4 tricks of the eye to master typesetting

Going beyond the common typesetting rules, we have pulled together the latest in psychology research to advise how best to typeset your copy - both for both your readers and their eyes.

Typesetting and in particular the art of tracking plays a huge part in ensuring your copy is legible. The temptation to track back copy to fit it into one page can cause illegible, and well, ugly typesetting.
When tracking is used alongside research into the familiarity of words1, size of text2 and whether the copy is set in a serif or sans serif3, some small but important differences arise.

Tracking, not to be confused with kerning, involves adjusting the spacing throughout the entire word.

What is tracking in typesetting and graphic design

1. Familiarity of words

If you are writing about more complex concepts and unfamiliar words keep the tracking wider. The reading speed and comprehension of unfamiliar words are more affected when they are condensed. This is compounded further when using serif typefaces.4

2. Size of text

In a study by Yu-Chi Tai, an Associate Professor of Visual Science, the default spacing of typefaces appears to be just large enough to remove the influence of letter crowding. At smaller type sizes, this is not the case. For smaller typefaces – 12pt and below, wider tracking is recommended to maintain letter clarity and word comprehension.5
At larger sizes, Wider tracking enhances word readability and comprehension. To drop into the science of why; this is due to less crowding in the retinal display - the eye,6 and less competition in the visual cortex of the brain during comprehsnsion.7 8

3. Serifs

Serifs carry the horizontal line of the eye along the path of reading, making them easier to read9. When condensed however, serif legibility drops significantly. With the character of the letters appearing the merge into one. This reduces the ability to quickly distinguish letters and slows comprehension. For this reason, serif fonts also suffered more from condensed spacing at smaller sizes than sans serif fonts.

4. Rhythm

The cognition behind the process of reading prefers inputs at a constant rhythm. The eye subconsciously adapts its behaviour and movements (its saccades) to adapt to different word tracking and the rhythm of the text.

The ideal typography should aim to construct text layout to hook reader’s attention and facilitate a regular, rhythmical eye movements and reading rate.

To aid this rhythm, preference left justified text, be conscious of line orphans and widows, hanging quotes, rivers of white in copy and ragged edges.
Notice the huge differences between the two samples below, one set in default settings, the other adjusted to optimise typesetting for your readers.

Tricks of typesetting for designers What is kerning and tracking in graphic design Advance typesetting tips

Have you got any tips to enhance typesetting? Drop them in the comments section below.


  1. Tai, Y-C. The Magic of Spacing in Text Display. Evaluation of Fonts for Digital Publishing and Display. 2011

  2. Ibid

  3. Bex, P.J., Dakin, S.C., & Simmers, A.J. The shape and size of crowding for moving targets 2003

  4. Tai, Y-C. The Magic of Spacing in Text Display. Evaluation of Fonts for Digital Publishing and Display. 2011

  5. Ibid

  6. Flom, M.C., Weymouth, F.W., & Kahneman, D. Visual Resolution and Contour Interaction. 1963

  7. He, S., Cavanagh, P., & Intriligator, J. Attentional resolution and the locus of visual awareness. 1996

  8. Bex, P.J., Dakin, S.C., & Simmers, A.J. The shape and size of crowding for moving targets. 2003

  9. Perfect, C. Austen, J. The complete typographer: A manual for designing with type. 1992.

Cover image adapted from photograph by Marcin Wichary under CC BY 2.0

Form for thought - A blog about design psychology and design thinking for graphic designers, web designers, ui designers, ux and illustrators. Looking into the psychology of colour, user behaviour and advertising psychology.