Evaluating Composition

Desktop publishing has allowed newcomers with little training to supply print for our industry. This offers new economies for purchasing type, while at the same time challenging conventional standards of typesetting.
      As a result, publishers often have had to choose between the low price and poor quality of novice desktop operations and the high quality and high price of traditional compositors.
     There are type houses that combine conventional quality with desktop cost. Generic is in the forefront of this movement.

Selecting a compositor
The initial selection of a compositor entails risk: word-of-mouth recommendation is subject to bias; and examples from the compositor may reflect the work of the designer, the production editor, or the printer as much as they do the compositor.
     When selecting a new compositor, review its references and evaluate books typeset by that company. Recognize that you may be making a mistake, but place a book with the service and resolve to evaluate closely its first pages against the original design specs. Such a review will eliminate outside influences and provide a valid basis for your judgment of the compositor's abilities and the likelihood of your using that compositor in the future.

Evaluating first pages against the original design
Familiarize yourself with the book's design and then assess the compositor's ability to apply those specs to the first pages.

Appearance of spreads
The reader turning a page is faced with a two-page spread of material. Common practice requires that these pages be balanced and conform to conventions which help the reader and enhance the presentation.
     These conventions include placement of figures, tables, and footnotes; amount of text following heads near the bottom of the page; word stacks and hyphenated lines; avoidance of rivers and widows; superscript sizing; use of old style figures and ligatures; and appropriate letterspacing.
Good composition will follow your specifications, instructions, and conventional standards to make each spread as inviting as possible.  

Evenness across a page
The hallmark of good composition is the production of pages with visual consistency—that have no uneven light or dark areas despite the combination of text, art, tables, and display type.
     To evaluate evenness, tilt the page and study the white space rather than the inked letters within the page. Is the printed area evenly gray or are there lighter or darker areas? Rotate the page while continuing to look for patterns of light and dark.

Text: The most common cause of unevenness within the text itself occurs when an operator has too heavy a hand with tracking values. Poor tracking can result in type appearing crowded (a "tight" word or line) in one area and "loose" or "letterspaced" lines elsewhere.
     When text is laid out well, it will not have light or dark areas.

Art: The placement and final size of the art are significant factors in the appearance of a page. A figure too large for its complexity appears as a light area on the page and looks juvenile. A crushed figure appears as a blob of black, making it difficult to read. Two adjacent figures reduced to cause obvious variation in the size of their labels produces an amateur result.
     Line weight in drawn art and contrast in photographs can be modified to help make the pattern of gray and white visually consistent with the rest of the text page.
     Final art should be sized so that it is clear and legible; is appropriate for the amount of detail expressed; has ample but not excess white space; and is positioned in the best location to support both the text discussion and a balanced spread.

Tables: The line length (width) of a table is critical for making data easy to read. A short line length may leave too much white space in the surrounding text area, making the table appear too dark. Conversely, a table with too long a line length will appear lighter than the print area and will be hard to read because of the gullies between columns.
     Tables should blend into and be a continuation of the page.

Display type: Most of the decisions regarding displayed matter are made by the designer, not the compositor. How multiple line headings are broken and how space is adjusted around heads to "bottom out" pages are usually layout issues for which the compositor is responsible.

Perceived space between letters
Quality kerning—the apparent space between letters—is a hallmark of quality composition and a common shortcoming of most DTP operations. A well-kerned typeface gives the perception of equal space between all letters.
     Computer fonts typically have atrocious kerning values, especially in connection with punctuation, quotation marks, and en- and em-dashes. Every font has character pairs in need of revision.
     A quality-conscious compositor will review and revise all kerning pairs in each typeface required by that book's design before beginning page layout. Occasionally, a single pair might be missed; but a regular pattern of poor kerning is an indictment of the compositor.

For further information, please email us, including your name, affiliation, and areas of interest, and we will get back to you quickly.

Generic Compositors
152 Starheim Road
Stamford, NY 12167
607 652-BOOK (2665)
815 346-5272 (fax)
email us

Copyright © 2001 Generic Compositors, a Division of Stonecrest Industries, Inc. 1/27/12 1:00 PM


Generic's Home Page
The Folks Behind Generic
Introducing Generic
Typesetting Costs
Typesetting Quality
Typesetting Schedules


Editing on Galleys
Editing and Copyediting
Editing on Screen (Electronic Editing)


Generic House Styles
Using Author Disks
Never a Charge for Author Alterations
Evaluating Composition
PDF vs. Page Layout Files

Full Service

Full Service
Author Relations


Archiving Projects
Generic's FTP site
Electronic Publishing
Finding a Publisher