Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Case For an Economical Typeface (space-wise, that is)

Wonderful & illuminating visual aid.

... WELL, sort of "to the wall"... I wrote the following diatribe
for the Eddy-fication of various persons and I hope it had a
little impact.

........... , regarding a probable preference for Tiresias as a typeface on signage, I'd like to interject some notes on why I recommended against it and in favour of FF Transit, . ....

Tiresias and APHont are indeed highly legible typefaces, however, the features that make them so also make them quite wide, due to open, generous counters, wide cross strokes and corresponding open letter spacing. In many circumstances, within the context of a service such as __ _______, available horizontal space is limited more often than vertical space. This means that we will frequently lose any advantages that Tiresias and APhont have to offer by being forced to reduce letter height to fit messages into limited spaces. In the (admittedly limited*) testing I conducted in-house, I found that we'd have to shrink Tiresias and APHont by a little over 15% to occupy the same horizontal space as Transit. With some long place names, limited spaces for sign installations - And the inclusion of a second language which tends occupy more space, this is a fact that can't be ignored.

While all legibility testing is subjective, it was clear to me that when this was taken into consideration, Transit was the most legible typeface I looked at. Also, (as of the last time I looked) Tiresias Signfont is available only in one weight with no italic. When I asked RNIB's John Gill if they were planning to add additional weights and italic variants to the mix he said he'd look into the cost. Shortly after that Sylvie Perera (Human Factors Scientist. RNIB Scientific Research Unit) emailed me to say, "We will be producing the italic and bold versions of Signfont for you as soon as possible." . [Oddly, she made it sound as if she was under the impression I'd placed an order - of course she didn't, but I still had to get her to clarify what she meant.] .... To date I have seen no evidence of italic or other variants When I was making my inquiries about APHont, Elaine Kitchel told me that a full suite was with the fontographer and was "due any day." and it is now available.

... Tiresias and APHont were designed by scientists - Dr. John Gill (RNIB) and Dr. Elaine Kitchel (American Printing House For The Blind) respectively. Or, rather teams lead by them. The characters they designed are individually well constructed so that they read well under poor visibility conditions, and they have been thoroughly tested with subjects who have varying degrees of low vision. But, in my opinion they do not "flow" as well as Transit. An experienced reader scans strings of text rather than individual letters and relies on word-shape recognition and context to aid reading, only pausing to distinguish individual letters when a word-shape is unfamiliar or something irregular interrupts eye movement.

The rhythm of Transit is more consistent than Tiresias or APHont. (rhythm being the balance between positive and negative space - which is important to legibility, as it aids in word shape recognition. There should not be uneven densities of colour to distract the movement of the eye.) I don't think those two fonts stand up as well to that test as Transit. I may appear to be a personal prejudice as a graphic designer speaking, but I do think that an experienced typographic designer will ultimately be better at designing readable typefaces.

Perhaps when comparing typefaces for relative legibility, there may be a tendency to also compare the credentials of the designers… Erik Spiekermann, the designer of Transit isn’t a scientist. He is, however, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the design of type. He is well enough qualified to design a highly legible typeface. He has designed many typefaces and many wayfinding systems including for public transit systems, airports etc. He was a co-founder of the first distributor of electronic type and founder of MetaDesign. He has authored several highly regarded books on design and typography - I believe his understanding of legibility is at the very least, equal to Dr. Gill and includes an understanding of how type works in a signage system. Transit was initially designed for Düsseldorf Airport and is now used on the signage of many German public transit systems. It is also the typeface of choice for some projects in Britain to improver cities’ signage systems. (Example;

We need to be mindful of economy of space with our signage, as I indicated above and I thin we can do this without sacrificing legibility. Condensing letters to achieve economy of space without sacrificing legibility has been a goal of type designers since the invention of movable type and long before then, among calligraphers, mindful of the cost of vellum. The condensation of letter shapes in typefaces such as Transit is differential, with the greatest amount being applied to letters such as f, r, s, t and E, F, H, L, S, T, where it is easy to simply make the letters narrower without affecting distinguishing feature points. Less compression is applied to letters with open counters c, h, m, n, etc. and even less to letters with closed counters (insides of a, d, e, o, O, Q, etc.).

This is not written to specifically defend the use of Transit as our signage typeface - though I think it serves very well – It is an attempt to defend the use of a typeface that uses space economically and has superior typographic characteristics. There are many typefaces that fit the criteria of economical use of space and superior legibility. These would include Arrival by Keith Chi-hang Tam of Vancouver and M.O.L., by Gerhard Unger for the Amsterdam Metro.

In conclusion, the inconclusive results of the current CNIB study may be accounted for in words attributed to Eric Gill, (
1882 to 1940, known for the classic typefaces, Gills Sans and Perpetua, & no relation to Dr. John Gill): “Legibility, in practice, amounts simply to what one is accustomed to”. Although a little flippant, every joke has a kernel of truth and the truth in this one has been confirmed by research and common sense: Familiar shapes are more legible than unfamiliar ones. Differences in performance between any group of purposely designed "legible fonts" can be vanishingly small and more dependant on what each individual observer is used to reading than on subtle variations in geometry. - Except where horizontal space is limited. Then, a more economical typeface is likely to be better

* In the course of collecting data for the typefaces I examined for the ----- Typeface Review, I contacted all of the vendors to see what additional supporting information I might be able to acquire, and in every case I was directed to the designers, who were all very helpful. I did discuss my method of testing typefaces using uniformly blurred images and a questionnaire with both Elaine Kitchel (American Printing House for the Blind) and Dr. John Gill. They were both very helpful and generous with their time, and both replied that while not a rigorous test by scientific standards the principle was sound enough to give a good evaluation of relative legibility for what I was trying t
o determine. Erik Speikermann’s comments were equally helpful, and since he has a stake in the sales of his typefaces, I’d like to point out he was unbiased. In addition to explaining a little of the history behind the development of Transit, he suggested several typefaces by other designers he felt might also work.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Miraculous Gift

God gave unto Adam a gift of a miraculous bottle that had neither an inside nor an outside, and the inside was on the same plane as the outside and the outside the same as the inside.

Adam asked of the Lord, What is this, my Lord? And the Lord said unto him, This is the Universe. Learn from it for here is the nature of creation. And Adam said unto the Lord, I can not use this thing. It will not hold water or wine. I can not fill it with berries and it will not stand up by it's self on the mantle.

After a time, Adam
and Eve considered the bottle and decided to break off the neck and close up the bottom.

God saw this and was not pleased.
What is this have you done with the miraculous bottle I gave unto you? You have defiled it. I gave to you a thing of real physical and metaphysical beauty, that you may study it and see and understand the elegant genius of my creation and you have reduced it to a household object for storing your sour unpalatable wine.

Adam said unto the Lord, Now that we have fixed it so that it will hold wine
and water and given it a base so that it will stand on the table, it is quite nice

The Lord said unto Adam, I'll tell you what... That tree over there - Very
attractive, don't you think? Especially in the spring with it's blossoms. and practical too for it's rich harvests of fruit. Do not eat of it's fruit.

Friday, April 13, 2007

An observation or two about a building

I posted the following here - In reply to an article about
Rem Koolhaas' design of the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. (I should be more diligent checking for typos before hitting "post".) Actually, I quite like his other buildings, and in fairness the only images I've been able to see of this building don't show much in the way of context.

If don't appreciate some finer points of modern architecture, in consequence I may also lack appropr
iate reverence for it's 'A' list names. So... Enquiring minds do want to know: Is it a wonky salute to Stonehenge? A stylized Chinese character? Does the shadow of the V in the roof line trace a particular and meaningful line on the streets below in the light of the full moon on Chinese New Year?

Averaged over the life expectancy of a building, the amount of steel and glass that go into it's construction, I think, must be a fairly insignificant largely an irrelevant consideration beyond the financial contstraints of paying for the materials. No matter how efficient you are, if you build something that shouldn't be built, every ounce of materials is wasted.

Not that this building should not be built... After all, it's not just another glass-box office tower, but a glass-box office tower that has broken out of it's rectangular mould - and into a more oddly shaped one. The building is simply not attractive, and appears to be about style for the sake of style? Different to be different... Not much different from the empty visual calories of a frilly new Easter bonnet -- Except an advantage enjoyed by viewers of Easter bonnets is that no matter how lovely or gaudy it is, you only have to look at it for a day or two. In this way, I think Koolhaas' CCTV Headquarters is the opposite of good design. Particularly for a prominent public building. All images I've seen of it are from the same angle as that shown at the head of this article, where essentially, it looks like an angular donut. Rotate it 45 degrees to the right and, if the renderings are drawn correctly, and I have to assume they are, it is a radically backwards-slanted letter 'z'.

There is something very unsatisfactory about that, as with what you'd feel looking at half a bridge that ends abruptly part way across a river. Nice as a sculptural statement, perhaps but only if there is something that explains or resolves the implied instability. It poses a visual question about balance and purpose that goes unanswered.

Are the exterior walls not vertical simply because, given enough steel, some good engineering and buy-in from the client, you can build walls at any angle you like? I don't think that's a good enough reason to impose such a large and improbable looking building on the people of Beijing. Will they think back with affection on the monotonous architecture and shapeless olive-drab hats of the Cultural Revolution as they look up uneasily at the over-hanging upper floors?

Just a thought.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Miscreant:

Introducing The Miscreant:

(logo will show Miscreant stepping out of the red circle)

There is a man with a purpose.
And that purpose is to serve as a bad example to us all.

The Miscreant... Don't do what he does.

Episode #1
OK, Here's how it goes:
The veil is lifted.... Covers are torn back and the lid's blown off, as we dig deep under the opaque layers of bureaucracy for an insider's view of life in a fast-paced government sign shop. Welcome to.... The Dept of Rules and Stuff. (image of office with dafting boards and computers. workers with feet on desks reading or asleep with heads on their desks.)

Miscreant shows up for work - late, causing much commotion. Dis-ordered sheafs of paper under one arm.

Boss scowls - Receptionist with a crush swoons when The Miscreant is mouthy to boss. (Oh, alright... Some of this might be a little fictional.)

The Miscreant has a photo session for new sign. A model poses in circle for photographers and artists while Miscreant directs. (Sign is DO NOT SLEEP ON ROADWAY) proofs are sent around for approvals, there is an after-party. After work, Miscreant goes drinking - gets soused, trespasses into railway ROW and is run over by a train.

Next day he shows up for work. Late - Calls a meeting where he presents a proposal for a new sign....