Vertical text - reading up or down?

anonymous's picture

Hi there,

I have to place some signage on the window of our new office, and since there, unfortunately, is only room to put the text vertically, I was wondering what the "good' way to put it is: reading upwards or downwards?


fonthausen's picture

Hi Caspar,

this should be a subjective decision. First, its your office. Second, its done differently in every country.

You could also ask a few friend of yours to help you decide. Take a pick and then see which is preferred. Dont forget to ask a lefthander as well.


steve_p's picture




porky's picture

Hmmm, I believe I read somewhere that people are left-eyed or right-eyed (one eye leads, the other follows).

I wonder if the ease of readability between "left eye high" and "left eye low" is affected by that, and if so, what the split is in the general population.

Any brighter sods than me care to comment? :-)

Actually, come to think of it, I wonder if there is a correlation between the eye dominance in the general population and whether a culture uses right-left or left-right reading.

gerald_giampa's picture


Maybe if you walk upstairs it should be reading up. Or, as shown on the right.

Then again, if they are peaking in your window?

Gerald Giampa

porky's picture

Well, to me, I'd say the left image (left eye top) is preferable.

close's picture

in art school i was told "upwards is positive, downwards is negative". but that's not the reason i like your right image better.

John Nolan's picture

I'd put it downreading, like the left image, but in the rightmost window.

I have no justification for this opinion.

gerald_giampa's picture


Looking at the picture, as a picture, I would pick the left. After all, legibility is a greatly overestimated quality?

The obvious solution is inherent in the question. Flip a coin!

Gerald Giampa

jfp's picture

Funny answers to me French eyes!!!

I will take the right, the left move your eyes to the ground, the right one move your eyes to the sky who is more positive and dynamic.

But, all of this is pure conventions, in France, the official rule IS the right one (books are like that).

"You read the best what you read the most"...

vincent_connare's picture

on a similar subject why do the type books go up and especially the German ones and FontLab manual and the others all go down like OUPs dictionary here? sorry for the quality, it's from a phone.

Mark Simonson's picture

I heard a long time ago (not sure when) that the North American convention for type on book spines was top to bottom, but bottom to top in Europe. Why, I don't know.

A practical reason to go top to bottom is that the text on the spine is right-side-up when the book is lying face up.

cph's picture

I definitely prefer the upward image, but maybe the downward image would work better on the right pane of that window.

vincent_connare's picture

I vaguely remember at the Univ of Reading spines were discussed but I'm not a book designer so I can't remember but I bet Tschichold and Robin Kinross must have this in one of their designing book books.. but I don't see any here at work but that would be a good place to start.

The German books in this office are 100% up. Even the ones that are about German designers in English. But the English other ones go down.

Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie reprinted in 1987 by Verlag Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin. the words on the spine go up. Does someone have an English version handy? Is it down? I have two at home and I bet the University of California Press; version goes down.

Mark Simonson's picture

Therein lies the rub, Mark.

In the event of an earthquake, which way will the building fall?

:-) Right. All bets off when it comes to buildings.

hrant's picture

Interesting thread.

David, your questions are superb, and in part answered in the book "The Alphabet and the Brain", which deals (in large part) with reading directionality (although left-right, not up-down).

US books have the spine text going down while the European convention is up. No idea why.

I prefer the right windows where the text is going up. Maybe it's the way different people prefer to tilt their heads?

But also, I'd consider Steve's suggestion.


hrant's picture

> what the split is in the general population.

It might mirror handedness, which is 85% righthanded. But what about neckedness? :-)

> I wonder if there is a correlation between the eye dominance in the general population and whether a culture uses right-left or left-right reading.

I don't think so, because:
1) Generally lateral preferences are not ethnically affected, from what I know.
2) The direction people read depends most on the legacy method of writing. So eyedness is secondary to other factors like how quick the stuff dries. For example, cuneiform didn't smear, so the choice of direction was more open - and maybe right-to-left feels more natural.


porky's picture

Thank you for the book tip Hrant. I see it is out of print and the only place that sells it wants US$234.60. I'll have a rummage around the libraries and see if anyone has it.

vincent_connare's picture

Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie reprinted in 1987 by Verlag Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin. the words on the spine go up.

Tschichold's 'The New Typography', The University of California Press; version goes down. verified.

It is very clear there is a difference in Germany and England, England is still in Europe last time I checked my car reg plates.

Two of my French books go up as does Beat Stamm's doctoral dissertation printed in Switzerland.

I couldn't find anything in 'Designing Books' by Jost Hochull and Robin Kinross, but I just did a quick scan.

I think the direction is governed by Publishers and book sellers as I vaguely remember hearing but don't quote me on it.

I prefer the right one on the window.

defrancisco's picture

I've had many discussions about the issue, both working on books and on signage, but have never been able to find a written/explained rule.

Book and magazine spines go up in most european countries; in the US and Britain they go down so you can read them straight when they are lying flat with the cover up (that's what I've been told here in the US).

Back home -Spain- we would always argue a lot about it, and then follow the accepted use; upwards on spines for the local market, downwards on spines for english speaking countries, and upwards on signage, banners, etc.

I would also go with your right option, upwards.

hrant's picture

> England is still in Europe

Well, that's a separate argument*, but isn't UCPress in the US? If so, I don't get your point.

* I might argue it's more a US state now.

That said, there are of course exceptions.


rcapeto's picture

in the US and Britain they go down so you can read them straight when
they are lying flat with the cover up

Yes, but why would one want to read the spine when the book

Ignacio's picture

I am from Spain and I read better upwards.
I believe my eyes have been educated this way in this case of reading, and the downwards look very confortable with their point, for the same reason I guess. I never have designed a book with the downwards spine, but I think that it has its point.

> Yes, but why would one want to read the spine when the book

gerald_giampa's picture

Good morning from Finland.

Well, I am used to, left eye up, reading down. It also makes marketing sense if a book lies cover up to produce them in that fashion. At least some sense. Obviously it is not in fashion everywhere.

However I don't think the window will often lie "cover up" as it does not have one.

Mind you if the window went sideways it would not be a question. Or if it was, the question would be, should the sign read right way up, or, upside down?

My advice however is to pick what you like the best as long as it is the window on the left. Left eye up, reading down.

However I would remove those stairs because it will certainly be hard for anyone using them to read that sign. Also about my earlier observation, I would not make things easy for those folk that look in your window!!

So that said. Ignore all of my previous advice and pick the window shown on the right.

And leave the stairs where they are.


Gerald Giampa
Lanston Type Company

kakaze's picture

The right window is more natural to me, the left window just looks awkward.

gerald_giampa's picture


It's a conundrum for sure! How about walking up those stairs?

Flip a coin, or flip a lid.

Gerald Giampa

vincent_connare's picture

there is a paragraph on Binding in 'Designing Books' Hochull, Kinross: Hypen Press. pg 101

it suggests if the spine is broad enough to have it horizontal. then goes on to say:

'If they are vertical, traditionally in German-language books text runs from the bottom up (except on large-format volumes that are laid front cover up in the bookshelf, so that the spine title can be read normally). Since the spine title functions primarily when a book is standing upright on a shelf, this arrangement is certainly more rational--because one inclines one's head more readily to the left than to the right--than the international standard, according to which text should be made to run from the top down. That one can read this spine text better when the book is lying on the table is not a factor in the matter; by then the reader knows which book is lying there (and anyway, many books also have their title on the cover).'

gerald_giampa's picture


For the most part I agree. But, more often than not, it is impossible to run the name of the volume horizontal. Also you probably can read the book title from the cover when lying down. A stack of magazines? The top one, stack of books the top one. But books tend to have more personality than magazines. Well. at least that's the way it was in my day.

Besides, I do not subscribe to the theory that just because you are left handed, you are left eyed, or visa versa.

Also I am not sure we can move our heads to the left or right any easier. My old noggin just gets dizzy no matter how I look at it.

Kids, be kind.

I figure we just read from left to right. There are those that don't.

If we rotate our heads to the position of "left eye up", that eye is closer to the beginning of the text because it is up. If printed the opposite way, then the opposite is true. Unless we tilt our head the other way and theoretically all things become equal. Assuming, naturally, that the head is central to the text. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is reading the spines tight against the wall. My books closest to the wall left, I keep my books that are right reading upwards. My right reading downwards books I keep closest to the right hand wall. Try it, you will thank me later. Especially when you are as old as me.

But, still we have those stairs, I think you may fall down if you choose the picture on the left, increasing liability insurance.

So still, I stick to my position, at least for now, with sign as illustrated in the right hand picture.

I think, it was the right hand picture. Oh well!

Gerald Giampa

gerald_giampa's picture


That is precisely what I would have done. It won't be helpful to people looking in your window and you won't get people falling down the stairs. Also, in this case, the head is not central to the type. Making the beginning of the text closer to the left eye if you tilt your head left. The other way is not equal. As the head, is not central.

Gets my vote. And, its been fun!

I am having a similar problem with this. And no, the obvious is not obvious.

A close up of the door. Where, or where to put up the sign?

We have not determined our location, or country for obvious reasons. Also we have not finished negotiations and have several other options.

But one problem at a time.

Gerald Giampa

hrant's picture

> one inclines one's head more readily to the left than to the right

There you go.


Caspar, I like your solution.


Mark Simonson's picture

Another way to think about it is:
Where would one normally look for the start of the text?

On printed matter, the first place you look by habit is
the top. Text, whether it is right-to-left or left-to-right
goes top to bottom. So running vertical text down
from the top implicitly follows this rule.

Out in the world, everything starts from the ground
and goes up. There is no top outside to use as
a reference point, after all. So, text looks more "natural"
going from the ground up (or from the horizon up).
On the other hand, if the text was near the top of a
building, running down might be better.

I guess my point is that it's more important where you
think the eye will go first and start the text there.

Nick Shinn's picture

Caspar, why wouldn't you run it horizontally in one of the top square windows? it would fit... (Then people would be less likely to read "MedicalAnalyst" ;-))

I favor "bottom to top", and italic would help -- have you seen the way some people write, with the paper twisted thru 90 degrees (counter-clockwise) already! In fact, most people write with the "baseline" slanted! (Hrant, you probably have statistics on this ;-)

hrant's picture

> italic would help


But no stats, sorry. :-)


kakaze's picture

Gerald G. quote:

It's a conundrum for sure! How about walking up those stairs?

Flip a coin, or flip a lid."

See, I don't see a problem with the stairs. I mean, unless the type is tiny, you're going to be reading it before you even bet to the stairs. The only reason someone would read it on the stairs is if they were half blind.

That's how I see it, at least.

mrkgnao's picture

caspar, I think you've found the right solution!

As far as titles on spines go, I just found the following bit in Marshall Lee's 'Bookmaking':
" is a fact that italics and cursives are much more easily read from bottom to top. This position is actually less of a departure from the normal horizontal arrangement for them than it is for roman type, the latter being perpendicular to the normal angle, wheras italics are turned considerably less than 90

mrkgnao's picture

Nick said:
"have you seen the way some people write, with the paper twisted thru 90 degrees (counter-clockwise) already! In fact, most people write with the "baseline" slanted!"

Hey now! As a lefty, I had to start turning my paper at an early age to avoid a black, ink-smeared hand! That being said, my handwriting is awful. : (

hrant's picture

Idea: When you have a narrow horizontal space that can't fit your text, and you decide to go vertical, why not tilt the setting as much as possible, spanning the horizontal?


Writing [Latin] vertically: Gerrit Noordzij advises left-handers to tilt the paper 90 degrees and write vertically. What's that you say? You can't read what you're writing? Hey, what's more important: reading, or preserving the ductus of long-dead scribes? :-/


gerald_giampa's picture


Call me a lawyer. I am feeling a little dizzy after reading these posts. I am going to walk down my stairs for some fresh air.

Gerald Giampa
P.S. Good morning from Finland!

hawk's picture


==== "funny i did not think it would be an issue like this - i thought there would be a typographic "rule' for it!" ====

1. you don't make design with "rules". you make it by seizing the moment (or if you want seizing an idea).

2. i think that the best thing to do is a little reaearch, see other samples, ask people what they think, try differentcolors and Shapes!!!

3. by the way, what is your current visual image?

4. very important - avoid materials that fade under different weather conditions !!!

David Hamuel

gerald_giampa's picture


For the most part you design with rules. But the rules don't make the design. More often than not I would prefer the work of a non designer following well established typographical rules than a bad designer abusing them or working without knowledge. Admittedly however, some brilliant designs are successful by playing with, or teasing both the rules and their makers.

This particular problem, I believe, has no traditionally established rules. Maybe one, running stacking type downwards, are to some, an offence. But this specific design problem has irritated many in the past. Solutions are only to be found by compromise of established reading habits and therefore reasonably, leads to, as we can see, "individual" solutions.

The "individual solution" is Caspar's, he is the designer, and he shows us his solution.

And from what I can make of it, a good one.

Now I could say what I would do, however that would be my solution, not representative of Caspar. His individual solution is of paramount importance.

Gerald Giampa
P.S. Hope you got insurance. I think when I fell I banged my head and now I am a nice guy.

anonymous's picture

As interesting a question, would be whether reading left to right or right to left influences left or right eyedness...

anonymous's picture

this is the case:

signage office

anonymous's picture

Could the left/right window, or left right side of a pane, be considered analogous to a page, where the text appears at top or bottom?

Perhaps the preference for text on the right hand window reading downwards equates to a visual preference for text at the top of a page.

Jared Benson's picture

I too find the left image more natural/comfortable to my eye.

anonymous's picture

funny, I did not think it would be an issue like this - I thought there would be a typographic "rule" for it!

anyway, did some research and found out that books and cd's are mostly downward. This because if you put the book down it will be normally readable.

On objects, like stands, telephone cells, big vertical banners etc, it is almost always upward. Probably the positivity factor is a reason for this.

makes sense?

Jared Benson's picture

Interesting, Caspar. In your research, where did you find that?

On another note, Joe and I have found that when setting type vertically, often you can flip letters upside down with minimal impact on readability. Many people don't even notice. (Joe, do you have any examples?)

Jared Benson's picture

Therein lies the rub, Mark.

In the event of an earthquake, which way will the building fall?

anonymous's picture

I prefer the 'top-down' orientation. (I'm an American and a lefty, if that's relevant.)

My rationale for my visual preference (beyond any theories about my physiological/ geographic biases) is in 2 parts:

1) If I'm not mistaken, readers' eyes move across the tops of letterforms (lowercase), along with examining the word shapes formed by the acsenders and descenders. The top-down allows more air space (so to speak) for the eye to read the forms.

2) The window frame acts like a sitting point for the type. To my eye (and therefore my mind), the type feels 'seated' on the left, as though it's using the wooden frame as a base. Its placement looks more considered to me.

A caveat: upon second (and subsequent) glances, the righthand one feels more active to me, as though it's moving up, rather than sitting nicely still. If you're looking for a more active, irreverent, young, (blah, blah, you get where I'm going) appearance, the righthand may end up serving your purposes better. Use the potential difference from the 'norm' to your advantage.

Ultimately, I agree with Jacques' first post, just ask some people you trust in the office about it informally. (Just be careful, maybe some designer will want to use that orientation for your stationary...)

Miss Tiffany's picture

I also think the left image is best. We naturally start to read from top to bottom (not forgetting left to right). At home, in my personal library, I have all of my books arranged in this same way. Most of the books that I've purchased in the EU, as a result, are upside down. This bothers me, but at least from a quick glance they are all facing the same direction.


anonymous's picture

Allright guys!

Thank you all for your thoughts, it really is an interesting matter.

This is how I decided to do it - in the middle left window, reading upward, aligned to the top right of the window.

MC signage

Motivation: if you look on Google-images for conference stand, very large corporate banners etc, the all go upward. I do think the reason for this is the downward=negative and upward=positive explanation. I think the book spine is just a different discussion, although personally, being from The Netherlands, I am used to downward titles, and also the point that it's readable when the book is on its back seems logical to me.

But since this signage is more like the "vertical text on a big object" matter than a title on a book cover, I choose the upward option. Also consider that the windows are very big, the text as you see it in the picture is almost 1 meter high! The alignment changed because think the text should have some ground under its feet, so its now grounded on the right side of the window.

Thanks for the advice and the food for thought!

Joe Pemberton's picture

This is what Jared was talking about. It works with all caps
and most people don't notice what's 'wrong' unless you ask
them. This one's FF DIN. The mono weight strokes help too...

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