Friday, June 09, 2006

Microsoft's new type faces... drool

As some of you may or may not know Microsoft's typography labs has been hard at work coming up with improvements to a new version of clear type and a new set of typefaces slated for release with Office 12 and Windows Vista.

I'm not shamed to admit that I'm a typo-phile at heart and I've been following the development of these type faces on and off for a little more than a year. I was browsing the latest articles on OS News (as I do daily) and came across "A Comprehensive Look at the New Microsoft Fonts," an article about the new type faces. How could I resist!

Reading the article I think the author missed some important points though. Granted, the article does claim to be comprehensive and my writing has the brevity of Buckminster-Fuller or Hofstadter. I do commend the author on being brief, it's a skill that I'm always working hard to achieve.

I must say that the new type faces are absolutely beautiful. I'm a computer science student and I do contract work for a software company. I also happen to have a condition that makes my reading speed very slow (I fall in the 4th percentile of the population). Being someone that stares at a computer screen all day a new typeface like Consolas would warrant the cost of Vista alone. Yes that's right I would pay 200$ for a monospaced font to use in my code editor!

Back to the article though. The author first points out that the majority of the new type faces are sans-serif (simply put that means the letters don't have any decorators on their stems and terminals). A typical example of a serif font is Times New Roman and examples of sans-serif fonts are Futura and the more commonly known Arial. Obviously there are many type faces of either kind. The author seems to be a little confused that the majority of the new fonts are sans-serif since in theory serif fonts are more legible.

Typography myth number 1: Serif type faces are easier to read. This is still a debated point but there is not much conclusive evidence that serifs help with readability (based on testing reading speed of on screen type and print). The general idea was that well designed serifs helped the eye follow the baseline of the font and that the more information (differentiation) that a font displays in it's outline the more the eye will pick up and easily differentiate between letters of a type face. What the research shows is that inter-letter spacing (kerning) and inter-word spacing play a much more important in readability than serifs. This argument is sometimes taken to the extent that serifs become a matter of preference and habit; someone who does a lot of reading and only in a type face with serifs and then must read something in a sans-serif font might struggle a little more at first as they get used to it. The same would be true of someone that normally reads sans-serif and then must read a font with serifs.

The other important point to consider is that computer screens are incredibly low resolution when compared to print. Considering that most modern LCDs fall somewhere in the 100 dpi range every pixel you have to represent a letter counts. Representing the spine of the letter in as true a form as possible is much more important than sacrificing that to squeeze in serifs. Also at 100 dpi it is nearly impossible to accurately represent the serifs so the debatable good they may have brought to readability is negated. Serifs at this resolution fall more in the category of visual noise than valuable structures of a type face. Once screens start reaching 300 dpi (and for various reasons I would argue 600 dpi) then we could consider using serif and sans-serif fonts interchangeably for screen reading. Support for resolution independence in modern operating systems and the social aspects of using serif vs. sans-serif fonts brought about during the Bauhaus movement are 2 separate articles all together.

The author also brings up the use of the letter 'C' for the names of the new type faces. These fonts all start with C because they are the first type faces actually designed with Microsoft's clear-type technology in mind. Originally fonts like Verdana were designed with the screen in mind and clear type made them a little better. As we can see with these new type faces designing with clear type in mind from the start has produced some clearly impressive results.

I especially enjoyed some of the conspiracy theory comments posted by readers about the name choices. Some went as far as to speculate that Microsoft wanted to ensure that the fonts would be at the top of font selection lists. I don't know about you but personally I have a bunch of fonts that have names starting in 'A' and 'B' and Microsoft's fonts will also be scattered among a bunch of fonts starting in 'C.' As for personal bias well I'll let you be the judge of that. On campus I work as the Apple Campus Rep and I do contract work for a software company that is a direct competitor to Microsoft.

Typography myth number 2: Anti-alisasing makes fonts more readable. This point was not made by the author but rather by on of the readers in a comment.

I think you mean for the first time in history on MS-Windows systems. Mac OS X has had an advanced anti-aliasing system in place for a few years now.

Let me say this rather bluntly anti-aliasing is bad for fonts! Anti-aliasing actually blurs edges to trick the eye into thinking that lines are continuous instead of discrete pixels. You want you font to be rendered with a high fidelity. Anti-aliasing actually throws in some uncertainty because you can't be sure how the spine of a font will be deformed and blurred when letters are placed at arbitrary locations on the screen. I have to agree that in practice though OS X does look better for the time being. I think this is partly due to the type system making the spines of fonts a little bolder and having more flexibility in kerning adjustments. This is all going to change soon as we start to see 150 dpi and 200 dpi displays. Microsoft's type rendering engine is hands down, technologically superior.

Finally how can you talk about all these new fonts without even pointing to the people responsible for them.
An amazing video on Channel 9: Cleartype Team - Typography in Windows Vista
Microsoft's typography group web site:

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