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Type creates memorability, entices audiences, commands attention and enlightens the reader. But simply engaging and informing audiences is no longer enough. Type is now being called on to envelop them. This expanded view of typography embraces a wide range of disciplines including graphic, interactive, architectural, interior, landscape and industrial design—sometimes all at the same time. This may mean some changes to the fonts we use.
By Allan Haley, author, lecturer and expert on all things typographic
Digital is not Print
The problem is that most of the typefaces we use were designed for print—not the other aspects of experiential design. If you take on just about any kind of non-print project, textual fidelity and typographic legibility can be compromised by not choosing the correct fonts. The most far reaching are on-screen applications: everything from big screens for wayfinding to the tiny screens of wearables.
Finding the Best Fonts
So how do you identify the best typefaces and fonts for these projects? First, it’s important to understand how we read. It’s not about individual words. We scan a line, pausing momentarily to record groups of three or four words —and then jump to another group of three or four words. Since we do not look at individual letters or words, they must be discernible at a glance. Anything that gets in the way of this slows down the process. As a result, type design subtleties don't have much of a place in on-screen typography. Think big, obvious and simple.
What to Look For
The best typeface for digital imaging, regardless of the application, should have the following attributes:
- A large lowercase x-height, especially where screen real estate and available pixels are limited. Since most of the letters we read are lowercase, the larger they are in proportion to the caps, the easier they are to discern.
- Open counters, the white space within letters such as o, e, c, etc., help to define a character and influence recognition. Small counters can fill in and distort characters on digital screens.
- Generous apertures, which are the openings between a counter and the outside of a character in letters like the e, s and C. If they are not sufficiently open, they can easily fill in, turning c’s into o’s and making other characters less than crystal clear.
- Individual letter shapes can also affect typeface legibility. For example, the two-storied a is much more legible than the single-storied design and the bowl-and-loop g is easier to identify than the bowl and hook variety.
- Moderate contrast in character stroke thickness. Typefaces with strong contrast in character stroke weights do not image accurately in many digital environments. In addition, if pixels are at a premium, as they are on small screens, hairlines can disappear or become too heavy.
- Marked contrast between medium and bold weights within the type family. Many typefaces designed for print have subtle weight graduations. If typeface weights are too close to each other, the medium and bold weights of a typeface family may be hard to differentiate when seen on screen.
- Generous inter-character spacing ensures even typographic color and reading ease at small sizes and low resolutions. If there is not sufficient spacing, an r and n can look like an m and o and an l like a d. Also, the white space around letters helps to define them.
Multiple Environment Performers
While initially drawn for print, there are many traditional designs that perform exceptionally well in interactive environments. You just need to consider the design’s attributes. Neue Frutiger, for example, is a terrific performer in these kinds of design projects—far better than Neue Helvetica. Classic Grotesque, Egyptian Slate, Soho and Soho Gothic are also great performers on screen. There are hundreds of others; they just might not be the usual suspects.
In addition, some traditional print typeface designs have been modified to optimize their imaging at small sizes in digital environments. For example, counters may be slightly expanded to retain their character even in small point sizes. Also, stroke thickness may be discreetly increased and x-height carefully adjusted. Often glyph spacing and kerning is also modified. Font Bureau calls their optimized fonts “Reading Edge” designs, while Hoefler & Co. refers to its designs as “ScreenSmart” and Monotype calls its designs “eText” fonts.
There also a growing number of typefaces that have been designed specifically for on-screen imaging. FF Nort, Burlingame, Felbridge and PMN Caecilia Sans were all designed from the get-go to be powerful interactive performers.
Experiential designers are on the leading edge of typography’s future. You are dealing with all aspects of communicating with type. Just remember: The first rule is “Type First” and the second is “Choose Wisely.”