Font Industry Needs To Step Up – To The Screen…

A PageMaker 3.5-inch diskette – I still have my original set from 1985…

The explosion of word processing and desktop publishing in the 1980s was a huge bonanza for the font industry. It took the arcane world of printing and typesetting – previously only accessible to those willing to make large capital investments – and opened it up to anyone who had a desktop computer and a printer.
Laser printers made it possible for anyone to create high-quality output. You could proof work and know that it was a true representation of what you’d get when you output the same files to a high-resolution imagesetter. “What You See Is What You Get” was the mantra of the day…

The result of all this was that millions of people who would previously never have known or cared about fonts realized they had to have them. Font sales went through the roof.

So did font piracy, of course. Many people ignored the time and effort which went into making fonts, and blithely passed on copies to friends. This happened on such a scale that the industry could not police individuals; instead, it focused its energies on selling fonts to design professionals, and site licenses to corporations which previously had bought only one copy of a font. But there were lots of sales, and times were good.

The intended final output of desktop publishing was print, which would be created at high resolution. So screen representations of fonts were pretty poor. In the beginning, your system had two different sets of fonts – high-resolution outlines for print, and low-resolution bitmaps for the screen. What You See Is Sort Of Like What You Get…

Then along came scalable font technology. You no longer needed bitmap fonts for the screen; those were created on the fly from the high-resolution outlines. Of course, it wasn’t that simple – there weren’t enough pixels to represent all the features of characters, especially at body-text sizes like 10point and 12point. So trade-offs had to be made.(Anyone who’d like to know a lot more about these issues should read Richard Rubinstein’s book, Digital Typography, in my list of Books I Recommend).

The tradeoffs were made by creating programs which told the screen rasterizer (the software which scales the high-resolution outlines to size and then fills them with dots) what to do at specific sizes and specific resolutions. These programs were called hints.

There were two different paths:
  • Microsoft: We pick TrueType, because it gives us control down to the individual pixel and we can make the rasterizer create exactly the bitmaps we want.
  • Adobe: That’s too much work. We’ll make the rasterizer itself smarter, and have a more basic hinting structure. And we’ll stick with our own font format.
That was the whole basis of The Font Wars…

Both were right – and both were wrong.

Microsoft created the best onscreen fonts I’d ever seen. But the work involved was huge. A team of folks from Microsoft and Monotype created thousands lines of programming for each font. It was a tour de force – and a tour de wallet; no other company with pockets less deep could have done it.

So Adobe was right, too. In those days, it was too expensive to contemplate, for companies and individuals without the ability to amortize costs across millions of copies of Windows and Office. Monotype, around 1997, produced a set of fonts which they called Enhanced Screen Quality. They were a little better than the norm – but their quality didn’t come near that of the Windows 3.1 core fonts.

Those Windows fonts were “brute force” hinted, with lots of Delta hints (adjustments down to tiny levels of detail such as: in this font, in the letter ‘a’, at 10point, on a 96ppi display, turn on this pixel). What often happened is that the hinter had to artificially distort the shape of the outline to force a pixel to fall inside or outside it, so the rasterizer would turn it on (or off)

For a detailed explanation of hinting, see the Microsoft Typography website.

The TrueType programming language in which you created those instructions was nothing like that friendly or understandable. You not only had to have a typographer’s eye, but you had to be able to program in an assembler-like syntax. There are only a handful of real experts in the world.

ClearType exposed problems with that “brute force” approach. Weird things would happen to some of those original distorted outlines. Characters would explode, or collapse.

The old hinting model had to be re-thought. What came out of that was a kinder, gentler – and much easier – approach to hinting. By way of years of investment, the hinting tools also became much easier to use, even acquiring a GUI.

Adobe’s screen fonts have also improved markedly over the years.

Screen resolutions are improving. With ClearType rendering (and its clones), and technologies like eInk, we are close to the tipping-point.

We’re in the middle of the biggest publishing explosion in history. But people are publishing to the screen, not paper.They’ll want great fonts for the screen – so for a second time there’s a huge potential market.

There are still issues around font linking versus font embedding as a solution to the problem of fonts on the Web. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’m confident there will be a practical solution soon, acceptable to the font industry as well as web developers and regular users.

It doesn’t matter that it won’t be the Embedded OpenType format I recommended. EOT acted as a catalyst to motivate everyone – those who proposed different solutions, those who just opposed anything from Microsoft, and the font industry itself – which needed to bond together to secure its own future.

The font industry must realize by now that print is going away. There’s little doubt of that. My former boss, Dick Brass, once predicted that the New York Times would print its last paper edition in 2018. He was ridiculed at the time. But with the recent closures of newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he may actually have been too conservative in his prediction. I wonder if the New York Times actually has nine more paper years left…

Eventually the trillions of corporate documents printed every year will go away too. Once we have reached the point where reading on screen is as good as reading from paper, the many other benefits of digital documents really come into play:

  • Storing documents
  • Finding the document you need
  • Keeping documents up to date
  • etc.
The font industry needs to realize that if it has a future, it’s on the screen. And it needs to focus on that. Not all the fonts which worked for print will work well on screen until we have 300ppi displays.

We need new fonts designed for on-screen reading. And we can’t leave it to Microsoft to provide them, as it has done in the past.


2 thoughts on “Font Industry Needs To Step Up – To The Screen…

  1. Richard Fink

    Something will get worked out because it HAS to get worked out.There might be a menu option in Opera for viewing a web page with "No Images" but there will never be an option for viewing with "No Fonts" – it's an absurdity.Fonts are the foundation upon which we build.

  2. kazmcqueen

    Hi,My name is Steve Takayanagi of LIM Corporation.We are a font design company in Japan specializing in makin bitmap fonts for Arabic, Chinese, Thai and Japanese. We probably are only company that is able to do these lanuguages. I tried to seek portal web sites that we can put our company ad(free or charged) but, so far no luck. Do you know any good web sites ?


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