Category Archives: publishing

The Future of the Book

This weekend I took part in a discussion panel on “The Future of the Book” at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Except that I wasn’t in Virginia. Everyone else was – the other panelists, moderator Kathleen Fowler of ODU, and the audience.

Instead I was sat in front of a PC at the Old Dominion University campus in Bremerton, Washington, taking part in the discussion by Webcam. It’s amazing to think that a piece of equipment costing only a couple of hundred dollars can make possible videoconferencing which used to require tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

With the ubiquity of broadband, this kind of interaction is commonplace.

I’ve been a musician my whole life. One of the instruments I play is the Indian sitar. When I got my very first sitar, back in Scotland in the early 1970s, it was very hard to find an instrument in the UK. I could find only one instruction book. There were no teachers. I had to order my strings by telephone from a store in London.

I bought a new sitar a few months ago – on the Web. For anyone taking up this or any other “exotic” instrument, life’s very different today. You can shop for sitars online. Buy strings and accessories. You can find instructions how how to set up the instrument properly, how to tune and maintain it.

On sites like YouTube you can watch videos of sitar players – the masters, and others maybe less masterful. There are video instruction sessions. There’s even a professor of music at a university in Calcutta, India, who offers online 1:1 sitar lessons by webcam!

There’s a huge amount of information now available to anyone with access to a computer. The sitar is just one example. Pick any topic and you can use the Web to access information you’d never have been able to find before, which would have taken months to track down.

Want to find information on and photographs of the red-footed booby? (it’s a bird). Search the Web. Bought an electronic keyboard secondhand and need the instruction manual? Find it on the Web.

I honestly don’t know how we ever managed without it.

The audience at the conference were mostly writers wanting to find out how to be successful, especially in the digital age. There was a panelist who owned an independent bookstore, and a librarian.

During the panel discussion – to illustrate the change that’s happening – I went online wirelessly with my Amazon Kindle and bought a book. It cost me about $4.00, it was available almost instantly, and I searched the 100,000 or so titles available to find it.

Another illustration of the rapidly-changing world happened last week, when a young Japanese woman won Japan’s premier literary award, the Rashomon Award – their equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize – for her novel published serially in blog format, and read mostly on mobile telephones.

Any time of rapid change is also a time of chaos and confusion. Writers, publishers, editors, bookstores, librarians – everyone involved in the publishing business – we’re all going to have to move quickly, try new things, explore new roles and business models until the chaos settles down.

Maybe it’ll never settle down.

The main piece of advice I had for aspiring writers? Know your audience, then go out and find them. Publishing is now accessible to everyone, and there’s no excuse for not jumping in and seeing if you can make something happen.

In a nutshell: “Go Forth and Blog!”

Put Up Your Hands, And Step Away From The Keyboard!

The Design Police are watching you…

I really like this site, it’s so much fun. There’s a set of five template pages you can download and send to the offender whenever you see a typographic crime being committed.

Just pick the relevant judgement from the templates, then cut and paste it into a mail.

Ah, Flaming By Numbers…

Not that I agree with everything the Design Police say, of course – especially the “Comic Sans Is Illegal” viewpoint.

You may not know this, but there’s a battle being fought on the Web between those who love Comic Sans and those who absolutely hate it. There are even “Comic Sans Must Die!” T-shirts for sale.

I don’t use Comic Sans myself – and I never inhaled – but I have something of a soft spot for it, since it was designed by Vincent (Vinnie) Connare, who worked for me in the Typography group at Microsoft. Indeed, its full name is Comic Sans MS, which might give you a clue.

OK, we made it. But don’t blame Microsoft if people abuse it. Fonts don’t kill people, people kill people. (Apologies to the NRA. Or not.)

Comic Sans is what its name says: a light-hearted font which works great in cartoons and animation, can add a tinge of humor to an email, etc. But it’s over-used, and you certainly wouldn’t want to use it to send a message of sympathy to a bereaved friend (unless her husband the cartoonist just died in some Marx-Brothers-like farcical accident. Even then you’d want to be careful).

If the Design Police graphic (sticker? paster?) had said “Inappropiate Comic Sans” I could buy into that.

Doctor Iveslow Must Die!

We forget how much we take the process of reading for granted, and how type and typography has developed over the past 550 years to make it as easy as possible for us to recognize the shapes of letters and words.

Typographic techniques like equal word-spacing in a line of text, or avoiding the use of only capital letters, give our visual system the cue it needs to make sense of dirty marks on a piece of shredded tree, or dots turned different colors on a screen.

Remember, the human “reading system” is a high-speed scanning, analysis and parsing machine. When it’s moving rapidly across a line of text, it’s scanning about four consecutive targets per second.

It’s a 600ppi scanning machine, which normally deals with type between one-eighth and one-sixth of an inch high. And it doesn’t take much to throw it off. The difference between automatic scanning you don’t have to think about, and conscious parsing, is fractions of an inch (obviously proportionally more when you’re reading larger text at a distance).

I pass by this road sign most days at the moment. It’s on a tree just before a narrow bridge which is an obvious accident hazard. You don’t have much time to read the sign, which is hand-painted in red. You just glance to the side, your brain takes a snapshot. You’re past it before you realize your brain is trying to decode a puzzle as a result of data collected subconsciously by your peripheral vision.

Who is Dr. Iveslow, and can’t he afford a better sign than that? Doctors are quite well paid, after all. And he seems pretty paranoid…

Then the penny drops.


Spacing matters….

Typographic disasters

One problem about having such an abiding interest in type and editing is that even when you take the man out of proof-reading, you can never take the proof-reader out of the man.

You end up spotting typos and/or bad typography everywhere. Here’s one I spotted in Redmond, WA.

I’m going to leave kerning criticism out of this – it’s not pretty but it is readable. I’ll even give Frederick’s Appliance World a pass on the horrible “W”s and “M”s – they’re always a problem for any condensed typeface, which you want to use to get as much information on signage like this.

But surely Frederick could have sprung for just one more “F”? Then we’d have 30% OFF! If cash was short, it’s the work of a moment just to trim the bottom cross-bar off the “E”. Hey, Presto! An “F”!

Using a “$” in place of an “S” is tacky but expected.

The real typographic crime is the word “CALL”, with two inverted “T”s instead of “L”s.

Call me a type snob if you like, but I pass this sign a lot – and it’s like someone scratching their nails down a blackboard.

Guess where I won’t be shopping for an appliance?

Signing OFE for now,


P.S. The offending letters are two “T”s and an “”F”. TTF is of course the file extension for TrueType font files… Spooky, eh?

CSSZengarden: A Claim Too Far?

It takes a lot to make me speechless, but a website I have known and respected for some time almost managed it…

The site was CSS ZenGarden, which aims to educate website designers in the use of Cascading Style Sheetsto create more interesting layouts .

I have no problem with that. It’s a good and laudable aim. They have some very interesting samples. I really like the way in which the layout of the pages changes dramatically when you switch style sheets on the same content.

What I did have a problem with was their sweeping claim:

CSS allows complete and total control over the style of a hypertext document.

You’ll all be aware of the recent announcement that Internet Explorer 8 (on which I work) will fully support the CSS 2.1 spec when the final version ships. Hence my interest.

I’ve been interested in CSS since, oh, around 1996, and have especially been following the developments around CSS 2.1 and some proposals for CSS 3 functionality.

The capabilities of Cascading Style Sheets fall far short of “complete and total control”. Today, they offer some level of control. As the standard evolves, we’ll see more and more control possible.

But any designer who reads ZenGarden is well aware that CSS as it stands today falls a long way short of the kind of control over style and look that they can achieve in print. And until we get that kind of control we’re not done. And to claim that we already have it is to destroy your own credibility.

The Web can be as beautiful and readable as the finest printed magazine. And it can be a lot more powerful medium, too. But not yet. Not today.

Problem with the ZenGarden site, with its pseudo-zen message, is that they seem to think we have already arrived at Enlightenment (they even say so).

Haven’t they read their sutras? “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

CSS and the evolution of Web standards is a journey. We’ve made some steps along the way. But we’re a long way yet from Nirvana…

Never "Just Fonts" – Don’t Pirate Them!

I’ll never forget the first time type on a computer screen made me sit up and take notice. It was 1991, and I was working in Edinburgh, Scotland, where we had set up the European subsidiary of Aldus Corporation, whose PageMaker desktop publishing package had established a whole new market and turned the traditional printing industry on its head.

For us at Aldus, fonts were about printing, since that was the final output of our software. Screen fonts were pretty crude, and really only meant to give an impression of the final output so you could do layout work on the screen before proofing pages on a laser printer and then perhaps sending them to a high-resolution imagesetter for final quality output.

Then one day I installed a new piece of software on my PC. The fonts on screen were stunningly readable by comparison with what I was used to – so much so, that I called over the boss of the company and pointed out how much better these PC fonts looked on screen than anything I’d ever seen before on a Macintosh.

The new software I’d installed was Windows 3.1 – the first version of Windows to ship with TrueType. The fonts were Times New Roman, Arial and Courier New – the new operating system’s core fonts.

TrueType was Apple’s creation, of course. But Microsoft had licenced it and put a lot of resource and some of its best engineers on integrating it into Windows and creating a new set of core fonts, working in collaboration with Monotype, one of the oldest and most-respected font houses in the world.

Central to the creation of great onscreen versions of those fonts was the fact that TrueType had its own programming language, very powerful but not much friendlier than assembler.

I get mad when anyone says computer type is “just fonts”, or when they think that fonts are basically just graphical characters mapped to the keyboard.

In the past, fonts all originated in the print world. That was what they were designed for – a world of high resolution. To make a font for a computer, you design the shapes (there’s a huge amount of skill required and rules to be followed). These are then turned into outlines, which are simply mathematical equations which describe the bounding lines of the shapes. PostScript’s bezier curves or TrueType quadratic b-splines are both systems for doing this. The lines begin and end at “control points”.

To create a printed font, you have to rasterize it, or fill the outline with dots. That’s an easy task when you’re rasterizing for print, where you have at minimum 300 dots per inch and perhaps up to 2500 in high-resolution imagesetters.

The real problem arises when you try to rasterize it for the screen, because the screen pixels (the dots) are in many cases larger than the features you’re trying to fill. It’s especially complicated because humans need (not want, need) to read type which is between 9 and 13 points high. This dimension is dictated by the size of the foveal area in the retina of the human eye, which is only 0.2mm in diameter, with about 1.5 degrees of visual arc.

Down at those sizes, at screen resolutions which in the 1990s were around 72 dots per inch and are still today in most cases less than 120, the problems of rasterizing characters are immense. How do you decide, when a pixel falls partly inside and partly outside the outline, whether that pixel should be filled with a dot or left blank? If the wrong pixel is turned on, it may create a weird “bump” in a character and make it hard to read. If the wrong one’s turned off, then you get a gap (technically called a dropout)

Then there are rounding errors. A good example is the letter “m”. When you place the virtual “rasterizer grid” over it, you have to decide programmatically which pixels to turn on to make the stems or uprights. But since you can’t use fractions of a pixel (or couldn’t, before ClearType), you have to mathematically round up or down to the nearest integer. In most cases, at reading sizes, that means stems which are either one or two pixels wide. But some stems might round down to one pixel, some round up to two, and the result is an “m” which looks horrible.

Droputs and rounding errors

For a fuller description of The Raster Tragedy, with illustrations, see the article of the same name at:

The process used to correct all of the rasterization problems is called “font hinting”, which means providing “hints” to the rasterizer as to what to do in specific problem situations. There are hints which are global in a font, such as always keeping all stems the same width and allowing them to go from one pixel to two only once the type is being scaled to a size where they can all change. There are hints which are specific, for example, a set of rasterizer instructions which amount to”at 10point on a 100ppi screen, turn on this specific pixel in the lower-case letter ‘a””.

It’s an incredibly detailed and time-consuming process getting all this right across the hundreds of characters in a typical font. Even in those early days of the Windows 3.1 core fonts (when font hinting was a very new science, and rather “brute force” compared to today’s more subtle – but more complex – methods) each of those core fonts shipped with around 25,000 lines of programming code inside it.

The people who do it require both the skilled eye of the artist and typographer, and the programming ability of the software engineer. And the process requires lots of other layers of complexity; for instance, making sure all the table data in the font is accurate, that Unicode is properly supported, etc etc etc.

This article has only skimmed the surface. Books have been written about this subject, including a five-volume set by mathematician and programmer Donald Knuth.

A great place to find lots of resource, tutorials, tools, SDKs etc to let you understand this arcane world – and who knows, maybe even enter it yourself – is the Microsoft Typography website at:

There’s a handful of people in this world who can do this work really well.

In 1994, one of those strange – and for me, really fortunate – coincidences happened in my life. I was still working for Aldus in Edinburgh, Scotland right at the time Aldus was being taken over by Adobe.

I went into my office one morning and found three voicemails, all the same. “This is Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Washington. We have a job we think you should be doing. Can you give us a call?”

The job was running the group which had been responsible for that great work in Windows 3.1.

After the strenuous interview procedure, I was offered the job.

Of course I took it.

The Business of Type

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a great supporter of the people who make fonts getting properly paid for their work, and the protection of the Intellectual Property they and others create.

I know how much time, effort, skill – and yes, money – it takes to produce decent fonts for computers, especially if you add in the time and effort (and more money) it takes to put in the extra work to make them great onscreen. I’ve watched the whole process in awe – and I’ve often paid the bills on Microsoft’s behalf. We’ve invested millions of dollars over the years.

When we introduced font embedding technology for Microsoft Word back in the early 1990s – so that you could send a document to someone else and have it look the same because the fonts used traveled with it – we held talks with the font industry to come up with an agreed system to protect their IP. We even modified the TrueType (later OpenType) format to create a new set of bits in one of the tables to allow font designers to set the level of embedding they’d allow for their font.

The whole issue is about to get hot again, as the Embedded OpenType format becomes a lot more popular on the Web. Internet Explorer has supported it since 1996. But in those days, it was a proprietary Microsoft format; other browsers didn’t support it and took other routes.

Since there was no “standard” format, few people used font embedding. That’s about to change. Last year, I kicked off an effort inside Microsoft to turn EOT into an open format. We’ve opened up the format, documented it, created sample code and a simple tool for embedding fonts, and submitted the whole package to the W3C.

Your website or blog should look the way you want it, regardless of what browser someone is using, or what fonts they have on their system. Last year I wrote an internal paper calling for Internet Explorer to improve support for Web standards. We just announced that Internet Explorer 8 would use Web standards as its default rendering method. I can’t claim all the credit for that; but I wasn’t the only member of the Internet Explorer team making that call last year…

Back on the fonts issue. When we commissioned Verdana and Georgia and seeded the Web with them, back in 1996, our purpose was to make sure there were two highly-readable typefaces out there that all Web designers would know were available on every system.

Verdana changed the Web, pretty much all by itself. Back then, the idea that people would read onscreen for extended periods was ridiculed. People – even inside a geeky company like Microsoft – told me I was crazy to try making it possible.

How many hours a day do you now read on screen?

Verdana was as screen-readable as we could make a font back in 1996. The font in which you’re reading this – Trebuchet, designed by Vincent Connare when he worked at Microsoft – is another font of similar onscreen quality. But when we invented ClearType, we raised the bar for what was possible.

My favorite font for reading onscreen is now Calibri, one of the set of ClearType-optimized fonts we built and shipped with Microsoft Office 2007.

Unfortunately, I can’t use it because not everyone has it on their system yet. But if Embedded OpenType becomes a standard, I’ll be able to use it, and you will be able to read it.

The Font Embedding issue needs to be revisited as it moves to the Web. And we’d like to talk to the font industry again.

Simon Daniels of the Microsoft Typography group tells me they’re hosting the first Font Business Summit organized by the Font Designers Rights Coalition The event takes place on the 3rd and 4th of April at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, WA.

The event is open to type designers and foundries (by invitation). If you have not been contacted about the event and would like to attend please contact as soon as possible as there are only a handful of open slots available.

The program includes in-depth analysis of font related law from noted attorney Paul Stack who has represented Monotype for many years.

In addition there will be panel discussion regarding font IP protection, analysis of the state of font embedding, font EULAs and an exploration of new font related technologies, with participation from Adobe, Bitstream, Monotype Imaging, Microsoft and others.


I’d love to see you there.