pretty bad on 'phone-size screens. Do you know what kinds of devices your readers are using?

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The only person who uses it as far as I know reads the PDF versions on a 27” monitor. But I am thinking of the possibility that when I finish the book of exotic planets some people might find them useful other than in one of my Flat Black campaigns.

Fiendishly clever! And if I reduce the top and bottom margins of my pages from 30 mm to 24 mm it’ll print out very much the same.

My ancient habit for printed documents is to allow a margin of 25 mm at the top and 18 mm at the bottom and both sides. But that is driving me to use 11-point type so that the justification doesn’t get ugly, and I think 11-point type might be a bit small for reading on screens with modern (i.e late middle-aged) eyes.

Do margins matter so much when people are reading on screen? I tried a layout with narrower margins, 12-point type, and somewhat smaller headings. The text blew out to nearly 20 of Roger’s 210 mm × 279 mm compromise pages, but that’s not really a problem.

How does this sample look, for readers on the screen? file deleted

Plentifully readable on my laptop screen. The line spacing is larger than it needs to be, and could be closed up a little with no harm done IMHO.

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Splendid! Thanks for checking that for me.

I’ll take a look at reducing the the line spacing, but I’ll have to be careful about subscripts.

I had imagined that readers would use the PDF for print-outs and for large screens, and the EPUB for digest-sized tablets and smaller devices. But that seems not to be what people do. Perhaps I ought offer two PDFs, one in double columns on Roger’s magic page size, and a separate one in single column on digest-sized (A5) pages, for reading on small screens.

How’s this for a layout for screen and print?

How’s this for tablets and phones?

Second one works well on my phone and looks good.

GoodReader, Apple Books, and HPePrint all interacted with it appropriately.

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Both look good to me.

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Moving on to the next project, I have a draft for the two-page spread on Tau Ceti for Forty Exotic Worlds. The font and leading of the main text are the same as in the Players’ Introduction, so that should be fine. I had to make the text a twidge smaller for the précis in the first column. Is it okay?

How’s the layout? Is this comfortably readable on a tablet?