Every typeface has its legitimate use somewhere. For example, Hobo, calculated to disturb and revolt the reader, is invaluable for toy-store sale circulars, wax museum advertisements, or faux-hippie nostalgia record covers.
Likewise, Palatino is perfect for lending a certain informal, yet not wholly inelegant, air to titles and headings. But it looks bad when used for large blocks of text. Nevertheless, Palatino is among the most heavily used fonts today. Even whole books by reputable publishers are typeset in it, causing great pain in sensitive readers everywhere.
Palatino was designed in 1948-49 by Hermann Zapf, the renowned German designer who later gave us Optima. Zapf intended Palatino as a display typeface (he produced a companion face called Aldus a few years later for use in books).
Why Palatino Looks So Bad
Many of the letter shapes that make Palatino so distinctive and recognizable when used as a display face are ugly and distracting in text.
Most noticeable is the rightmost serif on the lowercase n, m, and h--its left-hand side looks like it is missing. (Zapf designed these serifs, and many of Palatino's other features, to evoke the informality of handwritten lettering.) This idiosyncrasy lends nothing to Palatino at small sizes, since while scanning the line quickly, the eye only sees a gap in the baseline, distracting it from its smooth track across the word.
The stem of the lowercase t is disproportionately high, and the crossbar is too low relative to the tops of the other lowercase letters.
Where the bows of the uppercase P and R fail to connect to the vertical stem on the left, the eye sees a hole, since it is used to the interior of the letter being enclosed.
The sagging left-hand tops of the uppercase X and Y, another feature reminiscent of quill-drawn letters, are just plain distracting.
Now, trying not to think about the minute details from above, look at the same block of text printed in Palatino and Baskerville:
Which one seems more natural and easy to read? Do you find your eyes wandering over one of the samples more than the other? Which one has more features that stand out when you scan it quickly?
As you've seen, the oddities in the letter shapes of Palatino interfere with the patterns that our eyes expect to guide them along a line of type. The inconsistencies between letters, especially along their tops, also disturb the reading process:
The tops of the letters form often wildly varying angles with the baseline, destroying any feeling of a uniform slant or horizontal.
Palatino lacks a strong line at the tops of the lowercase letters. The tops fall into a spread-out region.
The overall effect of these details is to lead the eye away from its natural right-to-left path:
What You Can Do
You can fight this typographical scourge simply by not using Palatino for long bodies of text and by not buying books set in Palatino whenever possible. I hope I have convinced you that this is your duty as a responsible consumer of type.
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