Yep. We're talking about unfortunate font/graphic/space choices that can truly alter how your reader sees (and understands) what you're working on.
On the most basic level, this can be something like the choice you make when offered Times New Roman, Calibri, and Comic Sans. Each has a purpose and a place - and they're not entirely interchangeable.
For most fiction works, a serif font (like Times New Roman) is used. For a lot of non-fiction works (or online web pages), a sans-serif font (like Calibri) is used. For comic books (or for comic relief), a font like Comic Sans can be used. But there aren't really any hard-and-fast rules. Mainly, you just want to make sure that your readers are able to read what they are being presented (and, in the event of misplaced usage of Comic Sans, avoid ridicule).
When we move on to design elements - such as cover art - it becomes important that the font chosen not only be legible, but also be evocative of what is inside the book. Good graphic designers know a lot about how fonts impact viewers - and many of them have even created their own fonts along the way. (There's a very cool story about fonts in a book called Marcel's Letters - which is part history, part memoir, part font-creation. And, okay, I'm especially partial to that particular font because we used it for all of our wedding materials.)
When fonts get artsy, though, they can also become hard to read. Think of graffiti that - to many of us - might look like blobs or scribbles, but actually contains names. Or think of the doodles you used to put in the margins of your notebooks in junior high, where your name became a dragon or a daisy. Those may look great as finished products, but could you really still read them?
Oh - and I should mention, of course, that spacing is incredibly important. If you've ever looked at a page of text where the words are spread from side to side without ragged right-hand margins, you've probably also noticed that the spacing between words - and even letters - might be different from line to line. This adjustment of the amount of space before and after a character of type is referred to as "kerning." [CLARIFICATION: While "kerning" refers to the space between individual pairs of characters, "tracking" is a better term to use when discussing the spacing either between words or of an entire line of text.]*
(I won't lie: "justified" text - where the text fills the whole line - makes proofreading a pain, because it's really hard to see exactly how many spaces have been left between words and after punctuation. But that's a story for another day.)
So what does this all have to do with the title of this post? Well, as you may have guessed by now, the title (and the alternative titles) all have to do with reading a piece of text wrong because of how it was originally presented. In other words, what we're talking about today is the fact that:
This was brought to mind a week ago when I was with some friends and we saw a piece of public art in the Union Depot in Saint Paul. It's a really cool piece, and as you look at it you realize that there is text on it. Which, due to the spacing of the letters - and the placement of the split line between the panels - seems to say:
Forevers Aint Paul
Even though I was standing in Saint Paul at the time, I first read that and thought "Wow. Someone really doubts Paul's ability to commit." It took me a moment to realize that the intended sentiment was "Forever Saint Paul."
Think I'm exaggerating? Check it out, and let me know what you think:
Personally, I think it means that fonts, graphics, and spaces all matter. Which is why, along with your editor and proofreader, you probably want to hire a professional to do your artwork. Otherwise, you may just end up dealing with smatter.
*I'd like to thank my husband for the clarification in the terms used, here. I like to think of this as added proof that you probably don't want your editors doing your typesetting.