TYPOFILE - Will-Harris House

Keeps the Eye Doctor Away

By James Felici

Oh, let me just blurt it out: I like bit-mapped screen fonts.

In fact, I prefer old-fashioned bit-mapped screen fonts to anything that ATM, TrueType, or Speedo can throw up on the screen. If we're expected to read documents on screen, we need better type than they can offer.

These technologies do a fine job with type from about 14-point and up, but we don't spend our time reading headlines, we spend it squinting at text-size type: 10 to 12-point. And as documents go electronic through Acrobat, Common Ground, or whatever, we'll be seeing more and more pages designed for the size and proportions of a computer screen in other words, as half-pages. And with this half-page design standard will come pressure to keep type sizes small, so 10-point type will be showing up more often than 12-point.

Creating legible screen type with the number of pixels afforded by 72 or 96-point resolution is an exercise in optical illusion. The eye has to be tricked into recognizing a handful of dots as being our old familiar alphabet. And in text sizes, human designers creating screen type a pixel at a time do a better job of creating legible glyphs than any technology. Period. Apple just settled a court case for a woman who sued them for causing her RSI (repetitive stress injury) with their ill-designed keyboards. It's only a matter of type before suits for WOE (worn out eyeballs) begin to press their way into the courtroom.

Grayscale Schmayscale: I've heard explanations of how grayscale fonts can create more legible screen type at small point sizes by using gray pixels as well as black and white ones to create an impression of smoother character shapes. But from what I've heard from the medical community, grayscale fonts are murder on the eyes. One of the things that makes all computer-screen reading so tiring is that the images of type on screen are not crisp enough; they're a little blurry around the edges. Our eyeballs, in the face of this fuzziness, are battling full time in a futile effort to draw a sharp focus. All these non-stop micro-adjustments of your eyes' focal length are cumulatively fatiguing, and eventually you go bleary-eyed. Nice, sharp black-matrix screens (such as Sony Trinitrons) are less wearisome for your eyes than cheap-o, overly bright monitors, but the fundamental problem is with the character images themselves. Grayscale fonts may take the jaggies out of display-sized type, but for text size type, they simply compound the problem of ill-defined edges that drives your eyes crazy.

So there you are, for my ocular health I will continue to use bit-mapped fonts whenever they're available to me.

But there's a more fundamental issue here as well. Electronic (that is, non-paper) publishers have to ask themselves if there's really any sense in

that undergo bizarre contortions in an effort pretend to be
Baskerville, or Bodoni, or Lulu Emphatic?

I challenge any panel of type experts to look at screen type representing 20 common text faces at text sizes and identify them correctly; they're all so similar because there aren't enough pixels available to differentiate them meaningfully one from another. It seems to me that non-paper documents should use non-paper fonts. My favorite font for on-screen reading is Chicago on the Mac. It's big, chunky, with double-pixel stroke weights that provide enormous contrast against the white screen background that makes it very, very legible. It may not look like anything anyone would ever want to print, but if it's not going to be printed, who cares? Screen type with single-pixel stroke weights is blinding. Whatever happened to Chuck Bigelow's Pellucida, a typeface designed expressly for screen display? Even if an electronic document had to contain two entire sets of bit-mapped fonts, one for 72 dpi and another for 96 dpi for both text and display sizes, it would still end up being smaller than a file that contained embedded outline fonts. And it would be faster to display on screen and require less from the receiving computer.

Which brings me to another positive for old-fashioned bit-mapped screen fonts: they require so little system overhead. Both ATM and TrueType consume big chunks of system memory. Why can't these things be point-size sensitive, so they'd only turn on for type of, say, 16-points of over? For electronic documents like this one, they might never be needed. Display type (where it's practical on this tiny page) could be made with graphical characters, scaled from outline fonts by the document's creators, but stored in documents as graphics.

I say small is beautiful, and for many applications bit-mapped screen fonts are the appropriate technology. Big-technology solutions for creating text-size type aren't serving us well in terms of either maintaining the health of our eyes or maximizing the resources of our computers. I'm not particularly nostalgic about the olden days of computer type, but I do wax a bit wistful when I think about a time when I didn't need glasses to read it.

--James Felici 0005646865@mcimail.com - James Felici has been writing about computers and type for as long as anyone can remember and is the author of The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC). He's so well respected he doesn't even have to live on this continent in order to work on it. He lives in France with his wife, several dogs, and much wine.

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