Book Review

Size-specific Adjustments to Type Designs

Reviewed by Stephen Coles on June 28, 2014

For decades now, typography has lacked a vital component. Yet most of us had no idea what was missing.

Soon after type made the jump from metal and wood to film and digital, it became size agnostic. Users gained the ability to scale a font for any setting, but lost the type maker’s size-specific optimizations. This newfound freedom altered the typeface’s intended appearance and, in many cases, its integrity. Fonts made for small text looked clunky and inelegant when enlarged. Fonts made for headlines became anemic and unreadable when reduced for body. With minor exceptions, typography endured decades of this deficiency. Only a few digital “optical size” families were available (and those were limited to just a few foundries — and thus methodologies for making them). Just as importantly, awareness of size-specific type turned scarce, too. As digital typography became the norm, traditional practitioners faded away and widespread knowledge of size-specific type went with them.

Ironically, it was the primary focal point of the digital world — the computer screen — that sounded the alarm. Once any font could be used on a website, the drawbacks of one-size-fits-all fonts were exacerbated by the coarse resolution of the pixel grid. This has spurred a renaissance of type optimized for the right setting. In the last few years, more size-specific fonts have become available than in the previous 50 years. And a much greater percentage of new families offer these variations. Still, although size adjustments were commonly practiced in metal type for half a millennium, not much documentation has surfaced on the subject. This is just the right time for a book called Size-specific Adjustments to Type Designs.

As its no-nonsense title suggests, this book is not a breezy page-turner for the casual observer. Tim Ahrens and Shoko Mugikura spin no amusing yarns to make the content more accessible, nor do they weave complex Bringhurstian metaphors. (There are, however, a few snappy analogies.) Instead, the authors explain the concepts in a way that is as concise and straightforward as possible. The style could be called dry, but some might prefer dry over sweet and flowery. And, while it is serious and academic, it also lacks the drawn-out meanderings and complications of some academic texts. The principles are delivered with minimal embellishment — and the result is clarity.

This is why I can recommend Size-specific Adjustments to both type designers and anyone else who truly wants to understand type. Despite the specialized topic, this stuff is valuable even to those who will never sketch a letter or launch a font editor. Those who choose and use type in any capacity will benefit from what this book has to offer. In discovering the ways that type can be optimized for specific applications, readers will learn a lot more about variations in lettershape, stroke contrast, proportions, and spacing than nearly any other text can teach. If nothing else, Size-specific Adjustments will impart a deeper sense of the study and rigor involved in creating a professional typeface.

To the type designer, of course, a book like this is manna. In the introduction, Christian Schwartz describes how practical knowledge and intuition were his only guides when he learned how to draw type for different sizes:

My eyes and hands knew what to look for and what to do, even if my brain didn’t completely understand why I did these specific things. … this book has become an invaluable resource both for new type designers learning the craft, and for experienced practitioners looking to understand the reasons behind our instincts.

Perhaps it’s the narrow topic that makes this book so successful. We often bemoan the lack of books dedicated to type design. One reason for the shortage may be that a broad guide attempting to cover the full scope of type making just isn’t practical. Size-specific Adjustments makes a good case for focus. Rather than gobbling a whole pie in one sitting without truly appreciating any of its flavors, let’s try savoring one piece at a time.

The 192-page book is divided into two sections. The first quarter contains material on size-specific adjustments, including history, rationale, scientific research on perception and reading, and (the most useful bit for type makers) design advice. It is a deep exploration into all the significant decisions that can be made to achieve the intended appearance and improve the performance of type at a given size. There are plentiful type samples to help explain the text. I only wish there were more illustrations of rendered type in action, demonstrating the effect of the adjustments (and lack thereof) in print and on screen.

The remaining pages are dedicated to type specimens, showcasing over 100 families with size-specific variants. Rather than cataloging every qualifying typeface available, Ahrens and Mugikura chose faces that “follow an unconventional approach in terms of optical sizing or show unusual or unique techniques and treatments of the sizes.” The samples are well considered, examining both individual lettershapes (with basic glyph sets) and spacing (with paragraph samples) in multiple relevant sizes for comparison.

The specimen section is revealing and instructive, not just for the purposes of size-specific design, but also as a general reference for type selection. Third-party font specimens are increasingly rare, especially those that are designed with consideration for the breadth and individuality of each family.

No elaborate critique accompanies the specimens (although the authors do offer an opinion now and then), but any analysis is simply refreshing in a world of rapidly increasing new type releases and very little informed criticism.

This edition of Size-specific Adjustments is a major revision of a paper that Tim Ahrens wrote in 2007 as part of his MA in Typeface Design at the University of Reading. Ahrens’ thesis was published as a book but, like many academic texts, it was overpriced and underpromoted. Worse, the printing quality wasn’t worthy of the content.

I only have access to a pre-release PDF of the book, so I can’t comment on the final product, which will be printed in July. I can say, however, that the pages are well designed. The typesetting is excellent (as one would expect from a book designer like Mugikura), and the layout is as clear, unpretentious, and utilitarian as the content. This attitude is reflected in the forthright typeface chosen to set the text: JAF Bernini Serif, an as-yet-unreleased companion to the exemplary JAF Bernini Sans.

You can only order Size-specific Adjustments directly from Just Another Foundry. It’s €39; which is well worth paying, especially since every single euro is going to the authors, who clearly put a lot of care and passion into the project. I hope this book sparks the production of more size-specific typefaces, as well as other in-depth guides on type design.

Stephen Coles is the editor of Typographica, Fonts In Use, and The Mid-Century Modernist, and author of The Anatomy of Type. He works from his girlfriend’s flat in Berlin and his cat’s home in Oakland.


  1. Hi Stewf. As always, you have a sharp eye for quality and great things within typography. I’m sure this book is brilliant. Just made my order.

  2. Eben Sorkin says:

    Lovely lucid review. I will have to upgrade too.

  3. […] addresses somewhat enthusiastically, coming in a square design space of five weights and five (!) size variants (all of this in roman and italic). The size-specific adjustments feel perhaps a little less […]

  4. […] A review of an entire book on this topic […]

Post a Comment

Comments at Typographica are moderated and copyedited, just like newspaper “Letters to the Editor”. Abusive or off-topic comments are not published. We appreciate compliments, but don’t publish them unless they add to the dialog. Thank you!