11 March 2021

Type as technology

1957 Chevy.
Australian science communicator Dr. Karl tells a story of going on vacation in the United States. They rented a classic 1957 Chevy and were going to drive the length of Route 66.

Sounds romantic and adventurous, right? It started off great. 

But it turned out the classic car was... not very comfortable. And it tended to break. It wasn’t just that the car was old. It didn’t have the same level of engineering that we’re used to. I don’t think they finished the trip in the classic car.

Now, at some level, it’s easy to look at a car and say, “Cars haven’t changed much. Still the same old internal combustion engine. Steering wheel, gas, and brakes are all in the same place.” It’ kind of easy to overlook all the decades of little refinements that make modern cars just a better driving experience.

The same is true of type. You can pick up a book from a hundred years ago and still read it easily. You might think that there has been no significant changes in type over time. But just like modern cars are better built and engineered than decades old cars, modern typefaces are often better designed than old typefaces.

Character sets are bigger. OpenType has more options than TrueType. The letter forms are more likely to incorporate fine-tuning in shape and spacing and clarity. I bet that new typefaces are more likely than old ones to distinguish the uppercase letter “I,” the lowercase letter “l,” and the number “1.” 

Besides the letters themselves, typefaces change because of the medium they appear in. The fonts used for phone books had to take into account that the paper was so low quality that the ink would bleed.

Many fonts appearing in computers today are the same as ones that appeared in computers of the 1990s. Screen resolution was a fraction of what it is now. Comic Sans was designed for low resolution screens, and looks the worse in higher resolution. 

Operating systems have tended to update their core fonts, but sometimes these are not obvious. Arial recently got a redesign, but the update was released as Arial Nova instead of upgrading the font package.

Just like the 1957 Chevy has that classic appeal but is under engineered by today’s standards, old fonts with that classic appeal might be better replaced with new fonts that do the job better.

Which is a very long winded way of saying:

Switch your damn fonts. I’m tired of looking at Calibri all the time!

Photo by Brent Moore on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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