Balancing tricks

How far should type designers go to accommodate the needs of everchanging technologies? Scott Billings looks into the issue of type legibility as publishing platforms grow broader and more electronic


Anyone familiar with the world of typographic design will know that it’s an art form for the obsessive. And the obsession lies, along with the devil, deeply in the detail. Tuning and balancing each element of each character in a set – their ascenders and descenders, shoulders and spines – is not for the faint-hearted. Add to the bargain the likely demand for multiple language support and the task of creating a harmonious set of letterforms is, to the outsider at least, somewhat daunting.

It’s a frustration, then, that despite the sterling efforts of type designers to control every detail of a font set, proliferating publishing platforms still lack a standard system to determine how characters will be displayed on screen. PCs, Macs, Web browsers, PDAs, mobile phones – the list goes on – all carry type that publishers need to be reproduced to the highest possible standard of legibility and design. But huge variations in font size, reading environments and users mean that achieving top quality and consistency across platforms can be a challenge. To make matters more complicated, the way that a character’s original outline shape is converted into pixels for display on a screen is determined by software called a rasteriser – and, you guessed it, different systems use different rasterisers.

‘There isn’t a single decent, proper display standard that takes advantage of all the good technologies which are emerging, and the majority of fonts are not designed to be optimum on all platforms. This means that you end up with a narrower set of available fonts at the highest quality,’ explains Bruno Maag, director of type design studio Dalton Maag.

When it comes to displaying fonts on a screen, the art, and difficulties, lie in the process of hinting: a set of instructions from the designer which tell a font how to behave at various sizes. If a system can’t read these instructions, then it might ‘auto-hint’ the letters. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to optimal legibility. ‘Auto-hinting takes care of the worst case of display problems but, for high quality, publishing fonts need to be hinted by hand for all the display types they’ll be used on, which can be costly,’ explains Maag.

Research Studios designer Luke Prowse, designer of The ‹ Times newspaper’s headline font Times Modern, believes that the degree of control over type is set by the commitment of the client. ‘Specific use requires specific modification of the base brand style. But like anything, it depends on time frames, cost and how responsible the client is. The Guardian is an example where the type family works across all the paper’s requirements – headlines, body text, race results, and so on.’

Towards the end of last year, the picture arguably became even more complicated with the US launch of the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle eBook readers. Using ‘electronic paper’ and a display technology developed by EInk, these handheld screens claim to deliver an experience akin to reading from paper, coupled with the benefits of digital storage. EInk itself is tiny black and white ink particles, charged negatively and positively and embedded in the screen ‘paper’. An electric current then causes black or white particles to rise to the top and display on screen as characters. Although purportedly more pleasant to read, EInk particles still function as pixels, meaning the letterforms are determined by a particular rasteriser.

But with newspapers including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal already delivering eBook editions alongside newsprint and on-line versions, it’s clear that publishers should consider the complexities of porting typography across platforms. And it’s not just publishers: BMW wanted to take its Dalton Maag-designed typeface into the car’s interior screens, but found that the Freetype rasteriser it uses cannot read the hinting instructions without an extra licence from Apple, which has patented certain processes. Complexities and proprietary squabbles abound.

So what to do? Allan Haley, director of words and letters at Monotype Imaging, sounds a final word of caution when it comes to the myriad platforms. Type designers, he says, should focus on the requirements of the typeface, rather than its display process. ‘If you design for a particular technology, the technology will change and your design will have problems in the future. The best thing you can do is create the best design for the [client’s] application and then the technology will make it perform.’

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