By Daniel Will-Harris
|It doesn't matter how many hours of video and megabytes of graphics can be stuffed onto a silver platter, typefaces still serve an essential function that can't be duplicated by other means--transmitting complex intellectual and emotional messages in a very concise and precise way.||But the
limitations inherent to reading on-screen--especially the
low-resolutions of monitors, mean that the digital
designer has to be more careful about choosing typefaces
that are easily readable on-screen.
Consider this--a fax in normal mode is 100 dpi. As rough as that is, it's still better than Windows at 96-dpi, and almost 25% better than the Mac at 72 dpi.
Size is the key
|You can use any
typeface, as long as you make it large enough. While 10
point body text is generally not a good idea on-screen.
14-16 point won't look unusually large on a monitor, and
will be significantly easier to read than smaller type.
If you want to use smaller type sizes, then you have to
be more careful about your choice of typeface.
Weight is also important because faces that are too dark can block up and become unreadable. Faces that are too light can experience drop outs, but light faces actually tend to look better because they look simpler, cleaner, and less chunky.
Chuck Bigelow, the co-designer of the Lucida family of typefaces (with Kris Holmes)--suggests several ways to choose type that is easiest to read on-screen.
Serif or Sans?
|First, he suggests
considering sans serif faces for body text.
"When printed, the serifs on typefaces are only a
tiny percentage of the typeface's design. But on-screen,
in order to display the serifs using the limited number
of available pixels, they take up a much bigger
proportion of the information than they do on a printed
page. Serifs should be small things--but on screen they
become big--no longer visual cues but noise--distracting
chunks of interference."
While some traditional serif faces don't translate well to the screen, others are excellent on-screen, and a serif's more familiar shape makes it more comfortable and familiar for most people. This site uses Memphis/Rockwell or Bitstream Geoslab703, a simple slab serif that's very comfortable on both PC and Mac. (You can download this font for free). Microsoft's Georgia is an impressive achievement in font design because it looks as sharp and clean on-screen as most type looks on paper.
Bigelow also stresses that the hinting of individual fonts can be as important as the typeface design itself. (Hinting is a process where by individual pixels of the screen are controlled when fonts are certain sizes. )
"At small sizes on-screen, the look of the face can depend more on the hinting than the original design." This means you not only have to choose an appropriate design, but a well hinted font of that design. "Even our Lucida looks different on-screen from different foundries." A well-hinted font can make a world of difference--so much so that the same typeface can be unreadable if on-screen if poorly hinted, or highly readable if well hinted.
TrueType, as a technology, has stronger hinting possibilities than Type1, but it all depends on the foundry. Bitstream and Monotype's hinting is first rate, because they developed their own technology. But other foundries' (actually, vendors) low-cost typefaces can and do look like mush on-screen.
|Next, he suggests
choosing a face with a large x-height. "You have
very few pixels to work with on-screen, and most of a
typeface's information is carried in the lowercase
x-height characters. So choosing a face with a larger
x-height gives you more pixels to work with for the
lowercase--more pixels mean more information, which means
characters have more definition. For the screen it's a
good idea to have an x-height that's one pixel larger
than half the body size--so a 12 point typeface would
have an x-height of 7 pixels--that's how the Lucida faces
are designed. X-heights larger than that give type less
of a traditional "typeset" look, so capital
letters start to lose their importance.
Until Cascading Style Sheets become more common (with their ability to control leading), typefaces with large x-heights can make lines of type look too close together, and uncomfortable to read.
suggests adding a bit of extra tracking between
characters. "Collisions between characters becomes
very annoying on-screen--when two characters touch even
by one pixel you get a lot of noise in the tangle of
shapes." Don't add too much--you want the word
spaces to remain clear, just enough so the characters
don't touch. Bigelow doesn't recommend his own Lucida
Bright on-screen because it's spaced tight for print. His
Lucida Fax, however, has extra space built-in to avoid
character collisions in faxes, and on-screen.
Both Georgia and Verdana are carefully spaced so that the characters never touch, and this helps make them especially readable.
Of course, the limitations of low-res screens won't be with us forever. First, on-the-fly anti-aliasing (gray-scaling the type so it looks smoother) will be available on many systems, notably Windows 95. Done correctly, anti-aliasing allows more typefaces to look good at smaller sizes. Next, companies such as Xerox are already showing experimental flat screens with 300 dots per inch--the same as a laser printer. When that happens, choosing type for the screen will be little different than choosing it for paper.
|Here are examples of
typefaces that work well on-screen.
Headline: Adobe Myriad Multiple Master in weights and widths from the narrowest to the widest, the lightest to the darkest.
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