Monthly Archives: September 2010

Type and Reading

I read many books on typography. Currently, I’m finishing a collection of essays and journal articles on typography. The articles date back to the late nineteenth century, with a particular concentration on two time periods: the 1920s and 1980s. The collection is:

Heller, Steven, and Philip B. Meggs. Texts on Type: Critical Writings on Typography. New York: Allworth Press, 2001. 1581150822 (pbk.)

Though some of the authors, especially the major typographers of the 1920s, called for radical changes to type and letterforms, most of the essays emphasize the need for text to be readable. Type should not interfere in any way with reading, though sometimes it is appropriate for type to convey some meaning visually.

What brings the issue of type “into focus” for me is the rise of eBooks. The display fonts of various devices significantly affects the reading experience.

When the earliest computer screens appeared, they were monochrome displays with either 40 or 80 columns and 20 to 25 rows. Each letter was composed on a 7-by-8 or 8-by-8 pixel grid. The popular systems from Apple, Atari, and Commodore featured the 40-column displays because the screens were often televisions, which had mediocre resolution at best. IBM and other “business” computer companies sold expensive displays with 80-column screens.

A 40-character width with “chunky” or “blocky” letters was difficult to read. Much narrower than the familiar page of paper, reading required a lot of scrolling or “page flipping” and was tedious. Even the 80-column displays weren’t ideal, but they were a lot better.

Today, many of us read on phones and PDAs that are not much better for reading than the television-monitors of the 1970s and 80s. High-resolution devices are appearing, with better contrast and far better font technology. Reading will become easier.

Historically, type has always been limited by technology. Wood blocks were fragile, so letters had to be large and “blocky” just as a low-resolution screen limited the shapes and sizes of letters. Metal type was much better, though there were still wear issues and matters of ink “spread” on paper. Today, displays are getting so much better that fine lines are no longer an issue. Even diagonal lines, an impossible task on old computer displays, are now smooth and easy to see.

In the early days of computing, fonts with slight serifs were used to create letters that closely mimicked the printers of the time. Dot-matrix printers were 80-column devices using the same 8-by-8 grids as screens. However, output and display never matched — only the basic positions of letters could be approximated.

The slight serifs helped differentiate a lowercase “I/i” from “L/l” or “1.” As technology improved, designers found that sans-serif fonts, especially at larger sizes, were better suited to the straight horizontal/vertical lines of a medium-resolution video display. Even today, most television networks use sans-serif fonts onscreen because they are “smoother” on mid-range screens.

I happen to find serif faces easier to read. Finally, eReaders are reaching the point at which a nice serif face is sharp, clear, and readable. I can read serif type faster because the letterforms are more unique than the letters of many sans serif fonts. I am, by nature, a slow reader, so the visual cues of word and letterforms help me decode with less effort.

If you are preparing an eBook with “default fonts” I ask that you use a serif font for the text and sans for the headings. This is similar to the old defaults in Microsoft Word: Times for text, Arial for headings. Some ePubs do not set the fonts, but I would appreciate it if they did. I do set the default fonts of my iPod Touch to these combinations. Of course, I also think a reader should always be free to alter the fonts as long as the design doesn’t alter the author’s or designer’s intentions.

Typographers and designers are involved in eReader development. I hope we someday have screens that are as good as the printed page. It would be nice to see pages that look like familiar magazine layouts, which currently isn’t possible on most devices. The screens simply aren’t up to the task of displaying detailed, elegant, fonts.

- Scott