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The Math of Text Readability

Zonk posted about 7 years ago | from the looks-good-to-me dept.


An anonymous reader writes "Wired magazine has an article that explains The Law of Optical Volumes, a formula for spacing the letters on a printed page that results in maximum readability. Wired's new logo (did anyone notice?) obeys the law. Unfortunately, Web fonts don't allow custom kerning pairs, so you can't work the same magic online as in print. Could this be why some people still prefer newspapers and magazines to the Web?"

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Volumes not areas? (5, Insightful)

jakosc (649857) | about 7 years ago | (#18806021)

It's basically kerning pairs, but instead of just a few pairs, it's generalized to maintain the area between all combinations of letters:

The Law of Optical Volumes states that the area between any two letters in a word must be of equal measure throughout the word, and remain consistent throughout the body of text.
So why 'Volumes', not 'Areas'?

If Scott were more of a geometry wonk, he'd have dubbed it the Law of Optical Areas rather than volumes, but that doesn't sound as imposing.
Why stop there? A Law of Optical Hyperspace would be even better...

Re:Volumes not areas? (5, Funny)

paeanblack (191171) | about 7 years ago | (#18806093)

So why 'Volumes', not 'Areas'?

It looked better in print.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806383)

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I'm very confused...

In the article it explains that 'kerning' is spacing letters based on their shape and stuff, for example, V and A together, VA, are spaced more closely. They it goes on to explain that kerning doesn't exist with computers, but it only exists in print. Maybe I'm just running an incredibly modern-futuristic computer here, but my computer arranges letter closer together and further apart depending on their shapes... is that different from 'kerning'?

Print Volumes (1)

twitter (104583) | about 7 years ago | (#18807017)

It looked better in print.

Yes, back in 1940 you could see the thickness of lead in the linotype output, which was indeed a volume. That sounds good, but it might not be right because I just made it up. I do, however have a jar of old lead letters about that old for fun and props. No linotype blocks though.

If you want to get really hoary, I'll bust out my old IBM typewriter, hook it up to WP 4.x and show you proportional fonts that are all about areas instead of volumes. Then we can party like it's 1989.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

Ahnteis (746045) | about 7 years ago | (#18806195)

Correct me if I'm forgetting my geometry, but volume is usually a 3-dimensional measure while area is for 2 dimensions.

Re:Volumes not areas? (2, Insightful)

catbutt (469582) | about 7 years ago | (#18806219)

"Volume" also has more general meanings such as "amount, bulk, mass" (according to Websters). I imagine this meaning is much older than the one used in math to refer specifically to 3 dimensional geometry.

"Area" also has general meanings that go beyond 2d geometery (example: "area of expertise"). If looking at all meanings of the words, I think "volume" is really the better word.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1, Redundant)

AvitarX (172628) | about 7 years ago | (#18806335)


It is explained and really short too.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

roscivs (923777) | about 7 years ago | (#18806371)

RTFComment. He quotes the part of the article where it is explained, and makes a joke about it.

Re:Volumes not areas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806389)


He's quoted that section in the post, so I would guess maybe he did read it?

Re:Volumes not areas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806495)

Mod parent comment away. I read the post and then the article. I missed the last line between the two.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

DTemp (1086779) | about 7 years ago | (#18806461)

First off... if you add up the series 25+24+23+...+3+2+1, its equal to 325. So theres 325 combinations of two letters, not 10000. But I'm not an expert on kerning.

I HAVE spent 2000+ hours using Adobe InDesign in the past year, and I do use optical kerning on almost every body of text I deal with. I'm guessing this is what they are talking about (although optical kerning would work much better with fonts with good kerning pairs).

Something else that improves visibility on justified text is optical margin alignment, where punctuation marks go outside of the margins so that the actual words can line up along the gutter.

As far as web fonts go... we have much bigger fish to fry before we start worrying about optical kerning. Such as character encoding, and non-compliant browsers.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

coopex (873732) | about 7 years ago | (#18806623)

You're forgetting uppercase/lowercase combination, and the fact that ab needs to be different than ba, so the actual numbers needed would seems to be in the thousands, but I'm too lazy to check English letter pairings and do the math.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

maxume (22995) | about 7 years ago | (#18806637)

Wouldn't there be 25 combinations per letter? ab and ba have one combination per letter. abc has two per letter, and so on. Throw in numbers, caps, bold, italic and punctuation and you are at least a little closer than 325.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

Carnildo (712617) | about 7 years ago | (#18806673)

First, a capital-lowercase pair has a different kearning than a cap-cap pair or a lowercase-lowercase pair, so that's 51+50+49+...+2+1. Then, there are ligatures such as fi, and letter-number combinations (1st), and punctuation marks, and non-English characters such as eth, and non-Latin alphabets, and...

I can't say that 10,000 kerning pairs is surprising.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

zippthorne (748122) | about 7 years ago | (#18806689)

Say what now? Add the series? why would you do that?

There are 676 possible combinations of two letters (26)^2. But that doesn't include punctuation or capitals, or numbers. Including all the numbers (10), commas, quotes, periods, and colons and all the punction above the number keys yields 2*26+10+10+5 = 77, or about 6,000 possible two-glyph combinations. And that's just with most of the standard English glyphs.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

BlowChunx (168122) | about 7 years ago | (#18806725)

I guess I missed the math class that covered this, and since I am trying to correct you, I in turn will make a mistake ( think of the grammar nazis...). But here goes:

I have the choice of 26 letters for the first letter, and 26 letters for the second. To me that's not a series, it's just 26*26 = 676. Still not 10000, but double your number...

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

dierdorf (37660) | about 7 years ago | (#18806735)

First off... if you add up the series 25+24+23+...+3+2+1, its equal to 325. So theres 325 combinations of two letters, not 10000. But I'm not an expert on kerning.

It's 26..., not 25, because a letter can be paired with itself.

It's 200..., not 26, because upper and lower case letters, numbers, punctuation, etc. are all kerned.

I have to admit I don't know how many kerning rules there are once one has added in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Hangul, Cyrillic, Cherokee, Katakana, and Hieroglyphic, but I think 10,000 would be low. Anybody know the kerning rules for Chinese?

Any total has to be basically doubled, because order is important -- the kerning rule for "LT", for example, is not the same as that for "TL".

Your third sentence is perfectly correct, though.

Re:Volumes not areas? (1)

Hewligan (202585) | about 7 years ago | (#18807107)

I HAVE spent 2000+ hours using Adobe InDesign in the past year, and I do use optical kerning on almost every body of text I deal with. I'm guessing this is what they are talking about (although optical kerning would work much better with fonts with good kerning pairs).

Really? You shouldn't.

If you're using decent fonts, they come with kerning pairs which will work at the size for which they're intended (so body fonts should not need optical kerning at body copy sizes). Optical kerning is for those times when, for example, you run Gill Sans at 60 points. Then it's default kerning pairs will be far too wide, and optical kerning will provide better kerning pairs.

Still, none of that beats properly done manual kerning, but you only ever expect to do that on a headline. Even then, it's better to start with something that's close to right.

Re:Volumes not areas? (2, Informative)

twistedcubic (577194) | about 7 years ago | (#18807095)

This probably isn't the reason, but in math, the general term used for the capacity of an object, regardless of its dimension, is "volume". And so "length" refers to the volume of a 1-dimensional object, and "area" refers to the volume of a 2-D object.

Web Volumes??? (2, Informative)

Slugster (635830) | about 7 years ago | (#18806033)

Well there IS pdf's, if you wanna be that picky......

Hinting distorts kerning (2, Insightful)

tepples (727027) | about 7 years ago | (#18806083)

True, PDF documents have kerning in them, but the hinting used to display glyphs in PDF documents on a 70 to 120 DPI screen without blurring the crap out of the glyphs distorts the spacing balance.

Not all that important (4, Insightful)

realmolo (574068) | about 7 years ago | (#18806097)

Having all the typefaces look *exactly* right is one of those things that only printers really care about. Don't get me wrong, it's worth the trouble, for the *printed page*.

But on the web? I don't think anyone would really notice or care that much. Plus, it'd be hard to achieve, since you can't rely on all machines rendering fonts at the same resolution, and you can't rely on fonts actually being present on all machines, and you can't rely on all the *versions* of a typeface actually being the same across different platforms. None of this is news. The web was designed to sort-of deal with these problems. Or at least, ignore them.
Someday, when we're all running ultra-high-res displays, and someone releases a shitload of completey free (as in beer and freedom), high-quality fonts (I think this is the biggest issue, personally), then we'll all see the same nice fonts on our computers.

Not all that important-Digital. (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806215)

"Someday, when we're all running ultra-high-res displays, and someone releases a shitload of completey free (as in beer and freedom), high-quality fonts (I think this is the biggest issue, personally), then we'll all see the same nice fonts on our computers."

Welcome to slashdot were doing anything that goes on the internet isn't really "work".

"Traditional fonts usually included several hundred kerning pairs. Hoefler & Frere-Jones' fonts are super-fussy - they can include 10,000 pairs to get every combo of letters exactly right. "

That's work, and that's only a small part of what's known as typography.

Re:Not all that important (2, Insightful)

Itninja (937614) | about 7 years ago | (#18806261)

I think the point of the article wasn't about how important the quality of typefaces and fonts are, but some reasoning behind why some people get more fatigued than others reading text from a computer screen.

Re:Not all that important (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806271)

> But on the web? I don't think anyone would really notice or care that much.

The publishers care. People notice good typography even when they can't quantify it, and they're more likely to come back to the site that "just looks good".

Of course content is still king: the New York Times got through most of the 20th century with typography from the last one -- a veritable typeface soup -- but no one was about to switch to the Post over it.

I Care But (2, Insightful)

tknd (979052) | about 7 years ago | (#18806315)

The main reason why it is much harder to produce a good looking font on a screen is due to the low dpi factor of screens. In print, you can get a much higher dpi and as such some fonts like Times look great. But on the screen they look like crap because the screen only has so much resolution. You can play a few tricks with current lcd technology and anti-aliasing but compare it to anything in print and there's no comparison.

I certainly wouldn't mind higher resolution displays to display crisper fonts. And no, I'm not talking about running Windows at 3200x2400 so I can fit 4 1600x1200 browser windows on the screen, but rather so that my 10pt font looks much sharper. Then, maybe then I wouldn't have to read a blurry pdf on the screen or be forced to zoom in so the fonts render clearer.

Re:I Care But (3, Funny)

GunFodder (208805) | about 7 years ago | (#18806965)

What kind of geek are you? I would think the biggest advantage of running 3200x2400 is the ability to fit at least 16 reasonably sized fixed-font xterms onscreen AT THE SAME TIME!

Re:Not all that important (2, Insightful)

Purity Of Essence (1007601) | about 7 years ago | (#18806379)

Having all the typefaces look *exactly* right is one of those things that only printers really care about. Don't get me wrong, it's worth the trouble, for the *printed page*.

Look at the Slashdot banner at the top of the page. What do you see? Kerning. And if it wasn't kerned, it would look like crap. All designers care about kerning, not just those in the print world.

Re:Not all that important (1)

whit3 (318913) | about 7 years ago | (#18807009)

While there aren't any ligatures, my screen is rendered with display
PostScript, and has all the same kerning and font capability of most print
software. I enjoy the capability of selecting fonts and sizes on-screen,
and wouldn't want those decisions made by others. As my vision
ages, I'm making the fonts bigger. None of your business HOW big.

Metafont/TeX/LaTeX has kerning and ligatures and makes pretty good print.

Display PostScript is the imaging model for Macintosh OS X unless you
choose to fire up Xwindows.

I'm not so sure... (1)

anss123 (985305) | about 7 years ago | (#18806129)

So they basically put some letters closer together when possible. Personally I've noted that Magazines and Papers put a good bit of thought into layout, but I've never found them easier to read. On the contrary, screen fonts are bigger and are easier on the eyes than letters on glossy paper.

The most readable text I've seen is what is output from a common Laser printer, and I do not believe they use 'kerning' fonts.

Re:I'm not so sure... (5, Funny)

UbuntuDupe (970646) | about 7 years ago | (#18806249)

Personally I've noted that Magazines and Papers put a good bit of thought into layout, but I've never found them easier to read.

Yeah, I agree, though I think that has more to do with their dumbed-down slang phrasings than the typography.

8-year-old: "6 divided by 3 is 2."

Time magazine: "Okay, take the number six. You're all familiar with it, yes? It's a half-dozen. Now, imagine it divvied up into little chunklets -- three, specifically -- and each chunklet has the same number that math professor Gregory Beckens at Overinflated Ego University calls a 'quotient'. The so-called 'quotient' in this case? Dos."

Re:I'm not so sure... (1)

Strilanc (1077197) | about 7 years ago | (#18806617)

and then they screw it up with those big bold quotes ten times the size of
| IT'S RETARDED - Strilanc. | the rest of the text, and all it does is state
a sentence you'll see later. It's retarded.

My biggest CSS gripe (1)

PhrostyMcByte (589271) | about 7 years ago | (#18806139)

Is the lack of good font control. Lack of kerning is one thing. Another is you can't have font sizes for each individual fallback font - fonts can vary in size so much that you have to write for the most common font or risk throwing the design for everyone else.

Re:My biggest CSS gripe (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806181)

How about just write the damn page so it works with the font size a user wants.

Re:My biggest CSS gripe (1)

interiot (50685) | about 7 years ago | (#18806299)

So work in TeX or PDF or PS, or any of the other formats that are designed to be used with a single specific font and a specific page size, that can be tweaked endlessly.

Re:My biggest CSS gripe (3, Insightful)

afidel (530433) | about 7 years ago | (#18806351)

I think you miss the point of this HTML thing. It's a markup language, not a display language. For that we have PDF and Display Postscript. I don't want that much font controll in the language because your exacting layout isn't going to work on my 320*240 (or smaller) portable display anyways.

Re:My biggest CSS gripe (2, Insightful)

cloudmaster (10662) | about 7 years ago | (#18807029)

I think you miss the point of this CSS thing. It's a style defining syntax, not a markup language. It exists to put a Style - you know, the "middle S" - on top of a generic markup language. Your tiny device should a) treat styles in a way appropriate for its capabilities, or b) suck it.

Now, if people would just use HTML as intended, and use CSS as intended, my tiny little devices can ignore the web browser CSS and render the HTML in a way appropriate for their screens. Some people will know aobut tiny little devices, and will design CSS to help make things readable on tiny little devices, because they care about such things. I'll turn that crap off, because I think web designers with a print graphics background should not be allowed near my computer. And we'll all be happy, because separating content from presentation is a good thing.

Re:My biggest CSS gripe (1)

DuckWizard (744428) | about 7 years ago | (#18806499)

font-size-adjust does this to some degree (the fallback font sizes). You specify the x-height/em-width ratio of the font you are using for your layout, and the user-agent will (or should) scale the resulting font by the ratio of the font-size-adjust property to its x/em ratio. Theoretically, this will help you ensure that the text is at least legible if a fallback font is used (although you don't have fine control over the font size).

Buy the magazine to see the kerning in action! (5, Insightful)

Headcase88 (828620) | about 7 years ago | (#18806143)

To see and appreciate the Law in action beyond our logo, you'll need to pick up a copy of the magazine.
Well I guess that would be more profitable than just offering a .gif sample.

Wireds new logo?!? (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806169)

Since when has Wired cared a lick about readability? Am I the only one old enough to remember their notorious mid-90's layouts?

Isn't it OS' responsibility? (1)

saikou (211301) | about 7 years ago | (#18806171)

I always thought that kerning of installed (and injected) fonts is pretty much OS responsibility. So if you have kerning enabled (see, for example, Typography.Kerning in .NET, as we're talking mostly about Windows) adjustments of the font will be done automatically. So I guess if you force browser to download font via CSS2 that has kerning information it should "just work".

Alas, I always thought that forcing downloading of custom font is a bad idea (jut like forcing user to use some fixed font size) as not everyone may be a big fan of new fancy font.
Oh well.

Print vs Digital (5, Insightful)

Reason58 (775044) | about 7 years ago | (#18806173)

Could this be why some people still prefer newspapers and magazines to the Web?
Intrusive ads, popup windows, flash animations and audio come to mind as reasons. Also the simple fact that many people like the freedom of being able to actually hold and move around the thing they are looking at. Kerning adjustments seem pretty low on the list of reasons IMHO.

The term you're looking for (3, Interesting)

michaelmalak (91262) | about 7 years ago | (#18806319)

Also the simple fact that many people like the freedom of being able to actually hold and move around the thing they are looking at.
The term you're looking for is Picard's Syndrome [lewrockwell.com].

Re:Print vs Digital (1)

Pharmboy (216950) | about 7 years ago | (#18806325)

I personally think that people prefer to read some things in paper form because it isn't convenient to use a laptop in the toilet. Not trying to be funny, as most people DO read in the toilet, and it just isn't easy, or particularly sanitary to do so with a computer.

Also, people read on planes, in lobbies, while waiting in line, and other places that a computer isn't as convenient. Either use a paper book, or a Gameboy.

More important to me, paper is more intuitive for casual reading. Computers are better for research, search and find, copy and paste, and quick and dirty fact finding, but paper is still the most enjoyable way to read, particularly when I want to read simply because I just want to read. It's comfortable, familiar, and wonderfully analog.

Re:Print vs Digital (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806655)

I personally think that people prefer to read some things in paper form because it isn't convenient to use a laptop in the toilet. Not trying to be funny, as most people DO read in the toilet, and it just isn't easy, or particularly sanitary to do so with a computer.

If you've got enough time to read a magazine or newspaper while on the toilet, you are in serious need of some fiber in your diet!

Re:Print vs Digital (2, Insightful)

Ambush Commander (871525) | about 7 years ago | (#18806545)

Kerning adjustments seem pretty low on the list of reasons IMHO.

You are partially correct. Kerning alone won't make print more attractive than web documents. However, kerning is only one part out of many things one can do to text (justification, hyphenation, smaller line-lengths, line-spacing, judicious use of emphasis, indentation, ligatures, etc.) to make it more readable, i.e. typography. The sum of all these adjustments, while not consciously visible to the reader, most definitely has an effect on the overall desirability of print media.

Since when was WIRED interested in readability? (5, Insightful)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about 7 years ago | (#18806189)

The concept of WIRED magazine and its associated web site being interested in readability seems ludicrous.

Consider their track record of using tiny type, garish color schemes, and layouts that I find difficult to characterize, making it nearly impossible for anyone with any of a number of (even slight) impairments to their eyesight (including especially presbyopia - the lack of accommodation that accompanies middle age) to read their publications comfortably - or even at all.

I've often thought that this was done deliberately, to repell all but young readers, as part of targeting their circulation on the perceived avant-garde youth of gen-Y and beyond.

Now they're modifying their logo for readability. ORLY? Is their target demographic aging enough that this is now a problem? Are readers deserting them due to headaches just as they graduate into serious spending money? Or are they just playing around with another art/layout fad?

If they were really serious about readability I'd expect them to be modifying other aspects of their magazine and site layout. But TFA shows that is not happening. So I'll go with "fad".

Re:Since when was WIRED interested in readability? (1)

ClosedSource (238333) | about 7 years ago | (#18806697)

I agree. While I haven't paid any attention to WIRED for a number of years, I remember that their magazine was harder to read than anything I'd seen before.

Re:Since when was WIRED interested in readability? (1)

jfengel (409917) | about 7 years ago | (#18807025)

They've improved it considerably since then. Five years ago the typography and design were actively offensive. These days it's much more conservative. Still a bit edgy, and not always wonderful, but almost always readable.

The content is pretty much the same as before: a lot of tech hype with a very low probability of ever seeing the light of day, but with a few reasonable articles.

no i didn't notice (1)

hurfy (735314) | about 7 years ago | (#18806201)


The new one is just the opposite of the old one, very interesting. I don't really see how this umm law applies more to one than the other tho.

I do see what they are saying tho. A good sample is the button below for Plain Old Text. In that font it looks like the sans-serif T wants to get away altho in this font the seriffed T looks fine cause of a extra dot.

print density (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806223)

Current screens of any usable size still have about 1/3 to 1/2 the dot density of a printed page. Until we can get screens up above 300dpi, print will continue to win. And that's not even mentioning things like kerning and manually adjusting word spacing--an area that takes a lot of experience and time to do well.

Kerning is not an exact science (5, Informative)

Temeraire (913731) | about 7 years ago | (#18806239)

I have actually written software to kern text (for the sign-making industry) and can testify that kerning is not an exact science. Yes, one needs to even up the areas of white space between letter, but then one needs to bias the calculations in favour of the tops of the letters. And then make some allowance for any white space inside the letters, and .... and .... and ..... Spacing that is correct for 12-point type on paper would be quite wrong for a huge 3D sign on the side of a building, and so on.
      For perfection, there is no substitute for the human eye. The algorithms used by our brains to unscramble text are very complex.

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (1)

rossz (67331) | about 7 years ago | (#18806437)

A long time a go I worked for a company that made fonts. From my experience, trying to kern mathematically just didn't work. The only way you can properly create kerning is to have a table for every possible character combination (at that time, 256x256 characters, minus the 32 control characters) with the kerning value. You needed a table for each font, face, and size. Thus, Times Roman 10pt Normal was entirely different from Times Roman 12pt Bold. Kerning mixed fonts was not even considered. For printed text (as opposed to giant building signs), a short int (single byte, signed) per character pair was sufficient since -127 to +127 was way overkill. However, that's a 64k table for each and every font. At the time, that was a big deal. An alternative system was to assume zero kerning as the default, but have a table for the exceptions, e.g. 'v' and 'o' (being a common pair needing negative kerning).

Even if you produced a perfectly good kerning system, it was tossed out the window when someone printed "fully justified".

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (1)

alexhs (877055) | about 7 years ago | (#18806497)

Does anyone know how it works for (La)TeX ? Do they also use tables, or is there some generic algorithm ?

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (2, Informative)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | about 7 years ago | (#18806627)

If you're referring to METAFONT-style fonts, then there is some supplementary information you can encode in the font file to indicate kerning between specific pairs, and also some moderately flexible ligature support. It's nowhere near as powerful as what you can do with Opentype, but suffices for reasonable quality when setting Roman alphabet languages. It can also be adapted, if you try hard enough, to support more complicated scripts like Devanagari. The nastiest limitations for that sort of work usually involved the number 256, IIRC.

The TeX engine itself does some spacing work as well, but more in the areas of punctuation and whitespace for justification than inter-letter spacing. (This is why you have to be careful when using a . character as something other than a full stop, if you want typographically correct results.) If you want something interesting built on top of TeX, look up Han The Thanh's thesis on microtypography and have a play with PDF(La)TeX.

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 7 years ago | (#18806611)

" For perfection, there is no substitute for the human eye."

ever try to put up a 100 foot long, 12 foot high cinder block wall using just your eye?

No for perfaction there are measureing tools.They are a hell of a lot better then anyones eye.

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (2, Funny)

rumblin'rabbit (711865) | about 7 years ago | (#18806961)

ever try to put up a 100 foot long, 12 foot high cinder block wall using just your eye?
I'm trying to imagine that. You would need strong eyes, I think.

But I take your point. Might I also suggest that using an automatic spell checker is better than trying to compose on the fly.

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (1)

pipingguy (566974) | about 7 years ago | (#18806791)

You should be able to visually roll a ball of a consistent diameter between the rightmost edge of the left character and the leftmost edge of the right character. Does that make sense?

Re:Kerning is not an exact science (1)

gatzke (2977) | about 7 years ago | (#18807081)

Doesn't LaTeX do kerning? Couldn't it make big signs as well?

TiReD (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806273)

The very notion of Wired magazine talking about the readability of fonts is, in itself, hilarious and full of irony.

Web Site Readability (2, Interesting)

hattig (47930) | about 7 years ago | (#18806289)

Unfortunately the WIRED headline "underwire" doesn't obey those rules.

I'm generally unhappy with kerning on websites, unless they use certain fonts (sorry, I've never cared enough to look them up, although oddly enough they were serif fonts whereas I like sans-serif on websites).

The biggest issue for readability was:

- not too small
- decent line spacing
- NOT black on white. Dark grey on white, or black on pale grey
- Nice margins to other content

(aside, remember when people used to call them founts back in the 80s?)

I've actually found the Wii Opera browser quite readable even on a 576i PAL TV (once zoomed in on the content anyway), and I attribute that to decent fonts and colours.

Re:Web Site Readability (1)

rs79 (71822) | about 7 years ago | (#18807079)

"aside, remember when people used to call them founts back in the 80s?"

I created comp.fonts in the 80s and I can't ever recall seeing that spelling.

I do live under a rock though. So maybe it's just me.

Re:Web Site Readability (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18807233)

I suspect that, being in the UK, the word 'fonts' came from the US, and someone added a 'u' back into the equation, hence founts, said Frenchlike. I still have the magazines that reference 'founts' ...

Um, no. (1, Insightful)

iabervon (1971) | about 7 years ago | (#18806341)

That law can't be right, because it would mean that the correct kerning wouldn't depend on the letters at all. Give each letter a nominal bounding box, and use this box for spacing. The "before" area is the area between the letter and the left edge; the "after" area is on the right. The area between two letters is the total of the first one's "after" area and the second one's "before" area. If you want the area to be a particular constant, adjust all the left edges so that all of the letters have half that constant as their "before" areas, and adjust the right edges so all the letters also have half that constant as their "after" areas. Obviously, then, all of the spacing is perfect by the law, regardless of the letters involved. (Okay, so I'm ignoring different heights of adjacent space; there's more height in the area in "ll" than "mm", but that translates to constant space removals between adjacent right and left ascenders or descenders.)

But correct kerning depends on the letter pairs, with some examples mattering a lot, and some being less important. So this law, as stated, is clearly wrong. Correct kerning takes into account the fact that "AV" has room to overlap vertically, while "VV" and "AA" don't, so the particular shapes actually matter. Any possible good rule has to be non-linear to account for this, and certainly trickier than the rule given. I suspect that there isn't a good rule known (other than "get sombody with a good eye to adjust it"), or fonts would just have a "crowdedness" parameter, and the rendering engine would use the rule and the parameter to generate ideal kernings for all pairs of characters on the fly.

Re:Um, no. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806879)

Kerning is overrated

Re:Um, no. (1)

kevinadi (191992) | about 7 years ago | (#18806957)

I think there's more to it than that. After I stare at the A and V for a while, I realize that what matters is probably the "weight" of the letters. By weight, I mean how complicated a letter look, and how that complexity is distributed throughout the text. So you're correct, this is not as simple as it sounds.

We humans like things regular. I would tend to think that what makes a text legible is that they have regular spacing on the whole, hence the kerning theory Wired made. However, that doesn't take into account about the complexity of each character. I remember I've read somewhere that serifs are supposed to make texts easier to read, arguably because the serifs made all letters look about the same in complexity. Notice that in a serif font, the serifs are not the same size. "I" and "X" have different lengths. Not to mention that they make a suggested line on top and bottom of words, and between letters. In other words, the serifs make the letters look more uniform. This unexplained "weight" is most likely why the new Wired logo have serifs in the I and E, and none on the other letters. It's not just the kerning; without the serif in the "I", their same-spacing theory wouldn't work since the "I" would look out of place even when the spacing are the same.

It's more complex if a font doesn't have serifs. That means that you can't artificially inflate a letter's complexity, and have to depend on individual letter's original complexity and play around with the kerning to get the complexity evenly distributed.

A more interesting research is when one looks at complex scripts like Chinese and Korean. They have complex "letters" and most of them are approximately square. I believe this "volume" thing is universal, and much more insight can be gained from Chinese scripts and comparing their readability against western fonts. This got a promising research value, as the original theory sounds so simple it couldn't possibly be true, and as you think a little more about it, more interesting facts start to emerge.

Re:Um, no. (2, Informative)

porpnorber (851345) | about 7 years ago | (#18806995)

The thing I find amazing about this discussion is that the Slashdot audience, often (in part if not in whole) so well-informed, appears here so utterly ignorant. Folks, to take a random example, twenty years ago I used to subscribe to a journal called Visible Language. Google tells me that it's still there, at http://www.id.iit.edu/visiblelanguage [iit.edu] . It's far from the only source on such information. Yes, there is a research community on these topics. The research has been done. It was done, for print, centuries ago; it was done, for the screen, decades ago. It is something that matters, sure, to nerds as to anyone who reads. But how quite does it get to be news, now? Because someone at Wired recently half-remembered what he learned in a typography class at school?

So ja, sure, 'equal areas' is just an informal approximation, it's what you remember of the idea, informally, once your school days (or whatever other days they were when you read up on typography) are somewhere in the distant past. It doesn't mean there's no theory to it; it doesn't mean there's no well-researched and well-documented theory of it. It just means that it's one of those, OMG, pre-Internet topics that's tricky to Google for, and nobody, either here or at Wired, dropped by their local library recently to check it out in detail. Or, equally possibly, that it didn't seem worth the effort to explain in more depth when the purpose of tfa was, frankly, just to be cute.

As to why our on-screen typography pays little attention to such well-known ideas, I somehow suspect it's a combination of the cowboy programmer syndrome so pandemic in web technology and the distinct possibility that some corporate baboon somewhere has a patent-lock on 'text that doesn't look like crap'....

Screens stink for long texts (2, Insightful)

yusing (216625) | about 7 years ago | (#18806355)

White space, fonts and text density are minor concerns to me (intense reader for decades). Computers are fine for relaxed reads, but for long texts, the medium's just wrong: I prefer paper books.

Computers breaks my study habits ... intense focus and keeping my circulation moving ... and so I find PDF manuals distasteful. Books: Grab, flip open, crawl inside... quickly, wherever. Maybe it's long habit, but considering the e-book flop, I 'spect I'm part of a majority.

Does this really apply to screen-rendered fonts? (4, Insightful)

Entropius (188861) | about 7 years ago | (#18806357)

The space between letters on my screen generally has a lot of anti-alias grey pixels, and even subpixel-rendering-derived colored pixels, in it. It's not empty.

One approach would be to apply this sort of kerning logic to a font in a completely analog way (like one would in print), assuming an infinite-resolution display, and then use antialiasing and subpixel-level antialiasing to squeeze more resolution out of the screen.

Nonetheless, text looks better when lines fall evenly on a pixel boundary -- if a line is one pixel wide, for instance, I'd rather have column 10 illuminated fully than a mix of columns 10 and 11 dictated by the kerning algorithm and provided by the antialiasing code.

Zelaous application of the kerning rules would result in nearly all characters falling halfway between two pixels. Antialiasing makes diagonal lines look smooth, and it's wonderful for that, but I don't want all my text looking like it's displayed on an LCD at non-native resolution.

Interestingly, The GIMP has two modes for its text tool -- one that makes some compromises on "the exact shape and spacing dictated by the font" in order to *improve* readability once you quantize distance by sticking the characters in pixels. I find this mode is far more readable for small characters than the one that doesn't.

Disappointing (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | about 7 years ago | (#18806361)

I thought someone might finally have come up with some serious research showing how to objectively improve readability, but it's just a summary of kerning.

Why is this area so bare of real scientific results? There have been a few studies into on-screen readability, typically measuring things like reading speed, accuracy of recollection afterwards, and subjective approval of the document by the reader. However, there are so many variables that people don't seem to control that it's hard to see any general patterns. For example, changing the font from 10pt to 12pt on screen may well not just scale the size by 120%, but also make the dominant strokes two pixels wide rather than one. There is little consistency among conclusions about optimal font size for reading across fonts or whether serif or sans-serif fonts are more readable, perhaps because there are so many variables.

Oh well, I guess we'll just have to wait a bit longer for comprehensive research.

Non-uniform heights (1)

teoryn (801633) | about 7 years ago | (#18806433)

How does this law apply to punctuation and multi-part characters like i and j? Does the area to left of the space between the dot and stroke of the i count towards the 'volume'? Does all small punctuation have to be exceedingly far away from everything to maintain that space, or does the law just not apply in such cases (in which case, what is the generalized law?). Cool idea none the less, but it'd be nice if it were better specified.

It's Maths (1, Funny)

Wiseman1024 (993899) | about 7 years ago | (#18806435)

It's Maths, with an S.

Re:It's Maths (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806601)

Except in the US, and you're reading a US-centric site written by US citizens and maintained in the US. Sorry.

But have you noticed... (3, Insightful)

M-RES (653754) | about 7 years ago | (#18806467)

Have you noticed that Wired's 'NEW' logo uses an almost monospaced font (ie: the kind used on old manual typewriters aka 'Courier' - where every character was the same width, hence the lowercase i with very large serifs to take up the space effectively)? Only the W is of a different width, but they've balanced it by using a slab-serif I and then balanced the useage of that amongst the sans-serif face by also including a slab-serif E so that it doesn't stand out in your subconcious. Such is the way of kerning... it's not mathematical at all, it's all in the 'feeling'. It's a purely aesthetic exercise and as has been quite rightly pointed out in the comments, a font that is perfectly kerned at 12pt becomes odd-looking when scaled up to a display size (even scaling to something like 120pt would show it) - hence some type families including a 'display' version specifically kerned for use at larger sizes. Typography... it's all in the whitespace y'know ;)

latex (4, Interesting)

dheera (1003686) | about 7 years ago | (#18806475)

This is exactly why MS Word sucks and LaTeX is awesome, at least in terms of readability. Try reading a LaTeX'ed documunt on the screen, it is extremely pleasant.

Re:latex (3, Informative)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | about 7 years ago | (#18806751)

The irony, of course, is that the latest versions of Windows support Opentype pretty comprehensively, the latest fonts from MS support some Opentype features, pretty much all of the serious, commercial, professional-grade fonts you can buy these days come as Opentype (at least from sources like Adobe), Opentype features are far more powerful than anything in the TeX/METAFONT world, yet Microsoft were too busy revamping their UI again to add support for these features in Word 2007. So much for BillG's claims about readability on the screen being important.

Web fonts don't have custom kerning pairs - hmmmm (4, Informative)

rh2600 (530311) | about 7 years ago | (#18806537)

Web fonts don't have custom kerning pairs

Whilst true, this is a bit misguided.

First things first - web fonts, and print fonts are the same. Fonts are fonts. Some are better than others and include more default kerning pairs than others. But rest assured, Georgia, Arial etc have got kerning pairs (for print and screen) and hinting information (for screen).

Type rendering engines *do* support kerning pairs, that the typographer who designed the font decided to create and embed in the font file. There are a bunch of patterns that are used to expose badly spaced pairs that typographers use when checking these spaces and fixing them.

Custom kerning for print is actually font independent and is done in the print design app of choice. Print design uses these same font files and their kerning pairs, and print designers won't custom kern large blocks of text, unless of course they want to spend 3 days per page of content. Print designers do often kern large headings and logotypes where any subtle problems are (literally) magnified and are obvious to the reader. Online designers do this in a number of ways, but typically resort to using an image (because the logotype font isn't likely to be on the end users computer anyway). CSS does give you the ability to create custom kerning pairs if you would want it, through a mixture of text-indents, spans and margins but its not very clean.

So the author if this piece is correct, but a little misguided and not being particularly fair on "the web". ;)

Re:Web fonts don't have custom kerning pairs - hmm (1)

Ant P. (974313) | about 7 years ago | (#18807153)

I don't get where they pulled that "web fonts don't kern" from. I can see the kerning differences between Vera Sans and DejaVu Sans in my browser, even though they use identical letter shapes.
Which one looks better is largely a matter of opinion, though I like the way DejaVu has funny spacing between T and small letters.

FWIW (2, Informative)

Dausha (546002) | about 7 years ago | (#18806609)

http://webtypography.net/ [webtypography.net] This link goes to a way of implementing Elements of Typology online; which is supposed to improve readability. Its interesting in that it sort of goes against the common idea with screen size and web text. The common idea, as I understand it, is that we should not worry about the 800X600 and use as much screen real estate as possible. Then, text columns can stretch as wide as my 19" monitor will let them. The problem is, that works against readability. The "optimal" is about 4.5". I use 37em for text body width, and that seems to work.

Re:FWIW (1)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | about 7 years ago | (#18806793)

Actually, the optimal line length for extended reading has more to do with the angle through which yours eyes must rotate to get back to the start of each line from the end of the one preceding it. It happens that for typical typefaces, text sizes and reading distances, this works out at around 4–5", or 1.5 alphabets, or whatever your preferred practical rule of thumb is.

Dont mess up the ascii art !! (1)

droopycom (470921) | about 7 years ago | (#18806801)

Come on, nobody should ever need anything but a 80 columns ascii terminal.

Kerning is a scam to destroy ascii artists !!

No kerning? You're full of crap. (1)

pclminion (145572) | about 7 years ago | (#18806809)

Unfortunately, Web fonts don't allow custom kerning pairs, so you can't work the same magic online as in print.

They don't? What the hell are you talking about? A TrueType font contains a kerning table. If the font rendering does not kern properly, it just means the rendering engine is a piece of shit. There is nothing about "web fonts" (what the hell does that mean?) that preclude proper kerning. It just means that the fonts which are typically installed have shitty kerning tables.

Wired's Logo is still really ugly (1)

cruff (171569) | about 7 years ago | (#18806863)

I took a look at the Wired web site expecting to see something nice and elegant, but was met with something I consider to be really ugly. They seem to have missed out on applying it and having something pleasing to look at.

Why some people still prefer newspapers & mags (1)

mnemotronic (586021) | about 7 years ago | (#18806867)

  • I can roll up a magazine and beat the dog
  • I can fold a newpaper and whack flies
  • If I sit on the train and scan through Penthouse, people will think I'm an crude, insensitive, misogynistic lout. If I do the same thing with the Penthouse hidden inside a copy of Roll Call [rollcall.com], people know I'm a crude, insensitive, misogynistic and powerful lout, and they'll fear and respect me.
  • Newspapers are good for concealing the bottle of booze
  • Paper needs dead trees - lots of 'em. Extensive tree cutting decreases the ability of the ecosphere to scrub CO2. It employees unionized workers who use fossil-fuel powered tools, contributing to CO2 levels. Used paper either takes up landfill space or requires recycling, both of which employ more unionized workers using dead-dino juice. I could go on and on, but as you can see, there's nothing but upside [co2science.org] as far as the eye can see.
  • The petro-fuel [opensecrets.org] and paper-based media [opensecrets.org] organizations have got the "campaign contribution" process down to an art form. These "new-media" internet companies [opensecrets.org] just do not understand how to grease the wheels of justice. ("justice". Ha! I love that one)
  • Newspapers make good fans for the underprivileged women in church on a hot Sunday morning.
  • Exactly which end of the mouse are you going to wipe your a** with?

maximum readability??? (1)

nanosquid (1074949) | about 7 years ago | (#18806929)

I'm sorry, all I could find on that page is a lot of designer mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-science.

Where is the actual evidence that this "maximizes readability"?

Screen and font is a complex issue (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806939)

When come to font and screen, very few people gets it. Even in the article, "Web fonts in 2007 still don't have kerning pairs", what does it means? Anyone care to exlain? As far as I know, quite a number of fonts in my machine do have kerning pairs, and web browsers rendered them nicely. There are exceptions, of course, but that does not mean Web fonts don't have kerning pairs. I know this, I have done more complex work than just kerning (like mark positiong,ligatures, contextual alternatives etc).

One thing that the article fails to explain is, when comes to screen reading, kerning is just one facter. The other VERY important factor is how well the glyph is rendered. In truetype fonts, this is achieved through proper hinting, and I really mean PROPER. As far as I can tell, there are very limited fonts that are properly hinted, even the commercial ones. To make matter worse, part of hinting are patented, make it more difficult to be available on platform like Linux (without using the patent, that is).
Freetype has done a termendous job on getting their "autohinter" working, but it will never be the same as font hinting. This is because when a font is hinted, the designer decides how it will exactly look like at specified resolution, while with autohinter, the program have to "figure out" how it suppose to look like. You know which one will produce a better output. Of course, all this does not apply to printed material where the printers are high resolution.
So far, even though truetype hinting is aging, it seems like there is no better substitude in the pipeline.

Courier (or courier new) (1)

cmburns69 (169686) | about 7 years ago | (#18806955)

It seems to me that this could be a reason why programmers generally seem to like monospaced fonts. Not only do things line up in columns, but each letter is easier to pick out and read (due to the singular widths of letters).

For example, this sentence takes up more space, but is easier to read.

don't forget ligatures... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18806959)

Good typesetting/layout programs allow to make nice ligatures (I've "typeset" books using Quark XPress and... LaTeX [yay!] and they both support typographical ligatures). Honestly I've seen some CS paper produced with LaTeX that were, to me, piece of art. When I read a document where the "fi" is not correctly ligatured, I see it immediately (but admittedly I've got trained eyes).

Another thing is that a printer working, say, at 1200 dpi, is still one order of magnitude more precise than a screen. Not too mention that some people find it less tiring to read a book/magazine/newspaper than on a computer screen.

Besides that, I'm programming using a monospaced "programmer font" (non-aliased, "pixel perfect" font) and I don't want ligature to appear in my editor anytime soon...

Sage (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18807013)

Wonky mathematics.
Factually inaccurate.
No news.

Please Slashdot, it's not the volume of articles that matters to anyone. It's the quality of articles that matters. If you prune articles like this, other, better articles will be easier to spot. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signal-to-noise_ratio [wikipedia.org]

God, I know we don't talk much, but... (1)

arclyte (961404) | about 7 years ago | (#18807065)

Please, please, please don't put a kerning attribute into the hands of people who consider fixing up their MySpace profile "web design".

Welcometomysite.IhavealottosaysoIturnedthekerningd ownsoIcouldfititallin.

The biggest problem with readability on the web... (4, Insightful)

yellowstone (62484) | about 7 years ago | (#18807099)

...is that nobody seems to care about margins.

In so many websites (and yeah, Slashdot, I'm lookin' at you) every square inch of screen space seems to be cram-jam full of content, pictures, navigation menus, adds, sidebars, logos...

Stop. Please... just stop.

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