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[Typography] Leading & Measure

category: Design | course: Typography | difficulty:

Having talked about the space between letters, we can look at the horizontal space between words and vertical space between subsequent lines of text. Ultimately, this allows us to say some clever things about the dimensions of text blocks.


When we talk about the measure of text, we talk about the actual line width. This is influenced by, beside kerning and tracking, the line length (amount of characters on a single line) and the word spacing (white space between words). If the measure is too long, people lose track of where they are and don’t have as many pauses when reading. If the measure is too short, lines and words feel unconnected and text blocks become way too long (vertically).


In general, a line length of about 45–75 characters is recommended, whereas a length of 66 characters is often seen as ideal. If you have lots of horizontal space within the design, however, you could bump up the character count a bit towards a maximum of 90 characters. If you’re working with multiple columns, which is highly recommended, you can use optimal line lengths of 40–50  characters.


All of these estimates are given for when you use the regular amount of word spacing. As a rule of thumb, many designers use the width of the lowercase letter i as the word spacing. This is, however, only useful for short pieces of text. In long text blocks, word spaces need to be larger, which also means that line length should be shorter to not make the measure too long. Additionally, bold fonts often need more word spacing.

Therefore, another way to look at it, is that an optimal measure is about 3–5 inches.

The main issue with measure, is that letters need to be far enough apart to be distinct, but not so far they become unrelated. Word spaces need to identify individual words, but at the same time also group them together for logical sentences. Give your text room to breathe, but don’t let it break into a bunch of individual words.


Now that we’ve discussed the horizontal size of a line, we will look at the vertical size. This is called line height or leading. When the descenders of one line touch or collide with the ascenders of the next line, things get messy and uncomfortable. Therefore, the height of a line is usually not simply the maximum height of its letters, but also includes some extra white space.


In most layouts, leading is slightly greater than cap height. This means setting it to the type size plus 1–4 points, or setting it to 120%–150% of the regular body text size.

Leading and measure, however, directly influence each other. The greater the width of a line, the greater the line height should be. If line height is larger than word spacing, it causes the reader to constantly jump to the next line on accident. Don’t make the leading too large, though, as it causes the lines to read as separate paragraphs or standalone pieces of text.

If you want to keep a reader’s attention, make sure the text has an even and coherent texture. Again, columns can help you out here.

Combining our Knowledge

Essentially, we’ve now learned to approach short and long texts differently.

Long texts need to be comfortable, and once you found your rhythm, nothing must disturb you again. Design it so that the reader has a chance to settle in, but be generous enough with leading to prevent the eye from slipping to the next line before finishing the current line. The reader must be relaxed; the spacing parameters need to be consistent or at least rhythmic (adding and removing space in regular intervals). Long text blocks often require a neutral and inconspicuous typeface.

Short texts are mostly for quick scanning and grabbing attention. Tracking can be tighter, word spaces and line height smaller. The font used should have a little verve, but not too much. 


One problem still remains, though, which is that we can’t force lines to a certain length. Words can’t be broken at random points, as it makes them illegible. For this, hyphenation was invented. You could choose to not break words, and create lines of varying width, but that often results in nothing but an unorganized design. By splitting words at syllables, and adding a hyphen to show they have been split up, text becomes more consistent and easier to read.


Here are some guidelines on hyphenation:

  • Leave at least two characters behind, and take at least three forward.
  • Avoid leaving only the last syllable of a hyphenated word, or any word shorter than four letters, as the last line of a paragraph. If at all possible, it’s recommended to make the last line at least half the measure of the text block.
  • Avoid more than three consecutive hyphenated lines
  • Don’t hyphenate (short) numerical and mathematical expressions. In fact, don’t let them go over a line break at all.
  • Avoid hyphenated breaks where text is interrupted by other design elements.
  • Hyphenate proper names only as a last resort, unless they appear quite often in your text.

Monospaced Fonts

Proportionally spaced typefaces are preferred over monospaced. There are only three reasons to still use monospaced fonts: to imitate the historic and personal look of typewriters, to write plain emails, and most of all to write code. The same is true with bitmap fonts; use them only when the theme is computers or anything digital, or when it’s necessary because of extremely low-resolution screens.

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