The new era of type

In my official capacity, I wrote an opinion column for the latest issue (no. 192) of Computer Arts magazine about the state of digital type. I’m not sure if the article will be posted to their website, so just to be safe I’ll include it here:

The new era of type

illustration by Constanze Moll

We’re a few decades into the era of digital typography, long enough to take for granted that we all have access to computers and printers and a vast range of typefaces. The desktop publishing revolution gave everyday users and professionals alike access to tools for typesetting, but it took some time for things to settle down into a general understanding of the possibilities of these tools.

Many of the tools of that revolution have proved useful for web design, too, but ironically the text experience has been the most typographically constrained aspect of the web. Because of the reliance on a user’s installed fonts, the searchable, scalable, accessible content of the web has been deprived of the potential richness of a full typographic palette, something we’ve all grown to expect in print.

The dynamic delivery of fonts needed by a web page may not seem like much, but think of how much we communicate with typography. We can clarify complex information with type, we can convey emotion and tone, we add an implicit message to the words we exchange. In a world of many different devices for many different users, typography remains the most adaptable way to enrich the message or improve the experience.

In the early days of desktop publishing, type designers and users had to adapt to the limitations of the coarse resolution of the printers available at the time. Similarly, the current spread of web fonts finds designers and users grappling with the resolutions of a variety of displays, most of which still have very low resolution compared to the printed page. If designers and users want to judge the quality of their typefaces in digital media, they have to look closely at what happens to screen pixels rather than printed dots. Do the letters in a given font align with one another? Do their outlines appear jaggy, or do they achieve the illusion of smooth angles and curves? Do some of the letters look too dark or too light? Do they collide when they shouldn’t? We can expect hardware and software to improve, but any typographer still needs to look closely at the way their type appears in use. The recent explosion of type for the screen just introduces a few different variables compared to the handful of reliable choices we have had so far.

Web font services are the real shift in the way we can work with type today. Since fonts are delivered from a central server on the fly, the most current version of the font data will always be the version seen by the user. This means foundries and type designers can continually improve their fonts, propagating updates in way that is impractical with offline fonts. As OS rendering and browser support evolves, users can enjoy the benefits of fonts with better and better hinting, language support, and typographic features.

As we get used to the spread of a digital environment, designers and foundries are also responding with more than refined data for existing designs. We’re also seeing designs adapted for screen displays like Webtype’s Reading Edge series, or even typefaces that anticipate screen use right from the start, like Microsoft’s ClearType collection or Georg Seifert’s Azuro. In projects like these — and more are certainly on the way — the shapes of individual letters, the spaces in and around them, and the overall feel are all designed to look as clear as possible on a variety of screens, giving designers and readers alike the best quality building blocks for their digital projects.

The situation described so far makes it sound as if the state of typography for the screen is in the hands of the vendors of type and software, but this is not entirely the case. They may provide the raw materials, but the real potential of typography for the screen lies in the hands of the people who use the type. Typography is, after all, the art of using typefaces, and now that the tools are improving the industry is waiting to see what designers and other users do with them. How will they — how will YOU — show what digital typography is capable of being, of doing?

[Computer Arts magazine, issue 192. Illustration by Constanze Moll.]