Demand Your Type Right

The technology exists to display fonts properly on screen, so why do so few devices manage it? Bruno Maag says its time to fight for our right to type

Until about 1993, displaying type on the screen was fairly straightforward. Most computers were just about capable of displaying 256 colours and type was firmly one-bit. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about the internet.

In the very beginning, when only PostScript fonts were available, a font came in two parts on the Macintosh: screen font and printer font. The printer font contained the outlines of every character plus some basic spacing information. The screen font, however, included all the important spacing and kerning information, as well as the means of conveying what the type looked like on the screen.

Approximating the look of typefaces on screen was achieved by manually creating a bitmap image of the font for a range of sizes. In this process the type designer tried to achieve some aesthetic correlation to the actual design, but more importantly, ensured that the type was legible, particularly for the smaller sizes. Other sizes would be scaled by the computer itself, based on the closest real bitmap size.

Type was also displayed in one-bit form, meaning that there was no font smoothing and no greys between the fore and background colour. This was just on the Mac remember: Windows at the time didn’t really have any means to display typefaces in their natural form.

The introduction of TrueType by Apple in 1991 changed things dramatically. All information about the font was now packed into one font file. This file didn’t contain a bitmap image anymore but utilised a process called “hinting” to display a typeface, at any size on any resolution. The operating system had a built-in “rasteriser”, a piece of software that interprets the outline information given by the font and converts it to a bitmap image. Hinting is an extra set of instructions with which the type designer ensures high quality display.  Every pixel position can be controlled at any resolution and size. Of course, the larger the type size or resolution, the less need for control as there are enough pixels to display the type nicely. Adobe responded with the introduction of Adobe Type Manager (ATM) to achieve similar display quality in PostScript fonts (although in a more basic form).

With these tools, typefaces may be reproduced on screen with all the beauty and quality of type on the printed page. Unfortunately, however, this is rarely the case.

As a type designer, I will hint a font to the highest aesthetic and technical quality, but if the application or the operating system does not give me the platform to display my skills, it’s all a wasted effort. A simple example: common wisdom has it that a font should be displayed in black and white, pixillated, up to a size when the stem width of the character snaps to two pixels. Above that size it should be displayed using font smoothing. This approach supports legibility and ensures an even texture on the page. I instruct the font in this manner. Microsoft’s Windows system and its Office suite respect my settings and so ensure good quality screen type. The much lauded Macintosh system, on the other hand, ignores my font smoothing settings which leads to grey, unreadable mush on the screen. Yes, the user can change the settings in the system, when font smoothing is activated but different font weights have different break points. Surely, it should be left in the hands of the type designer to say when a font is legible?

The explosion of screen-based media has not made the job any easier. Type is increasingly used on TV, mobile phones and internet applications. We don’t yet know what the future holds, but in all likelihood, the number of screen-based communications devices will increase hugely. Yet no-one has really paid attention to how we bring type – this most important of communications tools – to the new media.

For as long as internet browsers continue to ignore support for font embedding technologies such as Embedded OpenType (EOT) there is absolutely no chance of ever going beyond Arial or Verdana. This will make the world sadder place.

Engineers of TV set-top boxes and mobile phones don’t spend any time thinking about type either. Yet it is the one tool that enables the user to navigate the different services they offer. And why do they deny me the most basic feature of individualism – the ability to select the typeface that my system displays information in – when all they advertise is how their product increases my individuality and cool? And no, Flash is not the answer to this as Flash will not embed my original font data but create its own font format. The smoothing algorithms in Flash are designed with images in mind, not with static type and thus will always result in poor display quality.

The technology is available to have any font working on all these devices. It is up to the consumers to start making demands. So, if you’re developing a website for MegaCorp Inc tell your client to demand from the browser developers support for embedded type. Users of mobile phones, demand that your handsets and phone software support your choice of type. Only by demanding change we will manage to remove the present constraints.

In the computing industry, even in the design industry, fonts are regarded as nothing more than plankton – the lowest form of life. But remember, without plankton there is no life at all.

Bruno Maag is a partner at type designers Dalton Maag and a former chair of the Typographic Circle


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