Split decisions: the devil is in the detail

Design is all about making a series of choices, where even the small ones – hyphen or en-dash? – have significance

I’m contemplating replacing one very short line with a slightly longer very short line. Oh yeah.

It’s the final tweak to this book cover I’ve been working on. I should probably call it quits, save it, send it, leave it well alone. But my eyes are jammed open with the familiar buzz of over-tiredness, my fingers twitchy and tinkering.

The line in question is right there in the middle of the page. Set in large, tightly packed Caslon, the title is hyphenated, deliberately split across two lines (it sounds a bit clunky, but trust me, it works). It’s just that hyphen, sat there, looking a bit meek and uncomfortable with the situation. If only it were a bit more … more.

So I’m contemplating replacing it with an en-dash. Yes, I know this sounds stupid (not to mention a little heretical), but the idea has popped into my head and I can’t let it go and I think it might work.

Design is the act of making choices. So many decisions, all insignificant and cumulative and momentous. I imagine my design process infographicised, a timeline of every minor mental juncture in a project. Rather than a simple straight line from brief to book, it would be a treacherous labyrinth. Every decision made is a new path, a new outcome; a great tangle of conflicting and shifting decisions. There’d be false starts and double backs, dead ends and spaghettorial junctions. Great ideas would litter the path, tangled in vines and trapped in oubliettes. (On paper, this would be pretty but completely unintelligible – thus it would probably be celebrated as a work of infographic greatness.)

And here I am, at one of those junctures, a decision to be made. I have an idea and I must choose its fate. I prepare for action: the hyphen is highlighted and helpless; my hand is poised in place, talons spread awkwardly over specific keys, hovering and ready to strike. And I think.

I think: How many times have I pecked at others for their misuse of hyphens and dashes? Am I justified in this hypocrisy simply because it’s deliberate? Can I blithely dismiss this as a case of breaking the rules because I know the rules?

I think: It’s unlikely to be noticed by anyone who sees it, but will this abuse of type be enough to suggest an uncanny wrongness to the cover? William Caslon didn’t spend all that time carefully balancing this typeface so that an over-caffeinated upstart could come along 300 years later and start messing around with it.

I think: Oh how I love dashes. En and em. I can’t really explain why. Hyphens are silly, all pathetic and stumpy. Hyphens schmyphens. And yet there will always be one attached to me and my troublesome, barrelsome name. I wonder if I can legally have it changed to a dash? Is that why I’m doing this? Am I just satisfying some fleeting typographic fancy for my own entertainment rather than doing what’s right for the cover?

I think: Endash. Is that a word? It should be. To become endashed. He was endashed to the emergency room with a dislodged hyphen. Endash endash endash.

I think: I really fancy a Jaffa Cake. I wonder if we have any Jaffa Cakes. I should probably pop out and buy some Jaffa Cakes right after this is done.
I think: Type is a tool. A material. I am in control. It does what I tell it to do. If I want that little line to be a slightly less little line, then it bloody well will be. All hyphens must cower before me and my whimsical awesomeness.

I think: It might look jolly nice.

I think: Will this affect how the book is received, how well it sells, the reputation of the author or the publisher or me? Is this going to be embarrassing? Damaging?


I think: I should stop thinking.

All of this takes place in a single moment, a beat, a space between words. Bits of design theory and experience and a smashing orangey bit all crushed together into this thing we call instinct. It trickles its way down from my head into my fingers. They are in control now. I could think and rethink and unthink and overthink this all night, or

I strike. Decision made. Endashment.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray


NAO (National Audit Office)