Beyond Kerning: How to Proofread Design

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Note: This article originally appeared in Copyediting newsletter, which explains the low word-to-humor ratio, and is reproduced with permission.

If you love catching a zero in place of a capital O, a curly quote in place of a prime, or two single quote marks in place of a double, you can hone your eagle eye by learning to spot flaws in design.

Why should copyeditors care about design? Design directly correlates with function. A core part of the plain-language movement, good design enhances usability. And let’s be honest: We judge books by their covers because doing so works. Poor design hints at below-par contents, whereas good design suggests professionalism and credibility—results we strive for in copyediting.



Errors in typographical or graphical style might not be as awful as, say, a typo on a book cover, but those who believe this have never been haunted by not stopping a gap in 96-point type, a misaligned photo grid, or a low-resolution logo from going to print. Scrutinizing design and layout from a designer’s point of view helps us expand our roles and usefulness as editors and proofreaders.

Building on the methodology in The Chicago Manual of Style’s “How to Proofread and What to Look For” on checking typographic style inconsistencies, here are some tips for proofreading design that I developed from years of working closely with and training more than a hundred designers and editors in the advertising industry.

Good design suggests professionalism and credibility—results we strive for in copyediting.

Begin by Discovering

Before you zoom in, pull back so you can observe big-picture patterns and deduce the design logic. The logic can differ for each project, designer, or client. Look at all content as shapes, colors, arrangements, and hierarchies. What’s happening? Your role is to uphold consistency and decide if inconsistencies have a sublogic (acceptable) or are mistakes (unacceptable).



Then Check the Basic Components

Text elements include names, titles, taglines, headings, body, quotations, event details, and synopses. Styles to look for: font family, typeface, color, size (vertical), scaling (horizontal), stroke, drop shadows, extrusions, drop caps, leading, tracking, and kerning.

Common errors:

  • The direction of the drop shadow is different on one heading.
  • To close the visual gap between a closing quote mark and a period, the space is overkerned, putting the quote mark on the inside.
  • The leading between three or more stacked lines appears uneven. (If the leading isn’t consistent, equalize. If it is consistent, cheat the leading to balance the optical illusion created by descenders and ascenders.)

If possible, stand behind a designer and watch them work. Design errors are often software specific.

Graphic elements include logos, photos, art, figures, snipes (graphic stickers), borders, and rules. Styles to look for: size, color, version, resolution, edges, clearance, thickness, and juxtaposition.

Common errors:

  • Similarly sized text boxes have different border thicknesses.
  • The registration mark or tagline disappears because the box containing the logo isn’t open enough.
  • A photo doesn’t butt against the inside border of a box, causing a thin gap to appear.

Arrangement includes position, grouping, alignment, and layering. Styles to look for: centering, staggering, justification, rag, vertical alignment, line breaks and wraps, baseline, and negative space.



Common errors:

  • Punctuation is hung without accounting for the width and weight of the typeface.
  • An off-center title treatment looks like a mistake because it wasn’t staggered enough to look intentional.
  • Names that require parity in presentation, such as two stars with top billing on a movie poster, are not resting on the same baseline.

If possible, stand behind a designer and watch them work. Design errors are often software specific, and if you know how things can go wrong—dropouts, distortion, doubling, deletions—it will strengthen your ability to notice potential problems.

But remember: Just because you’ve found a real error doesn’t mean it’s worth marking.

But remember: Just because you’ve found a real error doesn’t mean it’s worth marking. Weigh the consequences of letting it stand with the possibility that new errors might be introduced each time the file is handled.

When done artfully, a design no-no can be transformed into a big yes. Stick with straight quote marks to punch up blocky type. Use bad kerning to provoke angst. It’s all about the design logic and the desired effect.

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