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Everyday I drive past a terribly offensive sign. It reads “Shaner’s.” The name of the business hardly offends me. It’s the prime mark holding the space where a smart (curly) apostrophe should be that sets me over the edge. It drives me absolutely crazy and got me to thinking. How much time do designers spend on choosing the best colors for a design job? Picking the perfect picture? Choosing the right font? Most designers agonize over these decisions. Of course they do, these are important design choices.

How many spend time perfecting the typographic details such as kerning, leading, and proper quote marks? How many regularly check for rivers, jumping horizons, hanging punctuation, widows, orphans and appropriate em-dash sized indents?


Based upon my observations, that number is considerably lower. We are experienced in creating good designs even on tight deadlines. We know how to place type on a page, make the text separate from the headline and use appropriate typefaces. We work with typography everyday. That’s part of the problem. Because we work with type on a daily basis it’s easy to overlook the little details.

Typographic details matter. It separates good typography from merely typed words on a page. Paying attention to details show that you care about your design and your quality of work. It shows you have the skill and ability to not only create great looking design, but sound refined design as well.


Clients care. Employers care. You should care too because the ultimate goal of any design is to create good communication. No matter how aesthetically beautiful it is, if the design doesn’t communicate the intended message then the design fails. Part of good communication is allowing the consumer the best possible chance to understand the message.

A design can certainly be sent out not kerned, auto-leaded and with no concern that prime marks are used. A consumer will still be able to comprehend the message. But if you do kern, use custom leading and utilize smart quotes, won’t it communicate to the consumer better? Won’t it be that much easier to read? “Good enough”, is not good enough when it comes to typographic detailing.


A former student scored his dream job at a coveted design firm right after graduation. Several months into his job, he wrote me a lengthy email asking for advice about leaving the firm after only a short time. Among the list of issues was the fact that he couldn’t get his creative director and colleagues to care about finessing typography, “…they don’t even bother to kern!” This lack of attention to details was a deciding factor on leaving the position to work for another company. While it thrills me that I was able to instill this detail-oriented trait in my student, it pains me that other designers lack the same care.

Learn to refine both the big and little details in your design. Take a few minutes to review your work before you send it out the door. To help get you in the habit, here is a checklist of 10 things to look for. Spend a little time reviewing each and you can feel confident that your attention to detail is as well represented in your work as your design skills.

Did you:

• Replace prime marks with smart quotes – a prime mark denotes feet and inches. Smart quotes (angled or curly quotes) denote a message within text.

• Kern your headline or logotype – the larger the type, the more exaggerated the spacing.

• Use ligatures – they help with the flow and readability of text. They can also give logos a point of distinction.

• Customize your leading – auto leading is calculated using a mathematical formula based upon point size that is not always suited to a typeface’s design, particularly the ascender and descender height.

• Hang the punctuation in pull quotes – a second line text should directly align underneath the first line of text and the punctuation should “hang” outside of that alignment.

• Make sure the paragraph baselines align with each other – use guidelines to ensure proper alignment across the page/s.

• Check for widows and orphans – widows are leftover words at the end of a paragraph. Orphans are the leftover words at the bottom or top of a column. Both interrupt the readability of text.

• Customize indents to equal the space of an em-dash – the default is generally .5 inch. Please do not use the space bar to indent a paragraph.

• Look for rivers in justified text – consider using left-aligned text if the rivers are extreme.

• Use consistent alignment on the whole page – if left-aligned text is used for the headline, use left-aligned text for all other elements on the page as well.