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Get the Hint

While the design of the face is important in making it readable on-screen, it's also vital the screen fonts be well hinted.

At its most basic level hinting (or, more accurately, instructing) a font is a method of defining exactly which pixels are turned on in order to create the best possible character bitmap shape at small sizes and low resolutions. Hints are necessary because the numbers of pixels (dots on screen) available to display a font at small sizes is so small that one pixel on or off can totally change the way a letter displays. A curve can become a blob. The stem of one letter may appear two pixels wide while another is only one pixel wide, causing words to look extremely uneven.

While many fonts are "auto-hinted" using generic instructions, fonts requiring especially clean screen display require manual hinting. It's not glamorous, but it's absolutely essential to clean on-screen type.

Verdana and Georgia were hinted by Tom Rickner, a type designer and expert hinter for Monotype. According to Rickner, there are "several man-months" of hinting in each typeface.

DWH: Were any special software tools used to hint these faces?

All of the hinting was completely done by hand. Hinting by hand allows the TrueType instructor to carefully coordinate between the various styles in a family, assuring consistency and uniformity where desired.

DWH: What sizes were most important in terms of hinting?

The three critical sizes were 8, 10 and 12 point on Windows, which are 11, 13 and 16 ppem (pixels per em) respectively. Although the hints work at all sizes, I spent the most time on these three sizes, ensuring that the TrueType faithfully reproduced Matthew Carter's hand-edited bitmaps. A great deal of time was also spent on the other sizes from 9 to 16 ppem.

DWH: How long did the process take?

It was somewhat of an iterative process. Matthew would provide me with the outlines of key characters, which were then hinted to see how well they worked with the bitmaps. Occasionally modifications were made to either the outlines or bitmaps before the rest of the character set was completed. As Jelle Bosma, a fellow hinter at Monotype has said, hinting TrueType is like playing Tetris... you can always improve your score, but you can never win!

DWH: Did Carter's technique of starting his design with bitmaps, then created outlines to be hinting back to the bitmaps, make the hinting process easier?

It gave me a target to hit. Rather than spending time thinking about what the best pixel pattern was for a particular letter, I spent my time figuring out how to create with hints what Matthew had done in pixels. And since Matthew was unconstrained by the hinting technology, he created the best possible bitmaps for me to match. In some cases it took more time to create those shapes with hints, but I think we got a superior product in the end.

DWH: Do you think that the complexity and time required for the kind of hinting used in Verdana will cause fewer typefaces to be designed for the screen, or will it just create a market for expert hinters?

As users become accustomed to a certain level of quality, it will be expected of publishers to provide that level consistently. And why not? With the amount of reading we are having to do on screen nowadays, it should be as pleasurable an experience as possible.

DWH: Is TrueType the best format for hinting--does it offer the most options or the ability to create your own hinting mechanisms?

Absolutely. No other format is as powerful as TrueType. It is the only option if you want hand-tuned bitmap quality without bitmaps.

TrueType has gotten a bum wrap primarily because of the huge numbers of poorly converted fonts which were dumped on the market early on. Most of these fonts were hinted automatically with a retail application, and as a result, the quality of screen image wasn't any better than Postscript Type One, and in many cases it was worse.

TrueType was also seen as a threat to many Postscript users who had a huge financial investment in Type One fonts. They were afraid that they might need to purchase new versions of their fonts. That fear has been proven to be unfounded. You can use either or both today. And with Adobe and Microsoft announcing OpenType, the distinction is going to become moot, and hopefully the concern over which data type you are using will be unimportant. All that should really matter in the end is the quality of your type.

DWH: How many "expert hinters" do you estimate there in the world to expertly hint new faces for the screen?

This is a tough one. I would estimate there are somewhere between 75 and 100 people who have had some level of experience in the hinting of fonts. Of those I would say a couple dozen are capable of what we refer to as "core" quality hinting, the kind of quality which a company like Apple or Microsoft is looking for in the fonts they ship with System software. A couple dozen experts isn't a lot when you consider the increasing demand for this level of TrueType.


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Copyright 1996 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com