White space in print

You might observe that the spacing in your layout isn’t as consistent as you’re accustomed to, or that you don’t have as many options regarding line spacing as you had hoped. How is it possible that there is more white space between a figure and a paragraph on one page than on another? And why can’t the line spacing between paragraphs be halved?

Although it might seem inconsistent, the reasons behind these seemingly odd distances are quite solid. They result from the gridlines to which lines of text in a book must align. For each book, it is determined how many lines appear on one page and where on this page they belong. This is what is called the grid, partly defined by the line spacing of the text.

A grid is crucial. It ensures that when you flip a page in a book, the lines of text on the next page will be at the same place as on the previous one. Without this consistency, flipping through your book would feel cluttered, making your publication appear messy and reading more exhausting.

Comp 3 1

Compare how lines remain at the same position on the left with how they jump around on the right.

So, how do figures, tables, or white spaces fit into this?

Because of the grid, the height of a paragraph is always a multiple of the fixed line spacing. Annoyingly, figures, tables, or white spaces don’t have a fixed height, and they can end up at a spot that doesn’t align with the grid. If one were to start with a paragraph at this spot, it wouldn’t coincide with the grid and might end up at a different height than on other pages.

In order to prevent this, a paragraph after a table or figure starts at the first gridline. This way, the layout of a thesis stays consistent throughout the entire book. The same applies to white space between paragraphs or headings: the second paragraph starts on the grid to prevent deviation from the grid.

So why does it look funny to me?

A grid to which the elements of a book align is a standard procedure in print. Go ahead and open up a random book or thesis, and you’ll see that white space can vary there as well. The reason you haven’t noticed this up until now is that we don’t look at text on a screen the way we look at printed text. On a screen, a design doesn’t have to align to a grid, as one doesn’t flip pages on a screen but simply scrolls. However, if you’re looking at the PDF of your thesis on a screen, the concept of pages is reintroduced, even though it is presented on a screen. If you see something on a screen that you normally see in print, you start noticing things that you otherwise don’t.

De history behind it

Apart from contemporary use, the way we deal with white space in printing also has a historical reason. In times of mechanical printing, lines of text were made by adding lead shapes, so-called slugs, on a plate.

Metal typesetting

source: Unsplash

As you can see, the slugs had fixed sizes and spaces on the plate. The line spacing and position were therefore defined; the birth of the grid as we know it. Even when modern digital printing isn’t bound to these confines, having a fixed grid still turns out to be important. If we would print books without it, people would think of them as messy. Are you the first one that dares to break with this historical tradition?

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