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More Math Notes

The more I think about it and discuss it with people, the more I like this idea of concentrating on a typeface that’s optimized for setting math and other technical material. Aside from the amount of time I’ve spent grappling with the typeset math in my own work, conversations with folk like James Montalbano, Nick Shinn, and various folks at ATypI have made it clear that math is an interesting, complex topic with a market niche waiting to be filled, and one that other people seem to keep hoping someone else will figure out for them.

I didn't get a chance to do more than introduce myself to him, but at ATypI I met a German named Johannes Küster who has already done a great job of sorting out a lot of the issues of math characters that are often overlooked (he had some great PDFs from presentations he's given here), so that’s at least one person I hopefully can share my ideas with as go along. His work has confirmed (and gone much further with) a lot of the "rules" of handling technical characters that I’ve been filing away for years, but there's still a lot to think about in terms of how the text characters of the typeface can be optimized for publishing that kind of material.

Certainly I have a number of thoughts based on how I would have liked to redesign the ASME books, but I’m trying to keep my eyes and ears open for other points that haven't occurred to me already.

While reading Alison Black's Typefaces for Desktop Publishing (specifically, chapter 3, "Typeface performance in context," where she discusses the pros and cons of aligning and non-aligning numerals) I began thinking about some of the problems of character heights in the weird, mixed environment of math and technical material. With so many occurrences of all caps, abbreviations, and numbers mixed in with words, the overall texture of the type can get really ugly, and it's hard to imagine most users of the typeface taking the care to switch to small caps or oldstyle figures when those would be better choices. (Also, that kind of attention to detail also falls pretty far outside of the realm of structured documents, where the notation required to format text like that would be considered stylistic aberration rather than good semantic mark-up.)

A slight exaggeration to the height difference between caps/numerals and ascenders could help a lot, though. Minimizing the height of basic caps and numerals would keep them from sticking out so dramatically without toning them down too much. If handled well, you could get the emphasis of caps, but not more of it than you really need. (Obviously I need to keep an eye out for good examples of this, which must be out there already.)

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