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Finding Inspiration in Typography (looking from tech)

The rabbit hole

I started paying consistent attention to fonts and typography around 2014, likely because I was developing presbyopia. I noticed I had to squint often or tilt my glasses in order to parse some text on screen. This was especially true for the text I worked with mainly: computer code rendered in a monospaced font.

I started reading books on type, and becoming more and more interested. I highly recommend Butterick’s Practical Typography as a starting point, and Erik Spiekermann’s entertaining and short and lovely book Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works.

I’ve found inspiration and much to envy and emulate from the world of type, from my vantage point as a software developer.

Thoughtful, informed commentary

Years ago I used to go to the now defunct typophile.com forums to learn and ask questions. This was a helpful community, I found.

These days, I am in awe of Typographica, which offers font reviews, commentary, curated lists of resources, suggestions.
Those font reviews … first of all, they’re well written, and that already is in stark contrast with the typical write-ups in the tech sector.
The reviews are written by professional type designers or teachers or graphic designers, and they analyze and praise the work of type designers from other companies. This is uncommon in the tech world.
Type designers all create fonts, so there is a certain uniformity in the industry. But also relevant is that the stakes are lower. The money sloshing around in tech, and the permanent winner take all ethos, produce artificial rivalries.

I wish there were a site for software that was as thoughtful as Typographica.

Attention to emergent properties

Fonts (or typefaces)1 are art objects, and like other art objects, they need to work as a whole. A font may have beautiful shapes, and yet be distracting when used for long texts, or it may work poorly for small sizes, or it may be badly kerned2, to name a few issues.

This year I learned about optical sizes, a brilliant idea. Designer Frank Grießhammer has a good explanation of optical sizes in Source Serif 4. By the way, Source Serif 4 is one of the jewels among free and open-source fonts.

Optical sizes, or multiple-size masters, are not new in typography, but they’re only recently making their way into computer typography. See David Berlow’s 2016 review of Apple’s San Francisco type family.

Readability is somewhat related. The famous Helvetica is not very good in this regard, according to Mark Jamra’s review of the font Zeitung:

… most importantly, [Zeitung’s] solid readability is firmly rooted in the character spacing. Most designers of sans serif types still follow the too-tight spacing model established and proliferated in the 20th century, which looks okay at 24pt or larger, but is tiring to read after a few paragraphs of extensive text. Despite plenty of evidence on what facilitates readability in body copy, readers have been punished for decades by dozens of books and magazines set in Helvetica et al.

Software also has emergent properties, but those are rarely mentioned in tech sector articles or documentation.
Lots of attention is lavished on measuring memory consumption, speed, reliability, file formats supported etc. But there is little on ergonomics, or cohesiveness, or understandability.

Respect for history

Tech legend Alan Kay often disparages the shocking disregard for history and precedent in the tech sector, and he’s right. With the over-used word innovation as universal justification, products are presented as fresh and new that are uninformed of the road traveled before, and that repeat old mistakes.

In contrast, the typography world is steeped in history. Today we see digital revivals of typefaces from the renaissance to the baroque; there are genres of type with historical roots like venetian or garalde.
At times the reverence can be excessive.

But there are fascinating historical rabbit holes to explore. See for example interest in W. A. Dwiggins, and delightful recent fonts like Marionette or Turnip inspired by his work.

Fads

The typography world is no stranger to fads. The sheer number of new geometric sans or humanist sans reminds me of breathless pitches for “a new social network, with a twist.”

Indie foundries, rentals, and discounted previews

Type used to be owned by a few large corporations. Today, there seems to be no end of designers that strike off alone or in small groups and build their independent foundries3. With the API’s now available that handle credit card transactions, automated emails, shopping carts, session management, it is possible for these indie shops to provide excellent customer experience.

I’m tired of the breathless innovation mantra from the tech industry, but these API’s, these automated tools and ecosystems enabling independent type foundries4, are something to be proud of.

Many of these indies offer their fonts for rent on Fonststand, a great idea if you only need a given font for a specific project.

Another development, pioneered by Future Fonts, is making work-in-progress available for purchase at a substantial discount. This is brilliant.

Monospaced fonts are caricatures

A lot of tech professionals use monospaced fonts for coding. Some will just use whatever the OS has on offer, others develop strong loyalties to one or two fonts.

For a lot of programmers, then, monospaced fonts are the gateway into typography. It is worth keeping in mind what Tal Leming says of monospaced fonts in his page for Queue Mono:

The letter shapes in monospaced fonts are exaggerations of the letter shapes in proportional fonts. This is necessary because the width variation in letter shapes gives the reader cues about the identity of the shape. Without width variation, other aspects of the letter shapes have to be exaggerated to help the reader.
… [his font] Queue is a caricature of monospaced fonts so Queue Mono is a caricature of a caricature. LOL. [sic]

Queue Mono is a great monospaced font. But all monospaced fonts are flawed. Some expand the narrow characters like ‘i’ and ’l’ to fill all the x-width, and produce annoying abutments of characters that get tiresome over a day of reading. Other fonts distort letterforms less and embrace the uneven whitespace gaps that result. This produces other patterns that can also get tiresome after prolonged reading.

This fun and florid review of the monospaced font Gintronic holds that a terrible monospace font can shoot lightning bolts of tension through your forehead after coding for hours. It does not get that bad for me … but close.

If your work has you staring at code for hours, the best you can hope for with monospaced fonts is a compromise that doesn’t bother you.5

Ditch monospace for writing prose

Most tech professionals live in a text editor or IDE all day, and use the same monospace font for all their code and all their documentation. While there are good reasons to use monospaced fonts for code, they don’t apply for Markdown or HTML or any other format for natural language.6

Many modern editors allow language-dependent font settings. Do yourself a favor, and set a proportional font for text formats. Replace your monospace with a proportional font that is comfortable to read for long stretches. Not Arial or Helvetica (remember the remark above on their too-tight spacing).7

Buying fonts

Most people would not think of purchasing a commercial font. Why would they, when their computer comes loaded with fonts?

Of those non-conformists who want something else, many probably venture first to free or open-source fonts, and the big place where a lot of them are hosted: Google Fonts. A few fonts there are very good, and offering them to the public for free is a great service.

The problem is that a lot (most?) of the stuff there is not as good as the work of paid professionals.
Actually, the best free / open fonts are the work of paid professionals. The Adobe Source family, particularly Source Serif, the Fira fonts, and IBM Plex, are public goods.
The fonts Verdana and Georgia, designed by Matthew Carter, and Consolas by Luc(as) de Groot, all commissioned by Microsoft, made computers and the web genuinely better, more readable.

I just want good design continuing to be sought and paid for. These days, when it is cheap to have your own website, and when e-books have drastically reduced the typographic landscape readers of books get to experience, it would be nice if website owners didn’t so often rely on the same overused defaults.

The software industry has some parallel problems, but that is a different story for a different post.


  1. the difference between font and typeface is the parallel of the difference between algorithm and program: a perfect trap for people to condescend to you. ↩︎

  2. kerning seems to be the biggest producer of OCD among type people. I often don’t notice bad kerning until it’s pointed out to me. ↩︎

  3. foundries meaning companies that make type, is one of several charming historical remnants. Another example is letter case↩︎

  4. not just foundries. I recently bought some artwork from mom-and-son team of home home, and the automated billing and package tracking were great. And, hey, it seems Radiohead offer this too. ↩︎

  5. personally, I prefer the monospaced fonts that give the letters room to breathe, and embrace the irregular whitespace that results. The others get tiresome after a day of coding. I recommend Queue Mono, Fira Mono, and Gintronic in this genre.
    In a different genre, Aglet Mono is fascinating: it deforms the letters wildly to fill out their enclosing box, and then applies a uniform letterspace. The texture on page is more even than I’ve ever seen with any other monospaced font, but those letterforms are a bit too weird for prolonged reading. ↩︎

  6. there has been a trend to foist monospaced fonts on writers, with applications like iA Writer offering a distraction-free writing experience. For some authors, not having to worry about word processors’s font and heading settings must have been a relief. iA Writer started offering new duo-spaced or quattro-spaced fonts for a better experience yet. Personally, I have not warmed to this genre of quasi-monospaced fonts. ↩︎

  7. what works for you when you write text is a matter of taste, of course. Personally I’ve tried a bunch of fonts, both serif and sans-serif, and I find serif fonts too polished to seem natural as the output of my keystrokes. This list of alternatives to Gill Sans by Indra Kupferschmid is a pretty good place to look for readable sans types. Serif fonts are generally readable.
    If you want to get something free and open-source, I think it’s hard to do better than the Source fonts. Or if you don’t want to bother, trusty Verdana and Georgia are likely installed on your computer, and continue to do a solid job, as they always have. ↩︎

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