Dear Alphabettes: what defines a ‘Book’ weight?

Dear Alphabettes,
Is ‘Book’ supposed to be lighter or bolder than ‘Regular’?

Lisa

Hey Lisa,

Thanks for asking! And no thanks for making me answer this. We put out a poll asking our peers what they think it’s supposed to be, and you’re not going to like the results. 58% of the votes claim it should be lighter, while 42% claim it should be darker. There are historic, conceptual and technical considerations for why it might be so uneven.

The reasoning for ‘Book’ to be lighter than ‘Regular’ is as good as the one for it to be bolder. A lighter weight ‘Book’ style may have been made to counteract the print gain of paperback printing, and a darker ‘Book’ style may have been made to look better when smaller (just as optical sizes tend to gain weight towards the smaller end). I find both of these lines of reasoning persuasive and logical. (And then there are also the instances where it’s neither reason, but something else entirely, or just legacy.) And then we’re back to why you asked the question in the first place.

There is also a technical problem with some software interpreting ‘Book’ to be the same weight as ‘Regular’. That means that the styles will be sorted differently – or even ignored – depending on the application you’re using. Software doesn’t care about the logical conundrum, or which side of the Twitter poll gets slightly more votes. If software got to decide, we’d just name all our weights with numbers instead.

If it is reasonable for a weight to be two different things, perhaps the best solution is to avoid the name ‘Book’, at least in combination with ‘Regular’. Type designers should then skip the term, and instead either commit to a more thorough system for optical sizes, or adopt more distinct names. Some favourites include ‘Blond’ (as Fred Smeijers likes to call his slightly-lighter-than-regular weights) and the rather literal ‘Blanca’, ‘Gris’ and ‘Negra’ pairing that PampaType do in their fonts. I guess I’m partial to poetic names.

Lisa, I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to give you the most common [citation needed] answer in type design: It depends!

Love,
Robin

5 Comments Dear Alphabettes: what defines a ‘Book’ weight?

  1. Bianca Berning

    Indeed! Assuming that Book weights were/are designed specifically for long-form reading and considering that we can no longer predict how texts featuring our typefaces will be read, shouldn’t we let go off the idea of specifying the intended usage in the weight name?

    Reply
  2. Toshi Omagari

    I was intrigued by the question and decided to take a statistics on the past examples, instead of relying on people’s binary opinions. I am not saying that opnion is not important, it’s more about the way that the Twitter poll only gave two options to seemingly more nuanced discussion. Book, unlike other names, refers to usage rather than the visual value, and it should depend on how other weights look like. At least that’s what I thought.

    My anecdote before the research was that early phototype and digital romans from type manufacturers often appeared too thin since it no longer had the ink spread of letterpress. In those cases, Book weight was added to the later, or sometimes the whole family (Bembo Book is a notable case). In another story, Frutiger was originally designed as signage face and neither Regular or Light served the text composition purpose (Light tended to be used). By the time Adrian Frutiger designed Avenir in 1988, this seems to have been a common knowledge and the weight 45 is named Book, lighter than Regular. In 2009, Neue Frutiger received Book in between Light and Regular. Therefore my assumption was that Book was often an update to the faulty Regular, and whether it gets lighter or heavier than regular would depend entirely on the style, but maybe roman Book tend to be heavier whereas sans Book tend to be lighter.

    I went through the typeface families that was available on MyFonts, and decided to only focus on the Monotype ones (BT, FF, ITC, LT, MT) in a hope to find a pattern in the old days, and to keep my sanity. If I include all of them, the search result of “Book” tripled. Style names are mostly decided by the designers and do not think there is much difference in the logic between major and independent foundries (unless you worked for ITC, but I’ll get to that later). I checked the publisher, family style, release year, and of course whether book is lighter, heavier, or the Regular weight. I share the results below. Do have a look at all three sheets.
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1fNZ6XcXsSM8Z5rC8Fo0YDUHMtDBQ4sbtkGQrgdsavfI/edit?usp=sharing

    I would like to highlight my discoveries. The vast majority has Book as the Regular, mainly because of ITC which normally used Book. Also I learned that Hermann Zapf and Rod McDonald preferred Book to Regular. I guess Book was the more poetic alternative for Regular. Outside the Book=Regular range, the numbers are indeed different depending on the style. But since the sample size is small, I am not inclined to draw a strong conclusion. It does confirm my hunch that sans Book tends to be lighter, but when it comes to Roman, Book can go either way. And the most fun part is that the overall light versus heavy ratio did match the Twitter poll result! While I consider it a coincidence, it’s nonetheless remarkable.
    https://twitter.com/alphabettes_org/status/1026514362444509184

    While it was a fun research, I was never a fan of the word because of the lack of clarity, and wouldn’t be sad to see it go. It doesn’t make much sense to me unless it exists as a bugfix, like the examples I mentioned.

    The sample size may not be as big as one would expect, and I hope someone covers every instance of Book in the type industry. Not me, I’ve spent enough time on this.

    Reply
    1. Robin Mientjes

      Thanks for this, Toshi. I absolutely love that the result percentage is the same as the poll, even if it is only a coincidence. It just emphasises that, as a type user, there is no telling what it’ll be.

      The reason for the question being binary is that, as ‘Book’ often appears in the weights continuum, somewhere between Thin and Black, it implies a weight more than a use or, as noted elsewhere, an optical variant. This is of course a particularly modern problem, as fonts get sorted under families or subfamilies in menu drop downs – it creates a particular hierarchy that is hard to break out of for type designers and foundries. Users probably expect optical size variants to cover a consistent range across sizes, for example, even if ‘Book’ has its very specific use and rarely needs a matched ‘Book Bold’.

      Again, thanks for the hard numbers. There is no binary answer to a false dilemma, but the problem is never with the question, but rather how you choose to answer it.

      Reply
      1. Toshi Omagari

        I should say that I was more interested in my own question: “how did we come to this?”, rather than how I or people think the Book should be. I do not mean to dismiss the latter. As you can see from the research, Book as alternate name for Regular was the most dominant case, but now people are asking simply if it is lighter or heavier. If it has a different name, then it should mean something different, right? And I think that the modern assumption is the basis behind the question, and the decision making behind recent families. If I extend my research to indie foundries, I predict that there will be fewer cases of Book=Regular.

        As for font sorting problem, Book should be mapped to Regular in the absence of the latter, or reverse-engineer what is style-linked to Bold (ITC’s Book weights are almost always mapped to Bold). If it is different, then the weight values should be checked. I think that’s what’s happening anyway though.

        Reply

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