From metal to digital: Understanding the underlying differences (Part 1)
Today’s digital fonts are a tremendous boon not only to graphic designers but also to anyone who uses type. The abundance, diversity, and availability of fonts increase productivity and enhance creativity. There are more choices today than ever before in the history of type and design. But this newfound “freedom” comes at a price, typographically speaking.
Let’s start with a little background: In the earlier days of metal type, each and every point size was hand cut. (A full tray of a given point size was called a font.) Hand-cutting gave type designers the option of making subtle adjustments to the weight, proportion, stroke thickness, and spacing of a typeface. This allowed them to improve the aesthetics and functionality of the type, and to compensate for what happens optically when type gets larger or smaller.
With the advent of digital type technology, this practice was abandoned, as it was no longer economical. The vast majority of today’s digital fonts each consist of one master scalable outline that is used for every point size. Therefore, each font is spaced and kerned to look its best at a particular point-size range, often resulting in reduced legibility at smaller sizes and/or the sacrifice of subtle design nuances at larger sizes.*
What happens when you use a point size that is outside a typeface’s “sweet spot” range? Well, one thing is, if you’re using a typeface that is intended for display and setting it at small point sizes, the spacing will most likely appear too tight, and overall readability will begin to be compromised. Conversely, if you’re setting a text typeface at larger sizes, the spacing will look progressively too open, also compromising readability and even typographic color.
Thankfully, current design software provides designers with the tools to extend the flexibility and functionality of the one-size-fits-all digital font. See more about this subject in Part 2 on Enhancing digital font appearance.
* The exception to this is optically-sized fonts, which are size-sensitive versions of a type design. Adjustments made to each version are intended to maximize its legibility and overall appearance in a range of sizes.
- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.