DT&G Magazine Editor's Column
The Design Center, DT&G Typography Department: Type, Fonts, Lettering, Calligraphy  
...the questions always come up at least once: "What should I look for in a font?"...or "Why does this font look so strange?"

There have been several books on the subject, but regardless of what the experts say, there are few clear-cut answers to these questions. Tastes in fonts range from traditional to bizarre. Who's to say? There are, however, some mechanical aspects of fonts that cannot be denied by anyone.
      With the advent of electronic publishing and nouveau design practitioners, many either don't know basic typography, or they don't care to remember. The roots of type and typography is evidenced in every letter we see. We're taught at a very young age to recognize letter forms. It's a basic common denominator in our society.
      Type and typography also happens to be the single most powerful tool available in all the communication arts. Oh, some will argue that video, photography or illustration are perhaps more powerful -- but I challenge anyone to report any graphic communication that succeeds to the expectations of the communicator without the printed word.
      When little Freddie Showker trucked off to design school so many years ago he had already been involved with type. We all had. Yet any previous brushes with lettering was nothing compared to the rude awakening that was to follow. Under the stern hands of industry recognized educators like Michael McNeil and Charles Hilton we learned typography. By senior year the few remaining souls were required to sight-recognize 100 type faces. Not a difficult task in itself. We were then required to hand-render, (on-demand ) with pen and ink, the features of a selected font that distinguished it from all others. Try that one!
      As if that weren't enough, each month, we were required to appear in studio with a complete, hand-rendered font... sitting through an agonizing three-hour critique on why we were all such dismal failures at the art of typography. It's no wonder I developed an appreciation for letter forms. But enough about me. Let's talk about letters. Or, shall we say: "characters."
      When the Mac became the tool of choice at our studio I purchased the font Avant Garde from Adobe. As a long-standing fan of Herb Lubalin, with fond memories of the magazine from which the font originated, you can imagine my shock when I discovered that it actually wasn't Avant Garde at all! True. I noticed things that didn't look quite right, and that a number of characters were missing. I fired up my PhotoStar machine to carefully examine the characters (16 inches tall) of the "real" Avant Garde as issued by ITC* on an ortho-chromatic, 2-inch film font. How could they do this to Herb???

Welcome to the electronic age.

What we see is not necessarily what we get. Electronic fonts are eventually printed onto paper (or film) by a gun (of one sort or another) which is fed electric impulses. This action causes it to emit minuscule bursts of light or charged electrons onto an imaging surface. You don't need to know the grueling details. The instructions that tell this gun what to shoot are generated by the software in your computer and your printer. It's incredibly complicated -- and a wonder that it works at all. These instructions are a set of dots which comprise the addresses of "where" on the page to shoot, how to shoot, and in what direction to shoot next. Each and every letter you bang into the keyboard are a collection (or sub-set ) of these instructions.
      When you put letters on the screen, they're merely representations of the real thing, and when you tell it to print, the software actually tells the printer where these points are, then draws the actual outline, then fills it in. Each character -- one by one. And you ask why it takes so long to print your 60-page report???
      Where great differences in letter forms become evident is in the way the author/artist/designer has decided to place these points and curves in the originating software. Which minute features are included or omitted? With electronics there are no longer any rules. The same typeface (regardless of its name) may look very different from different creators. (Sometimes referred to as a type Foundry.)

"Why does this look much better than that?"

      Now, trendy writers can go on and on 'till dawn about this font or that and what does what, and this flourish or that, but it all boils down to the outline. This simple set of instructions that tells the entire electronic world to draw me . This outline also dictates how good your typesetting will ultimately look.
      Quality in fonts and type? Consider the following...
We've sampled the lower case Palatino "n" from three different font companies. In text, or headlines, they all look somewhat the same. But as you look closer, and realize the "color" of the body of text, you begin to notice differences. (Click to open the first diagram)
      One is cleaner than the other... one looks easier to read. Note in our examples the number of anchor points. The Adobe sample is by and far more elegant than the others because it has less points and more precisely drawn curves. Let's zoom in for a closer look...
      Many foundries, as well as amateur font designers will work from a copy of a font, scan it in and then draw the outlines to develop their new font.
      The worst-case scenario is when the auto-trace function is used. The computer has no idea how or where to position these anchor points. It just blindly follows the representation of the character, on the screen, placing points where they appear to go.
      With higher quality fonts, the designer does this by hand. He knows where to intentionally place each point -- and does so with a great deal of precision. To do this properly, the designer must first have an understanding of the letter forms themselves, then firmly grasp the way the elements interact to form a particular face. We shouldn't wonder why it takes many, many hours (and many dollars) to truly develop a beautiful type face.

"Where do they get the shapes?"

Many of the second-deck type creators, and most of the PD/shareware font creators will simply copy an existing font, and then modify it. The actual original picture of the letter forms is where many discrepancies can creep in. Obviously many font creators don't have access to film masters of a font, nor will they have proper equipment to accurately render large size printed representations for scanning.
      Try it yourself. Take a single character from a page of your favorite type catalog and blow it up to a full page. You'll quickly see what can happen. This is what (in essence) many type producers do. The photo-mechanical process of reproducing type characters leaves much to be desired in terms of precision.
      As in this example of auto-trace vs. hand vectored, the poor quality of the original has been compounded by auto-trace and the resulting font is filled with irregular corners, curves where straight lines should be, and inconsistent letter elements throughout. The "properly rendered" version approaches the positioning of elements in a disciplined fashion, carefully placing each point to do a specific job. An understanding of the letter forms themselves is of paramount importance. Even if the author goes back and corrects the auto-traced representation, if he lacks the knowledge of how each letter should be formed, it still fails.

Let's take a look at some other examples.


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