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Joe Clark <[log in to unmask]>
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Joe Clark <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 3 Jun 2000 20:18:12 -0500
text/plain (77 lines)
Esteemed CHI-Web subscribers who somehow believe that onscreen
typography is anything at all like print typography are gravely
mistaken, and I am a bit shocked that anyone on this list would
advance blanket advice that "serif fonts are better for body copy and
sansserif for headlines" on Web sites.

I run the Screenfont mailing list on onscreen typography. We are
_obsessifs_ on the topic. Let me share some brief wisdom. There just
aren't enough pixels onscreen to render *typical* serif fonts
readably. Why? Because all but a tiny handful of onscreen fonts are
merely bitmap renderings of print fonts. The origin is the
high-resolution, reflective paper typeface.

Among other problems, at nearly all common text sizes, nearly every
font has a stroke width of exactly one pixel. That makes serifs one
pixel wide, too-- enormously wide in print terms. Even chunky
slabserif fonts like City, Egiziano, and Clarendon don't have that
1:1 ratio.

The issue of typographic colour-- the degree of greyness of a block
of type-- pretty much blows out the window when every characteristic
of an onscreen font is exactly one pixel wide. It's like replicating
Times Roman with an Etch-a-Sketch.

Worse, letters are too close together. They attempt to replicate
print-typography letterspacing. Look closely on even a good Mac with
a good monitor and your letters are touching. And it's not just
confusable combinations like rn/m where this impairs readability.

And the straw that broke the camel's back: Screens are luminous and
are beset by glare, and you're sitting miles away in comparative

Now, Matthew Carter's designs for Georgia and Verdana solve nearly
all those problems. They were designed for screen viewing first.
Characters are unambigous: Il1, 5S68, rnm, and other confusable
combinations, and more subtle problems like opening and closing
quotation marks, are all *clearly* differentiated. In part that is
due to the unprecedented hinting Tom Rickner of Monotype did on both
fonts. You pretty much will not find a type size in anything
resembling common use that hasn't been hand-tweaked. The TrueType
renderer is rarely left to its own devices to produce a bitmap at any
common size (all the way down to 9 point or less).

If you're anti-Microsoft, get over it. MS paid for Georgia and
Verdana, but they knew what they were doing. The two fonts are free
at <>. If you're not using either
of those fonts for your own Web browsing and E-mail, you're living in
a jail of your own making. If you specify print fonts-- worst cases
are Arial, a Helvetica manqué; Helvetica itself; and *any* version of
Times-- in your Web pages, you are actively assaulting viewers.

I would also add the practical advice to pump up the volume. I use
17-point yellow-on-black Georgia in my E-mail and 14-point Georgia in
all my Web browsers. Big fonts rule.

Curious factoid: A typeface that polarizes opinion in the print
world, Rotis, reads spectacularly well at small sizes onscreen. Not
useful for specing in CSS or a FONT tag, but useful in GIFs.

Basic tenet to take away from this: Forget a lot of what you learned
about print typography when talking about onscreen type. *Especially*
forget any kind of class-, prestige-, or beauty-based advice from
old-school typography books (like "Only vulgarians use sansserif for
text"). Reading type from a monitor is like reading a newspaper
through a screen door. While seated on a rocking chair three feet
away. After one too many mint juleps.

I do, however, lament that we really only have two well-engineered
onscreen typefaces. Still. When people say the Web is still in its
infancy, maybe they mean typography, too.

         Joe Clark | [log in to unmask]
         Listmanagerboy, Screenfont