Wired magazine’s puff-piece on Google’s Roboto typeface revisions is really bothering me. I thought if I held off, I could just do a few sarcastic tweets and be done with it, but no.
I am not a huge Roboto-hater like some folks in the type community. I just object to uncritically publishing quotes that make blatantly false statements.
“UIs [user interfaces] are crafted from images and type,” Matias Duarte, Android’s head of design tells WIRED. “But the idea of having a typeface that’s thought out as a UI typeface—that’s not been done before.”
Well, that’s pretty much simply false. (UPDATE: Duarte says he thinks he was misquoted, basically he was trying to just say UI typefaces are hard, and Roboto had a particular challenge in needing to work in a wide range of contexts and types of devices.)
[Perhaps not Duarte, but apparently the Wired author was] unfamiliar both with an obscure operating system called “Windows” and its typefaces Segoe UI (introduced in Windows 7) and Tahoma (introduced in Windows 95), both of which were specifically designed/intended for UI usage. Not to mention Chicago, developed for the original Mac OS back in 1984. (UPDATE: Plus, there is Prelude, designed by David Berlow and Font Bureau as a UI typeface for the Palm Pre operating system—when Duarte himself was in charge of UI for the Pre. Not to mention Android’s own Droid Sans, also designed as a UI typeface.)
A slightly weaker argument could be made for Lucida Grande (the Mac OS X UI font), which is only slightly tweaked from Lucida Sans. Of course, Lucida Sans itself was specifically designed for low-res screens and the like. Designer Chuck Bigelow got a MacArthur “Genius” award for his work on the family.
There are seven substantial paragraphs to the article, but both the people quoted are on the Android team. Thus it avoids mentioning the most famous thing anybody has said about Roboto, ever: Stephen “Stewf” Coles calling it a “four-headed Frankenfont” in a strong attack on the design philosophy behind it.
This is also why there is so much puffery throughout the article emphasizing how the typeface is designed for performance rather than aesthetics. Such choices do certainly explain most of the changes from v1 to v2 of Roboto, but “performance over aesthetics” is clearly false as a general proposition about the typeface. My big problem with Roboto is that the choice of closed counterforms for many letters and numbers (35CGSacs) is an inherently anti-legibility choice. Yes, they had more of these before the revision, and some (5) have been slightly improved, but they need to finish the process of transforming it into a different typeface if they want it to be an outstanding UI typeface.
Indeed, I would argue that such closed shapes are stupid bordering on criminal in a user interface typeface. There is a reason that most other typefaces specifically designed for user interfaces have used open counters, and that is because there is massive evidence that tells us these shapes are more legible (see for example the research cited in Sofie Beier’s book on the subject). Legibility should be
a the paramount concern for a user interface typeface.
Roboto designer Christian Robertson explains the mix of open and closed shapes as saying that they create an appealing texture in body text. Which is lovely and all, but not as important as legibility.
That said, to be fair, Apple is doing a much worse thing in choosing Helvetica Neue as their UI typeface, first for iOS and soon for the next version of OS X. They too have gone to lengths to declare publicly how they are optimizing it for legibility, which is rather like trying to polish a turd. Helvetica is inherently anti-legibility. The only way to make it otherwise would be to change it so much that it doesn’t look like Helvetica any more. Sadly, that is not what Apple is doing.
Aside from the business of being first with a dedicated custom UI font, if Google and Apple were to explain that they are making their UI font choices for design reasons, that’s fine. But when they (or Wired) start touting the awesome legibility and functionality of their choices, I have to call them out on it. Nonsense.
Are you a user of fonts who needs to tell if a font is well made, or an aspiring novice type designer? The March–April 2014 issue of Communication Arts features my article on evaluating font quality, “How to Tell If a Font Sucks,” on p. 24—now online as well!
It looks like it is hard to see the subtleties in some of the graphics in the down-res web-ified version of the article, though the print mag looks great. I will see about posting a version with high-res images in PDF.
I’m really pleased with this article. My new editor Robin Doyle at CA did a great job helping me clarify some points and figure out where more graphics were needed.
That said, there are some corner cases and subtleties around this discussion that I didn’t have time or space to get into in the article, which was already long and involved. But that is what blogs are for. 🙂
Although I stand by everything in that article, typefaces that are deliberately naïve/unsophisticated are one place for legitimate exceptions to some of the guidance I give in the article. For example, I had a lovely discussion with some folks who made a typeface based on some classic road signs. The original signs did not use optical compensation at stroke joins (point 5 in the article), so they didn’t do it in the typeface either. Although I might rarely be interested in going that way myself, I have to agree that it was a perfectly legitimate design choice, given the origins of the typeface as a signage revival—even though in many another context I would be calling it crap!
Optical compensation at stroke joins is also specific to certain typographic traditions. Certainly for Latin-based fonts (English, French, German, Hungarian, etc.) it is nearly universal, as it is for Cyrillic (Russian, etc.) and Greek. But some writing systems do things differently, such as Devanagari (used for Hindi, Marathi, Sanskit).
Non-western writing systems can also change other assumptions. For example, the idea that straight-to-round transitions (point 6 in my article) should be very smooth is very much not the case for Thai.
Anyhow, check it out and let me know if I can clarify anything else!
What are some good resources for non-designers, who perhaps write, edit or publish professional documents? Somebody recently asked this in the comments to my blog. There are quite a lot of resources I could suggest, but given limited time, we should limit the complexity/depth/scope of the resources. So given that….
Before getting into the depths of font selection, teach typography. I think Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography is a great place to start. Short, straightforward, no-nonsense, useful, and little I could disagree with.
After that, for an intro to selecting and combining fonts, this article from Smashing Magazine is good.
At the next level of complexity, there are plenty of good longer introductions, mostly aimed at designers. Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type is a good start here. Nothing wrong with reading Butterick first, before moving on to this, btw!
For more advanced thought, the closest thing to a typography bible remains Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It is better as a reference book or to read a chapter at a time, rather than try to take it all in at once.
The original query from a business writing teacher at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs:
I teach business writing at a university and we have a document design unit. I try to get the students to understand fonts, but don’t have a good exercise, video, material, etc. about effectively using fonts. DO you have any tips, links, etc. that I might be able to use with the students to help them discover fonts beyond Times Roman and Arial and understand how to use them effectively? Thank!
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.
Recently, a question by Cynthia Batty on the ATypI mailing list led me to do a quick survey on what we call typefaces without serifs. Click here to take survey.
Here are the results of my little survey. There have been over 300 responses. It’s certainly not a random sample, mostly people deeply involved with typography in some way. Interestingly, the results didn’t really vary by expertise level. (The order of the possible answers was randomly varied so as not to influence the answers, btw.)
- “sans serif” 68%
- “sans-serif” 27%
- “sanserif” 2%
- other 3%
The most common comments under “other” were that it should be “sans serif” as a noun and “sans-serif” as an adjective (for example, “a sans-serif typeface”). Certainly if the noun form is “sans serif” then standard English usage would dictate that the compound adjective would be hyphenated.
Another common response was that “sans” is an acceptable informal shorthand for “sans serif.”
Finally, it seems that despite a bit of solid support in the UK for “sanserif,” that spelling is neither particularly widely used nor accepted. The Oxford English Dictionary accepts it and dates it back to 1830, and the Oxford University Press, Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style) and eminent professors James Mosley and Michael Twyman all use it, as does typographer and typography author Robin Kinross. I must confess to not much liking “sanserif” myself.
[Edited to correct spelling of “Mosley” and add a little more detail on “sanserif,” and again to add Bringhurst the to list of “sanserif” supporters.]
As always, it will be a great event with tons of fascinating and varied content about fonts, typefaces and typography. Going as a speaker usually nets you free conference admission, which saves you hundreds of dollars. It also gives people you don’t know yet a reason to talk to you about something you are interested in… recommended!
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 had 315 respondents before I closed off my survey on font terms. In general, the results were along the same lines I would have quessed, but less strong/clear in many areas, and there were a couple of surprises.
(On a side note, I am currently recovering from jaw surgery this past Monday. The surgeon cut through my jaw in three places, and also removed three wisdom teeth. So I’m a wee bit sore….)
There is no consensus, but the overall opinion is that in today’s world of digital typography “a typeface” means the general design, including all its styles, regardless of how it’s instantiated, while “a font” means a single style of a typeface, such as Myriad bold condensed italic, in a specific file format.
This is the same usage I prefer, but I’ll point out that there are some smart people who are prominent typographers who disagree. However, they’re in the minority, even among type industry professionals (which I will sometimes refer to as just “industry” in the results).
There doesn’t seem to be any single preferred terminology for indicating a “superfamily,” which might contain related typefaces, such as Stone Serif and Stone Sans.
The most popular term for a family of only up to four linked font styles, including bold and italic, seems to be simply “family,” to my surprise.
The painful details below are probably only of interest to hard-core font geeks, and while writing it up I wondered if I was perhaps getting a little too detailed….
I used features of SurveyMonkey to do such things as randomize the order in which different answer options were shown from one user to the next, to avoid any systematic bias due to presentation order.
I analyzed the differences between groups looking at both font expertise and geography (questions 8 and 9). Geography rarely made a significant difference in results, but level of font expertise often did.
(Sorry this analysis has taken so long, I’ve been remarkably busy with other things lately, such as being diagnosed with diabetes and getting a new job. I expect to remain pretty busy for the next couple of months, so my blog posts may be few for a while.)
SEE FOR YOURSELF
You can see the survey results yourself, as aggregate results in simple charts on SurveyMonkey.
You can also look at these PDFs I made of the results. Sorry about the lousy page breaks in them, but they retain the formatting of the SurveyMonkey HTML version, and show the various filters I applied:
- All respondents
- Type industry professionals: type designers, font developers, font sales and support, etcetera
- Advanced users: typographers, software developers who work closely with fonts, graphic/web designers who are “into” fonts
- Advanced users + industry pros: the two groups above, combined
- Average graphic designer or web designer (and a few average users): there weren’t many average users, so I lumped them in here.
- Outside USA/Canada
- Western European
In general, I didn’t find much interesting difference by geography, and the differences by expertise seemed to be on a fairly linear scale. That is to say, the more “advanced users” were always in between the industry professionals and the regular graphic designers in their take on any given issue. I was most interested in the opinion of industry pros, but if this differed a lot from more common usage, that was interesting, too.
I report below on each question, and commenting when some particular sub-group(s) answered that question significantly differently than the average. I analyzed results by level of font expertise, and by geography.
Q1. What are the differences between a “font” and a “typeface”? (You can check ALL that apply)
- 57% say “a typeface embodies more than one style (e.g. bold and italic) while a font is a single style (e.g. bold condensed italic)”
- 55% say “a typeface is the abstract design; a font is a computer file instantiating a typeface in a specific format”
- 11% say for “other” and made comments
- 9.5% say “there is no difference, they are synonyms”
With increasing expertise, people were much more likely to pick the “abstract design” option and somewhat less likely to go for “more than one style.” Type industry professionals went 73%/48% on these, while average users went 46%/63%, differences of 27% and 15%, respectively.
Given the industry expert responses on question 2, I think one key issue here was that a typeface can have more than one style, but doesn’t necessarily. The other key thing is that there is much more consensus around the definition of “font” than the definition of “typeface.”
Q2. When talking about scalable digital fonts, what constitutes “a font” in your mind?
- 60% went for “One font is a single style of a
typeface, in a given font format. So Arial Bold Italic is one font and Arial Italic is another. (Point size doesn’t matter.)” That went up to 85% for font industry professionals.
- 20% went for “One font includes a base style plus any linked styles (bold, italic, bold italic) but no more than that. Arial is one font (including bold and italic), Arial Narrow is a second (including bold and italic), and Arial Black is a third.” Only 5% of industry professionals said this.
- 8% say “one font includes all the different possible styles (condensed, extended, bold, italic)” (4% of industry professionals)
- 8% wanted the extra specificity of size being included, the traditional definition from metal type: “One font is a given style at a specific size, just like in metal type. 10 point Arial Bold Italic is one font, and 12 point Arial Bold Italic is a different font.” Interestingly, only 4% of industry pros picked this.
- 2% each went for “other” or “don’t know / not sure”
Q3. Which of the following elements is part of the definition of “a single typeface” in your mind? Check ALL that apply.
- 68% say “It is a family of one or more styles (including bold and italic)” (64% of industry pros)
- 54% say “It is the design, regardless of how it’s instantiated” (62% of industry)
- 54% say “It can include variants by optical size (such as display as well as regular)”
- 52.5% say “It can include variants by width (such as condensed and extended)” (48% of industry)
- 23% say “A typeface can include major style variants such as serif/sans/slab/monospaced” (17% of industry)
- 6% say “It includes no more styles than four, which are style-linked (regular, italic, bold, bold italic)”
Q4. How appropriate would you say each of the following terms is for meaning a single face/style of a font family in a given format, such as Helvetica Bold Condensed Italic in OpenType CFF?
Available responses ranged from “Absolutely Not” (1) to “Fits Perfectly” (6). So for each term, one can give the average rating on this 1-6 scale, as well as percentages who gave each specific rating.
- “Font” was the highest rated at 4.4 on average, with 36% saying it “fits perfectly.” This dominance was greater with industry pros, at 4.7 and 45%.
- “Style” was rated 4.2 on average, with 24% saying it “fits perfectly” (just as many said it was a “very good” or “good” option). It tied with “variant” for having the fewest people hating it at 4%.
- “Variant” was rated 3.9 on average, with 20% saying it “fits perfectly” (27% said it was a “good” option)
- “Weight” was rated 3.8 on average, with 18% saying it “fits perfectly” (20% said it was a “good” option). Industry gave this a 3.5 on average
- “Face” was rated 3.3 on average, with 16% saying it “fits perfectly” (and 23% saying “maybe”). Industry gave it a 3.1.
Q5. How appropriate would you say each of the following terms is for use in describing a style-linked group of up to four fonts (regular, italic, bold, bold italic)?
Same response options as above, yielding the same 6-point scale equivalent.
- “Family” came out on top with a 4.4 average, which surprised me. I’ve always thought the term better suited to a broader group, perhaps a synonym for “typeface.” But I may need to broaden my thinking.
- “Typeface” got 3.8 on average for this (3.4 from industry), which also surprised me because it was higher than I expected. Seems to me that industry agrees that “typeface” is broader than this, but too many people think of typefaces as only having four members.
- “Style-linked Family” got 3.3 on average (but 3.7 from industry). I have previously gone with “style-linked group” but I think I’ll adopt this instead. It’s the most popular term which is still unambiguous.
- “Style-linked Group” got 3.0 on average. This is the term I have previously used.
- “Styling Group,” “Styling Family” and “Font” all got 2.7 on average, which is below the midpoint (and even lower from industry, with 2.5, 2.3 and 1.9, respectively). Adam Twardoch recently invented “styling group” to be his preferred term for FontLab tutorials, which is why I put it in the survey. I don’t think I would suggest sticking with it, though.
Q6. How appropriate is each of the following terms for describing a typeface family with an arbitrary number of styles? For example, they could vary in weight, width, slope, optical size, and possibly other minor stylistic ways.
Same response options as above, yielding the same 6-point scale equivalent.
- “Font Family” got a 4.4. I have long considered this a synonym for “typeface,” and may start using it more.
- “Extended Font Family” got a 4.2.
- “Typeface” got a 4.1.
- “Font” got 2.25 (the surprising part for me was that 4% of respondents thought it “fits perfectly”!)
Q7. What’s the best term for describing a set of related fonts/typefaces/etcetera that differ in major design characteristics? For example, there might be a serif, a sans serif, a monospaced semi-sans, and a slab serif version, each in turn comprising a full type family (or whatever one calls them) of its own. You construct a term by combining an adjective (options across the top) with a noun (options down the left side). This creates combined terms such as “type series” and “font suite.” Please check ONLY ONE BOX for this question, unless you feel there are two or more equally good first choices.
i sort of threw this question in to attempt to explore the question, and maybe narrow the range of reasonable options a bit.
“Collection,” “Extended Family,” and “Suite” were the most popular main terms, with optionally sticking in “Typeface” as in “Typeface Collection,” “Extended Typeface Family” and “Typeface Suite.”
Personally I prefer “Type” as an adjective if one is to be used at all, but that was only popular in conjunction with second-tier popularity terms such as “Type System” and “Type Series.” (The other second-tier term was “Super-family” which was most popular with no qualifier at all, or with “Typeface.”)
I don’t really get why anybody would want to put “Typeface” and “Family” in the same term. It seems redundant to me.
Other terms ranked much lower, including “Type Series,” “Typeface Meta-family,” “Clan” and “Uber-family.”
Q8. How deeply involved are you with fonts and typography?
- 22.5% Very Deeply (examples: type designer; font production, font sales or support)
- 43% Deeply (examples: typographer, software developer who works closely with fonts, graphic/web designer who is “into” fonts)
- 30% Moderately (examples: average graphic designer or web designer)
- 4% Average (example: just use fonts in Microsoft Office)
Q9. Where are you from, and where do you live?
(Update: I deleted the chart version of this, because SurveyMonkey really made a mess of what it did with percentages. But the results are….)
Mostly educated in:
- 59% USA/Canada
- 30% Western Europe
- 4% Central or Eastern Europe
- 4% Australia / New Zealand
- 5% elsewhere
(Adds up to more than 100% because some people checked more one location, and because of rounding.)
- 59% USA/Canada
- 28% Western Europe
- 4% Central or Eastern Europe
- 4% Australia / New Zealand
- 5% elsewhere
Almost identical to the results for “educated.”
[Post updated 8 April 2009 to correct a couple of minor transcription errors. These did not materially effect the results, being differences of 0.5% and 1.5%. – T]
[Post formatting updated 3 May 2011 to work better with current CSS template.]
[UPDATE 5 Mar 2009: Survey is now closed. I am analyzing and writing up the results.]
I’ve noticed over the years that there isn’t a perfect consensus on the use of certain terms, such as “font” and “typeface.” I am of the opinion that there is a strong majority usage, and historical precedent, but I’m curious to understand better current usage, and how it differs by degree of font expertise (a.k.a “geekiness”) and/or geographic location.
Please take my survey. I’ll let it run until I feel like I’ve got enough responses, then I’ll post the results and my analysis.
I’m eager to learn more. Is there a gap between expert usage and the average user? Maybe we’ll discover that I’m just a stick in the mud regarding terms that have mutated over time… or maybe I’ll get ammunition to defend the Wikipedia definitions from the clueless, and persuade type foundries to standardize their langauge. Stay tuned!
SPOILER ALERT! Please don’t read the comments below until after you’ve done the survey! There are definitely some… well, not spoilers, but potential influencers and links to other pieces on the subject. Thanks!
[UPDATE: Survey results are here.]