I am really bummed that the idea trending hot online now, popularly represented as “the US government could save $400 million dollars a year by switching fonts,” is a bit off-base. It is not the change of design that saves toner; it is that their chosen font is smaller at the same nominal point size than the comparison fonts. Not to mention that the $400 million figure being bandied about is not actually the main number suggested by the kids, which was $234 million.
That said, it is great that middle school kids (the study has two authors, although one has gotten the media attention) are doing creative problem solving and applying scientific thinking! No sarcasm intended. It is not their fault that non-obvious aspects of the problem mess up the idea. (Readers of my blog may remember that point size and font size have a rather nominal relationship.) Garamond* lowercase is about 15% smaller than the average of the fonts they compare it to, while its caps are only about 7.5% smaller. So it is no surprise that it uses less ink at the same point size.
This is why most scientific studies comparing typefaces first compensate by resizing the fonts to eliminate differences in the lowercase height (called x-height by us font geeks). This study failed to do that. As a result, they actually get results that are the exact opposite of other studies. Century Gothic has a very large x-height, so printed at the same nominal point size uses more ink than Times. Printed at the same x-height (as in other studies), it would use less.
Setting any font 15% smaller would save 28% of its area coverage. Of course, there are some caps in the texts as well, which would make the savings a bit less. Interestingly, this is pretty exactly much what the study found. So, you could just as easily save ink by setting the same font at a smaller point size.
For a moment though, let us pretend that the study did in fact equalize the x-height, and found that a typeface change saved noticeable amounts ink. With a “normal” typeface such as Garamond, this would mean that the strokes making up the font were just thinner at the same size (“stroke” is a virtual thing here; modern digital fonts essentially trace the outlines of the letter). If that were good and useful, why not go further? Why not make the strokes even thinner? Maybe there is no font bundled with common operating systems and software that would meet these needs, but one could just commission one. Even a master type designer could do a basic four-member family for $100K or so, which is a lot less than the hundreds of millions at stake. Make it razor thin and save even more!
But any of those changes, swapping to a font that sets smaller at the same nominal point size, or actually reducing the point size, or picking a thinner typeface, will reduce the legibility of the text. That seems like a bad idea, as the % of Americans with poor eyesight is skyrocketing as our baby boomers (and even their children, like me) age.
Aside from that, the reduction in toner/ink usage probably would save less money than claimed in the study. The claim is based on the proportion of total cost of ownership of a laser printer that goes to toner. There are sadly two big problems with the idea that using less ink (or toner) will save that amount of cash, based on that proportion.
First, large offices that use printers and copiers do so under a maintenance agreement that includes the cost of toner. They pay per page printed, and actual toner consumption is generally ignored. In such cases, a font change will only save based on the page count, not the toner.
Second, the study makes the interesting claim in a footnote: “Ink and toner are used synonymously in this study. Even though traditional ink is more expensive than toner, a focus on determining the percent savings in cost rather than the magnitude of the cost obviates this difference.” Urm… how? They are assuming that the percentage of printing cost ink or toner accounts for is the same for all classes of output.
This is untrue. Many of the documents that account for a substantial percentage of the government’s overall printing costs are printed on a printing press, using offset lithography. For offset printing, the percentage of the cost of that is associated with ink is in fact much smaller than for laser or inkjet printing. But it isn’t a fixed percentage, either, due to the large proportion of the cost that is associated with setup. It will be a higher percentage for short runs, and lower for long runs. Additionally, because of the huge cost of owning printing presses, many or most offset litho jobs will be printed out of house, using third-party printers.
So, for in-house printing-press printing, the savings will be a much smaller proportion than the quoted 26%. For outside printers, they will not charge based on minor variations in ink usage; they just check things like whether it’s a page of text vs graphics. Either way the savings will be less.
There is a different way an effectively smaller font will definitely save money: by allowing multi-page documents, especially long ones, to take fewer pages! So maybe it all works out—if you don’t worry about legibility.
There is another practical issue with Garamond in particular. The version bundled by Microsoft (from Monotype Imaging) does not have a bold italic, which is an unfortunate lack if one wants to promote its use for all government documents. (Yes, you can turn on bold and italic in your word processor anyway. You will just get a faked font instead of the actual one, which is ugly and less legible.)
The question that should be asked is: what font and size combination could be used to maintain or increase legibility while saving money on printing, by reducing page count and/or ink/toner usage, with a font that is bundled with common apps (or free), and has all the required font styles?
But that is a far more complex question, and most folks covering the issue much prefer simple and appealing messages like “high school kids tell gov’t how to save $400 million!”
I like innovative ideas to save money. Really, I do. But I wish the media and public had consulted some experts on this area before going nuts promoting this idea, because it just doesn’t hold water—or save money—without losing legibility.
Thomas is currently senior technical product manager for fonts and typography at Extensis, in Portland, Oregon. He has been on the board of ATypI, the international typography society, since 2004, and treasurer since 2007. In other relevant background, he was a teaching assistant for a senior level stats course in his second and third years of undergrad, has an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MS in printing, specializing in typography, from the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology.
Updates & notes
This post has seen some editing for grammar, clarity, adding a few more details, and to be less of a jerk. Again, I am impressed as heck that a
high middle school student is attempting serious research. I would not be analyzing it critically ,like a serious adult study ,if not for the fact that the media initially largely embraced it uncritically as if it were.
* The student study does not specify which Garamond they used, but it was obvious (to me) in the samples that they were using the Monotype version that is bundled with Microsoft Windows. Because Garamond goes back to the 1500s, and there is no trademark on the name, there are literally dozens of typefaces by that name, with about four or five being fairly common.
Since I wrote this, there has been some interesting coverage. The Guardian UK was in with the initial pack, with some caveats, but then their Nadja Popovitch wrote about this blog post and interviewed Jackson Cavanaugh of Okay Type for his reaction and analysis.
Meanwhile, John Brownlee did a nice job of explaining the point-size part of my analysis in layman’s terms, for Fast Co Design.
I did more elaborate checking on the study’s original sources and found that their five government test documents each used different body text typefaces: New Century Schoolbook, Minion (with Myriad headlines), Melior with a little Helvetica, Times with Helvetica headlines, and Book Antiqua. The average of these was almost identical to my original estimate using two of them, but I updated my numbers appropriately.
Given that the five source documents all use different fonts, one could reasonably wonder if they are a representative sample. Generally, as a rough guideline, you need a sample of about 30 to get sufficient statistical reliability for something like this.
CNN quoted Suvir: “”Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume,” Suvir says with a chuckle.” This may be true, but that stat is not original to him—it dates back ten years, and is specifically about inkjet printer ink. Such printers may still be common in schools (although even there I expect laser printers are taking over), but government agencies are definitely not using inkjet printers for much of their output.
Yes, that really is me trying to debate the Bush National Guard Memos with Dan Rather on Reddit.
There are a zillion posts in that thread, so he may never see my comment, and has every excuse to ignore it if he does. I wish I could get him to come out to one of my “Font Detective” talks that covers that case, preferably the one in NYC that is more open-ended. But if not, the talk at SXSW in Austin a week later.
In a funny coincidence, it turns out that Mr Rather currently has two main residences, one in NYC, and one in Austin. So you would think the odds would be good that he could come to one of the talks, if he wished.
[EDIT: I believe this is solved, though I won’t have time to reach 100% certainty until much later today. The current leading candidate is Swiss 721 Medium, horizontally squished, as demonstrated by Florian Hardwig.]
Sometimes even a font detective can use help. Particularly when running out of time….
At the bottom of this post are some samples from a document, a legal notice printed as a classified ad.
Here are the rewards if you give me an ID by 6 pm Pacific time, Friday Feb 8, 2013. If you are the first to give me a definite read on what font is used in this document, I will pay you $200! If you are the first to give me the right lead without definitive proof (for example, you name a couple of typefaces, and I investigate and one of them is it) then I will give you $100. I can pay by PayPal or personal check.
Why a reward? Well, I’m getting paid for my time and effort in the case, so why not share that? Plus I hope to motivate some folks to assist. 🙂
Half the above reward is available for an ID after the above deadline, but before 6 pm Pacific time, Sunday Feb 10.
So what is the story here? Many of you have heard of my various “font detective” work; cases where I have been called on as a font expert to investigate the authenticity of a document or some typographic issue that drives a legal case. This is one of those cases.
Right now I am in the depths of two cases. The one I am writing about involves a document that is set in something like Helvetica Condensed (but not actually, of course). Although the actual issues in question are elsewhere, identifying the font would be an immensely helpful piece of the puzzle for me.
Looking carefully at the font, I have noted that it is a highly condensed sans serif, in the same general style as Helvetica Condensed. Part or all of that horizontal compression may have been achieved by means of simply squishing the type horizontally to fit more in. The letterforms have some distortion that is typical of that kind of artificial condensation.
Typefaces I have tested that did not seem to match: Helvetica, Helvetica Condensed, Helvetica Neue, Helvetica Neue Condensed, Swiss 721, Swiss 721 Condensed, Pragmatica, Pragmatica Condensed, Nimbus Sans, Nimbus Sans Condensed.
I have an entire document at 2400 dpi, but the file is huge. Several chunks are available here for download, and if you’re somebody I know/trust I will share the full document for you to download.
All files are in PNG format unless otherwise specified. The type is roughly 5.5 or 6 pt high, and the entire text block is about 6.5 inches wide (
mystery ad text (RTF file of one paragraph of the ad, 3 KB)
mystery ad med-res (PDF file of entire ad, 930 KB)
On the side, I hope to see some of you at one of my “font detective” talks:
- New York, Wed Feb 27, 6:30–9:00 pm
- SXSW, Austin, Sat Mar 9, 12:30–1:00 pm
Friends of Speakers (like me) Save 15%!
WEBVISIONS NEW YORK + FONT DETECTIVE
Feb 27th – March 1st
Theater for the New City
WebVisions explores the future of web and mobile design, technology, user experience and business strategy with an all-star lineup of visionary speakers, including author, filmmaker and futurist Douglas Rushkoff, Ethan Nicolle, creator of Axe Cop and Jason Kunesh from the Obama for America campaign! Oh, and also me. 🙂
The event kicks off with a full day of workshops followed by special evening events, including my “Font Detective: Extra Bold” talk about cases of forged documents (sponsored by AIGA). And of course, two days of sessions, keynotes and panels, including my talk “Typography is the New Black.”
The “Font Detective: Extra Bold” talk sold out in Chicago, and it will be a much shorter version at SXSW a week later, so this is your best opportunity to come hear some really fun stuff. The Chicago audience refused to even take a bathroom break when given the option to hear more cases instead, so I gather people find it pretty compelling. Or maybe Chicagoans just have unnaturally strong bladders.
To receive the conference discounts, click the link “Enter promotional code” by the Order Now button and enter the code “DOGOODERY”
Register online at http://wvnyc-2013.eventbrite.com/#
I am doing a lot of fun talks and workshops I am doing in the next couple of months, starting tomorrow night in Chicago! If you’re in one of these cities listed below, I’d love to meet up with fellow typophiles and anybody who wants to talk fonts, over coffee, lunch, dinner, or a drink.
Chicago Tues Sep 25, 2012
AIGA presents: Font Detective, Extra Bold
7 pm at Harrington College, admission is $5 for AIGA members, $10 for non-members.
Probably nothing is more fun for me than talking about the legal cases I’ve been called in to consult on. Whether it’s a forged will, a pioneer mail bag, the NFL Hall of Fame, or the US Presidency, I’ve been asked to look into a bunch of fascinating cases involving fonts, printing, and logic. This long-form version of my presentation has only been seen once before, at the Type Director’s Club in New York City.
Chicago Fri 28 Sep 2012
WebVisions talk : CSS3 OpenType Fonts, the new web typography frontier
11:15–noon, WebVisions @ Siskel Film Center.
CSS 3 brings support for OpenType layout features to browsers. Most already have this support today. But what good is it? I show you everything from everyday workhorse typographic functionality like ligatures, true small caps, and oldstyle figures, through to the fascinating and bizarre: fonts that censor naughty words, predict the future, or translate languages. If you are coming to WebVisions, check it out!
Chicago Sat 29 Sep 2012
WebVisions workshop : Control the Web with Fonts & Type
1:30–5:00 pm, WebVisions @ Harrington College. Conference info here.
Join me for an immersive, hands-on workshop on using CSS3 typographic controls to create great web typography, from the basics of ideal type setting to enabling custom web fonts with @font-face. A live web site will be provided for each participant to practice and experiment on, along with access to WebINK web fonts.
You will also learn:
- How “real” web fonts are transforming the web, and exactly how to implement them.
- How to pick the perfect font for a web site
- How to choose fonts that work together
- The common crimes against legibility and aesthetics, and how to avoid them
- Issues around color, spacing, line length and font size
REQUIREMENTS: Laptop and basic familiarity with HTML and CSS.
Hong Kong, Wed 10 Oct 2012
ATypI talk: Crowdsourced Font Funding
10:20–10:40 am, ATypI “Research, Case Studies & Workshops” sessions @ Icon Hotel. Full talk description on the ATypI site.
All about the impact of Kickstarter (and similar services) on type design, from my own experiences and surveying everybody else using Kickstarter for fonts. What is involved, how should you structure your campaign, and what distinguishes successful campaigns?
Las Vegas, Tues 16 Oct 2012
PubCon panel: CSS & HTML 2012
3:10–4:25 pm, PubCon @ Las Vegas Convention Center
On this panel I plan to do an intro to web fonts and a small portion of my talk from Sep 28, above.
Las Vegas, Thurs 18 Oct 2012
PubCon Labs Q&A Session
11–noon, PubCon @ Las Vegas Convention Center
Meet with me one-on-one to ask questions about web fonts, web typography, or anything to do with fonts!
NYC, Tues–Wed Oct 23–24
Future of Web Design: booth & workshop
(Not familiar with this? Basically there are memos concerning the former President’s service in the National Guard in the early 1970s, and they make him look bad, and suggest that political pressure was what kept him in the National Guard. They are now fairly widely believed to be forgeries. The fact that the CBS TV news show “60 Minutes” initially treated the memos as authentic got several folks in trouble, and led to the departure of Dan Rather from CBS. The Wikipedia article is a fine start for more details.)
Wow. I can’t believe it. Dan Rather in a recent CNN interview isn’t just saying that they did the best they could with what they knew at the time, but also claiming that the Bush National Guard memos have never been debunked: “the longer we go and nobody comes forward with proof that the documents were not what they report to be, the more I believe it.” He also said that “those who found the story uncomfortable for their partisan political purposes attacked us at what they knew to be the weakest point, which was the documents.”
So Rather is zero for two statements there.
First, it’s clear that opinions among actual relevant experts are mostly restricted to the range from “can’t tell with the information I have,” to “the documents are clearly forgeries.” I have an MS in printing, have worked as a font and typography geek since the 90s, and I’ve testified as an expert witness in this area in court, so I include myself as somebody with relevant expertise.
I’ve given my analysis of the Killian/Bush documents in an interview and article on CreativePro.com. I have also presented this analysis repeatedly, starting with the conference at the St Bride Printing Museum in London in 2004, and at the Justified West conference in Vancouver in 2009, and at a talk for The Type Directors Club in New York City this past January. I got plenty of questions and discussion, especially at the St Bride conference, but in the end, nobody disputed my analysis at any of these presentations. That’s in front of audiences including literally scores of expert typographers. On average, they probably tend towards the left politically, so you should expect them to not like my conclusions and challenge them.
I believe I have clearly and specifically disproven the specific devices that were initially frequently cited as possibly used for the memos, the IBM Executive proportional typewriter, and the IBM Selectric Composer, which latter was pretty much a low-end typesetting machine.
Also, any typographers in the audience who were skeptical should have been encouraged by me offering $1,000 in cash out of my own pocket (an offer which I have repeated since, and hereby reiterate today) to anybody who could produce a device that:
- can replicate the line endings of the memos
- was available when the memos were supposedly written circa 1973
- is not an actual zillion-dollar typesetting machine (not a Linotype or Monotype typesetter, for example)
Nobody has so much as proposed a device, presumably because it doesn’t exist. It’s been eight years.
The last loud defender of the memos who claims some expertise is Dr David Hailey. With his unique access to higher-res scans of the memos from former CBS produceer Mary Mapes (who did not return my emails requesting such access, btw), he proved that they were not printed using Times New Roman, as some had claimed. What he didn’t realize at the time was that he had in fact proved that they were printed in Times Roman, the near-twin of Times New Roman. See my comparison of the two fonts. In private correspondence since, he has conceded that Times Roman is plausible, and further that the memos are likely forgeries produced on a later model typewriter. He still believes that they were typed, because he believes the irregular degradations in letter shapes were consistent with typing. I just take it as consistent with a combination of photocopying and faxing, but that’s not critical to my argument. Hailey is not arguing that some typewriter available at the time could have produced the memos, and that’s what would be needed for the memos to be authentic.
This rebuts Rather’s statement that the memos have never been debunked. There’s tons of evidence against them, and nobody can point to a device that could have produced them.
Now as to Rather’s assertion that those who attacked the memos did so for partisan political purposes, there are only two problems.
First, it’s what logicians call an “ad hominem” attack. Instead of attacking the argument, attack the messenger or their motives. The only problem is, that tells you nothing about whether the argument is true or false. So it’s just bad form.
More importantly, the suggestion that all those attacking the memos were right-wing partisans is simply untrue. I don’t usually talk about my political views here, but for once it’s relevant to my typographic views. So here goes.
I’m a flaming liberal in most people’s books. I donated money to the Democratic presidential candidate opposing George W. Bush in both of Bush’s elections. I don’t want to put into words the strength of my dislike of the former President and most of his policies (though there are a few things he did that I agreed with). When I was a kid growing up in Canada, even the Conservative party was to the left of the US Democratic party. My problem with Obamacare is that it doesn’t go far enough.
So I don’t like Bush, okay? But that doesn’t make the documents authentic. By the way, it’s not hard to find other liberal experts whose analysis of the documents is that they are fakes. For example, this fellow. So, no, not everyone attacking the authenticity of the memos is some right-wing ideologue.
Dan Rather’s inability to admit having made a mistake is getting a little old after almost eight years.
It’s easy enough to determine that a point is 1/72 of an inch, and used to be about 1/72.27 in the days before digital type. But the challenging question is, when you look at printed type on a page, what part of a 12-point font is 12 points high? The short answer is “none.” Seriously. For metal type it’s the “body” which is not something you see in print, and for digital type it’s the “em,” which is completely virtual.
[I have been working on this piece on and off for months, and I keep on thinking it needs more graphics. But in the interests of getting it out there, I’m letting it go as is, because I think most of this is clear enough even without. If anybody wants to point me to a link or create a graphic to illustrate a point made here, feel free!]
Font Size Measurement Confusion
The background to this is long and complicated, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I first explain how this is the question that just refuses to die, and the confusion it can cause… in painful detail.
- In current litigation, Microsoft is contesting Apple’s trademark of the term “App Store.” In the latest salvo, Microsoft says Apple’s most recent brief in the case is too many pages, and in too small a font size. Interestingly, they say how many pages it is over by, but they don’t actually mention the exact font size. I am not convinced this is because of the measurement issues described elsewhere in this blog post, as one can easily check the font size in Acrobat (except for docs that are scanned in to create a PDF). The font size is supposed to be at least 11 point, and at a cursory examination it appears to be… 10.98 pt (according to the Acrobat Touch-Up text tool, anyway—I didn’t spelunk the PDF the way I would have if I were advising one side or the other). What happened? I can’t be sure, but I will note that there are some workflows that can cause this kind of minute shrinkage inadvertently. For example, when a PDF is printed, and Acrobat “helpfully” tries to make sure the document’s margins fit within the printable area on the currently targeted output device. Perhaps that (or something similar) happened here. It seems unlikely the person making the doc did it on purpose, since they did not fit within the page limit anyway, and many applications do not even allow people to adjust type size in increments that small.
- The other day I looked at a bunch of lesson slides from a university-level typography course. One of them claimed that the distance from the baseline (bottom of a letter such as H) to the cap height (top of a letter such as H) was the point size. I wish that were true, as it would be much simpler than the reality. On average, the cap height is about 70% of the point size.
- When Apple first released the Zapfino script font, they sized it relative to the largest and swashiest capitals in the font. But this made the size of the lowercase letters look very small indeed, relative to most other fonts. Around 2002, they revised it for Mac OS 10.2, so that for any given point size, it was 4× as large (some sources say 6×). This was mostly a marketing/usability decision; neither version is more “correct” from a technical point of view.
- In a closely related issue, the “em” is a typographic measurement equal to the current point size (usually an “em square” or “em quad” in two dimensions), but since it relates to point size, it too has no precise measurement relationship to anything one sees in print or on screen. I have sometimes had difficulty convincing non-typographers of this fact, notably for the relevant article on Wikipedia.
- Some years ago, I was contacted by the San Diego District Attorney’s office. A snail-mail spam-scammer was mass mailing a document that included a legal disclaimer, which the scammer was trying to make as unobtrusive as possible. The legal disclaimer was required by law to be in 12 point type. The font turned out to be a free version of Empire, with its ultra-narrow and super-thin caps and small caps. I downloaded it and as best as I could determine from a physical print-out comparison, it had indeed been printed at 12 points. Of course (for reasons described more below), one could easily have modified in the reverse of the change Apple did with Zapfino, so that 12 point type would be half as big when printed. But the real problem was that Empire is an ultracondensed sans serif, rather like what one often sees in movie poster credits, and is pretty well unreadable at 12 points. If the objective was to get people to not notice the legally-required disclaimer, the company that wrote the letters did a great job, and seemed to have done so within the law as far as point size was considered. I told the DA’s office I was sorry, but I didn’t think I had anything that could help them.
- A couple of months ago, I was contacted by New York City lawyer Brad Richter about pretty much the same issue. Recently passed legislation around Power of Attorney in New York state requires that forms granting power of attorney be printed in 12 point type. Brad had done enough reading to strongly suspect the truth: point size doesn’t relate to anything specific in size of printed letters! Yes, given a specific font, the size of 12 point text in print is related to the font data. But 12 point in one font can be bigger or smaller than 12 point in another. If the objective was to provide useful guidance to people using typical fonts, then I’d say the law is just fine. But if we take that the objective is, as Brad described it to me, to legislate the “literal size of text – a minimum physical printed size so that the elderly can easily read the form,” then the law is useless. (Below I propose some wording that might come closer to achieving the desired effect.)
Back in the days of metal type, the answer was simple, even if it didn’t relate to anything one saw in the printed output. The point size of the type was simply the height of the metal body the type was cast on. Additional line spacing was added by means of thin strips of lead between the lines, hence the term “leading” (pronounced “ledding”) for line spacing.
Above is shown a piece of traditional metal type (photo courtesy Daniel Ullrich, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0). The added red bracket shows the body height, which one would measure to determine the type size.
In metal type, without leading, the distance from the baseline of one line to the next would be the same as the point size. However as you can see in the example, once the metal type was printed, there was no direct means of knowing what the original point size had been, unless one also knows either the original typeface or the amount of leading used with some certainty.
Today’s Answer & Implications
In digital type, the font’s letters are drawn on a grid, where an arbitrary number of units (often 1000 or 2048) are set to equal the “em” which is then scaled to the current point size for output. So to get 12 point type in print, with a 2048-unit em, that digital space is scaled so that the 2048 units in the design space are equal to 12 points. As Karsten Luëcke put it in a recent discussion on Typophile:
In digital type, the EM does not refer to a “real” box. You better consider the EM as a yardstick – an abstract letter-height yardstick which establishes a link between micro and macro level, between font-internal unit system and font-external unit system: The font-internal unit system is defined via UPM, i.e. as the number of units per EM. It is the letter-design grid or resolution. The font-external unit system may be typographic point, millimeter, pixel, etc. And this abstract EM serves to project the font-internal unit system onto the font-external unit system.
An example. You have a font with 2048 units per EM, internally, which is to be projected on 12 pt type size, externally. So 12 pts = 2048 M-units or 1 M-unit = 12/2048 pt.
So to image the font at 12 point, one scales the abstract EM to equal 12 points.
The catch for purposes of measurement and standardization is that while there are some restrictions on how large one can draw letters in the design space, there is no necessary and required relationship between the size of the letters and the em. On average, with Latin-based languages such as English, the “cap height” of capital letters is about 70% of the point size, and the “x-height” of lower-case letters is about 70% of the cap height, or about half the point size. But (and I cannot stress this enough), those are only averages, and there is no technical requirement whatsoever that one be close to those averages. Indeed, x-height relative to cap height is one of the ways typographers describe typefaces (“high x-height” vs “low x-height”).
[UPDATE : I did some research for a client, and verified that as expected, cap size varies substantially between different fonts. In my sample, cap size was most usually 62%-78% of the em square, averaging right around 67-70%. Or to put it another way, if you take an “average” font printed at a given point size, other fonts at the same point size will commonly have capitals as much as 10% smaller or 10% larger than the capitals from the average font. At the extreme you can find fonts “in the wild” with caps barely over half the average size! (I expect you could also find fonts with caps close to half again the average size, but I wasn’t looking so hard in that direction.)]
Moreover, the Zapfino example given earlier shows how a given font could be at a radically different size relative to the point size and still be a legitimate font. Indeed, anyone knowledgeable in modifying fonts could in a matter of minutes, take almost any font and create a modified version, with the only visible difference being that text at a given point size is only a fraction of the size.
What About the Web?
The web can use points, but just defines them in terms of pixels. It has inherited the Windows definition of that ratio, so on the web by default 1 pt = 4/3 pixels, so 12 pt = 16 pixels (but see below).
It used to be that Mac browsers used the Mac relationship of points to pixels, which was one-to-one, but that has been abandoned just a few years ago. so at least points vs screen pixels are now consistent across platforms, though how big a point is on screen (or a nominal browser pixel for that matter) depends on your screen resolution, what zoom level your browser happens to be set to at the moment, and (on Windows) whether you have set something other than the default screen resolution of 96dpi.
But the relationship between pixels and points is broken in some browsers on Windows (such as Internet Explorer 7 and earlier) when the user has a non-standard resolution set. For example, if you actively tell Windows your screen resolution is 120 dpi instead of 96 dpi, that means that point sizes get multiplied by 5/4, but sizes in pixels do not. So at 120 dpi, a font set to 9 pt will instead show up at 15 px, but a font set to 12 px will still be 12 px, and now smaller. Arguably this is a reason never to do font sizes in px. (Bitmapped grapics generally are not scaled by the 5/4 ratio in browsers, but they are in other apps such as Word or the usual graphics previewing programs.)
This may get even less standard in the future, as CSS 3 is threatening to make pixels a truly imaginary thing, always equal to 4/3 the point size. This would cause pixels to scale into virtual pixels when non-standard resolutions are set.
Of course, some users (like me) are constantly changing the zoom level in their browsers, which also plays hob with any notion of fixed sizes for points, though at least relative sizes are maintained by browser zoom.
Things get kinda weird on the web, in another regard. CSS can use “ems” as a measurement unit. Okay, that makes sense, right? I mean, why not set an indent or margin in ems? No problem. Where it gets weird is that you can set the type size in ems. Now, logically based on the “normal” definition of the em, this makes no sense, because the size of an em is always the same as the type size, so the size of the type is always one em. But CSS allows you to break that assumption by setting an em to some specific number of points or pixels, and then setting the type size to some multiple of that. It gets even weirder, actually, because you don’t need to define the em in the first place. If you don’t define it, the standard browser assumption is that one em = 16 pixels (Firefox and possibly Chrome), or 12 points (Internet Explorer). The difference between IE and the rest doesn’t matter with default Windows resolutions, but it gets interesting at non-standard Windows resolutions because IE then scales the default em, while Firefox does not…. Ouch.
[Note: edited and expanded this section several times on 21 March 2011 to better reflect system scaling setting issues. Thanks to Beat Stamm for pointing out the omission and helping me with details I hadn’t yet encountered.]
How to Legislate Type Size Today?
First, a disclaimer: One can implement reasonable precautions, but it’s not possible to stop determined people with sufficient knowledge of fonts and typography from creating customized fonts, which can in turn be used to create either illegible documents, or disclaimers that most people would never read. To even attempt to cover all possibiities would probably yield many pages of added law, which frankly somebody like me could probably still find a loophole in with a moderate investment of time and thought. What reasonably can be done, however, is to make the laws tight enough that it would take significantly more expertise, creativity and effort to work around them than is currently the case.
So what variables does the law need to control when it wants to legislate a minimum size and legibility?
- Instead of (or even in addition to) declaring a minimum point size, one could declare both a minimum cap height (defining that as the height of the smallest of the capital letters A-Z), and a minimum x-height (defining that as the height of the smallest of the lowercase letters a-z), both in physical units. For example, one could require a cap height of at least 7 points and an x-height of at least 5 points, which would be met by 12 point type in most everyday text typefaces.
- As evidenced by the case described above from San Diego, adequate width also needs to be legislated. You don’t have to be a font geek to go out and license an ultracondensed font. One way of avoiding this would be to say that the total advance width of the letters a-z and A-Z, at the chosen font and size, meet some minimum. Times set at 12 pts clocks in at roughly 208 pts for A-Z and 143 pts for a-z. After checking many other fonts, I believe one could go with minimums of perhaps 162 pts (2.25”) wide for A-Z and 120 pts (1 2/3”) for a-z as minimums.
- I probably ought to add something on stroke thickness as well. However, given that stroke thickness varies within a font, and differs between horizontal and vertical strokes as well, the best way to cover this is not obvious. The desire would be to avoid extra light (or ultra bold) fonts. I wouldn’t feel too sad if it also outlawed typefaces such as Bodoni for legal documents, due to their very thin horizontals. Hmmm.
Most common system fonts a reasonable person would think of using would mee these requirements, including Times/Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, Courier/Courier New, Verdana, Trebuchet, Georgia, Calibri, Consolas, Constantia, and Corbel.
Of course, I’ve only addressed the font size part of the equation. There are many other components to legibility of text in print, such as line spacing, letter and word spacing, line length, and the color of the text and the paper.
[EDITED various times to clarify minor points and improve wording.]
ADDENDUM 16 August 2012:
This stuff just doesn’t go away! A recent decision of the Michigan Supreme Court hinged on exactly this issue. The underlying subject matter was the hottest state political issue of recent years, an attempt to put in place a ballot measure that would in effect stop the ongoing removals of collective bargaining rights for folks doing business with cities. Here’s the Detroit Free Press about the case, and the actual court decision (including concurring and dissenting opinions).
I have a few talks coming up in the next little while. Currently planned:
WorldWare Conference, 17-19 March 2009, Santa Clara, CA
Font Handling in Multilingual Software
Um, well, yes, this talk is today. Fonts are a critical part of making software world-ready, and applications must test with the right fonts. Various font formats take different paths to dealing (or not dealing) with the needs of the world’s languages. Operating systems offer varying levels of support for the different formats. Learn how to navigate and escape this maze!
Justified West Conference, 25 April 2009, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Justified West 2009 Conference poster image—click for higher-res version
To register, phone 604-323-5322. Email Dr Shelley Gruendler for more info
Thomas Phinney discusses and shows cases of forged documents and other typographic investigations he’s been asked to investigate, from a
father’s will to the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, to the US
presidency. Learn how choices of fonts, typography and output devices
have ruined perfectly good forgeries.
HOW Design Conference, 24-27 June 2009, Austin, Texas
10 Things You Didn’t Know Fonts Could Do
Join type guru Thomas Phinney on a whirlwind tour of advanced typography using OpenType, from the incredibly useful to the bizarre. You’ll learn how advanced typographic effects formerly only available to experts can now be automated, and see how cutting-edge fonts can do everything from emulate realistic handwriting to translate languages. You’ll get plenty of tips and tricks (including tips for more legible type in print and onscreen), and there will be time set aside for Q&A—so be sure to bring your burning type questions.
This is a sad case, really. Bob Hayes was a fabulous athlete back in the 1960s, first as an Olympic sprinter, and then as wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys NFL football team. He set and tied various world records as a sprinter. He forced the Cowboys’ opponents to invent the new concept of a “zone defense,” because he was simply too darn fast for them to keep up using the man-to-man defense (previously used universally in the NFL). Even today, Hayes remains the only person to have won both an Olympic gold medal and a Superbowl.
Hayes’ career ended with drug use and other problems, which may have had something to do with why he never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his lifetime (he died in 2002). Or perhaps it was racism? I’m no football historian, so I can’t say.
What I can say is that the letter from Hayes, which his purported half-sister read on national television last weekend, when he was at long last elected to the Hall of Fame, is a forgery. Or at least, it was printed and supposedly signed by him after he was dead, so I don’t know what else to call it.
Supposedly he wrote the letter well before his death in the fall of 2002, and gave it to his half-sister when he last saw her in 1999. The idea is that he knew his health was poor, and wanted to write up a statement to be read if he were to be inducted into the Hall of Fame post-humously.
So in some ways the fact that it’s a forgery is kind of trivial. The only reason anybody cares is that there were touching words and it was a teary-eyed moment for this statement to be read from this fellow long after he was gone. This letter being a forgery doesn’t—or at least shouldn’t—detract from celebrating this person’s athletic accomplishments.
In that sense, this is akin to the furore over the Bush National Guard memos, where the near-certain forgery of those particular memos distracted from the broader legitimate questions about the president’s military service.
That being said, for those of us into typographic trivia, here are some more details. 🙂
I was in an email exchange yesterday from a reporter from the Dallas Morning News, which resulted in a brief quote from me in the article in today’s paper (“Letter purportedly from former Dallas Cowboy Hayes under more scrutiny,” access may require registration.)
The paper also kindly also gave me permission to repost the photo they sent me, which is ignificantly better resolution than the one seen in the online version of the paper. Click on the low-res one below to see the high-res version.
Here’s my reproduction as described in my letter to the reporter below (click for the PDF).
Below is the full analysis I sent to the Dallas Morning News, with just a couple of minor edits.
I am taking as given that Bob Hayes died in September 2002, and the question is whether this document could have been produced for him to sign it, whether in 1999 as claimed, or in fact any point prior to his death.
I conclude that (1) the typeface is Calibri, (2) the document shown in the photo could not have been printed when Hayes was still alive to sign it (for instance, in 1999), (3) it is highly probable that the document was set in Microsoft Word 2007 (Windows) or 2008 (Mac), which were not available while Hayes was alive.
I recreated the entire document in Word 2007 (here’s a PDF of my version) using that application’s default settings, which include 1″ margins and 11 point Calibri type. Besides the massive visual similarity to Calibri, the pattern of line endings precisely matches the purported Hayes document. By that I mean not only do the lines break on the same words, but how the letters line up from one line to the next at the end of the lines is identical.
It’s worth noting that in older versions of Microsoft Word, the default font was Times New Roman (12 point in 2003/2004, and 10 point in earlier versions), and default margins were 1.25″. Given that the document matches perfectly with the Microsoft Word 2007/2008 defaults compared to previous versions, and that these settings are unlike those of any major application available prior to that time, it seems highly probable that the document was created using a version of Microsoft Word that did not exist while Hayes was still alive. However, it would be possible to use other programs to set the document and get the same results, though one would have to change the default settings to more closely mimic MS Word.
Some people have commented that they have an older version of Word, yet they also have the Calibri typeface. Calibri can be installed by any of a number of Microsoft applications and updates, including the compatibility update that makes Word 2003 more compatible with Word 2007. Calibri really wasn’t available while Hayes was still alive to sign the letter.
There are other issues besides the typography. Perhaps Hayes would not misspell names such as “Stauback,” “49rs” and “Mathew” (for “Staubach,” “49ers” and “Matthew,” respectively). The family says the signature doesn’t match, either. But as far as I’m concerned, the typeface alone is sufficient to invalidate the letter.
[Updates: 07 Feb 2009, minor rearranging to improve clarity/flow; 09Feb 2009, more of the same,]