The rendering issue, at least at text sizes, is not going to go away anytime soon. As it’s been pointed out, the naivety of some designers, coupled with the marketing motivations of webfont services and distributors, does not bode well for the readership. The bandwagon has left, with everyone on board, but not realizing it’s missing a wheel.
[Editor’s note: Ross initially posted this text as a comment but I felt it required the space and prominence of a new post. — SC]
Some of the following simply reiterates what Stephen has already observed, but I think it is worth reinforcing from a slightly different perspective.
Firstly, let me address the statement:
Font buyers rely on providers more than ever before. Those who provide quality and transparency will lead this new market and medium.
I certainly hope this will be the case soon. Currently, providers use a few approaches to address the quality issue. One approach is to leave the optimization up to the foundry or licensing designer. This is obviously the least expensive and most profitable approach in the short term — profitable for the third party provider, that is, probably not for the smaller foundry. Another approach is to develop some sort of “autohinting”. From what I’ve seen this is at best a stopgap that provides somewhat adequate results some of the time, and would be what I consider only a first step, perhaps suitable for fonts that you knew were only being used at larger sizes, or as a basis for manual improvements. If I could generalize, the main point of weakness is that most automated routines only recognize obvious features of glyph anatomy (eg. stems, and to a lesser degree vertical alignments) but are mostly incapable of recognizing relationships, which is a core principal of TrueType hinting; the rasterizer has to be explicitly instructed that the counter of an ‘e’ shouldn’t collapse and should have white inside of it, unless told otherwise using Delta instructions. Autohinting can only say there is a top stroke, a middle stroke, and a bottom stroke, and that the top and bottom are in alignment zones. In fact, it doesn’t really know that the middle stroke is in the “middle”, it just knows its a stroke, and it doesn’t know anything about the relationship between the top and bottom. And so on.
I see some mention of rendering quality — how one provider’s approach bests their competition — but I see little actual sensitivity to the quality. For the provider’s own websites, where they can chose the best option (one would hope they would, at least), they chose fonts which are not optimized and have obvious, easily remedied issues. Not the best advertising, but at least its truthful, I suppose.
Even with those who really do know better, you see rather odd examples. Stephen pointed out Monotype’s FontsLive site, which doesn’t show examples below 24px (ppms?).
Webfont at FontsLive.com with ClearType rendering.
On this page they are promoting the quality of their webfonts, but if you look at the first ClearType example, it very much looks like it is not even hinted (vis. 36px and below). It doesn’t surprise me that it isn’t hinted, but that they are using it as an exemplar of their webfonts. This illustrates a couple of the issues I already mentioned: the “provider” is pushing a service without adequately addressing quality issues, which in turn aren’t seen as affordable to the original foundry because the original foundry’s/designer’s slice of the pie doesn’t warrant the expense. So the complaint that they are only showing larger samples is a valid one. It’s a bit of a snow job, but in this case they can’t even pull that off because the problems manifest themselves even at display/headline sizes. (The second Copperplate example has the same problems.) Fortunately, their collection of fonts for text are well chosen because they are well hinted, but the distinction can be blurred, especially in cases where something that could be a “text” font is categorized as “headline” because its unhinted.
So now we have webfonts, and they’re spilling out into the wild faster than they really should. Well, actually, they aren’t really all webfonts, they’re just marketed as such. What are the discussions about quality taking place in foundries, distributors, and third party providers? What steps are they taking towards addressing the quality issues? Do they care? The one positive thing with webfont services is that the fonts are served, rather then installed, and so when a better quality version becomes available there isn’t some onerous install and upgrade procedure to deal with.
It also doesn’t help to skirt the issue by placing blame, or making excuses or predictions that are not demonstrably accurate. Saying its Microsoft’s fault because their rendering is “crappy” is specious. The (TrueType) rendering is fine, as long as the (TrueType) font has a suitable level of instructions. There are more fundamental reasons why MS have chosen to retain this relationship between the rasterizer and the font, some of which has to do with the global nature of their market. Whether or not Windows rendering is better then OSX rendering can be debated subjectively. This debate has no affect on the existing and near-future market that the font and design industries have to serve, where actual OS proportions should rule the decision-making process. Windows XP may well be anachronistic, but it so happens over 50% of users happen also to be anachronistic, and an additional 40% of people are using other flavors of “crappy” rendering systems. That’s approximately 90+% of users out there using “crappy” “anachronistic” software, and as suppliers of content to those systems we have to do the best we can.
The same goes for the argument that in a couple of years we will all have 300ppi screens. Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. We will have more high resolution devices (mostly mobile devices), but again we are looking at the bigger picture when producing content for the web. I won’t go into it in great detail, but it is considerably more difficult to manufacture say, a screen that is 70 square inches (such as a laptop) then it is to manufacture a screen that is 5 square inches (such as the iPhone). Manufacturers have to be able to produce volumes of screens at an attrition rate that does not impact efficiency (ie. if you have to chuck half the panels because they have dead pixels, it doesn’t make financial sense). This end of the industry doesn’t seem to move nearly as fast as the other components. Screen resolution has been nearly fixed for the last decade, with most devices hovering around the 100ppi mark (+/-10ppi). So this argument is fine, if you don’t mind not releasing any webfonts for the next 10 years (or however long it will take for high-res screens to be the norm) — otherwise you’re not really doing any good to our end customer’s experience.
Which brings us to the solution end of things.
I don’t think foundries realize yet the “damage” they’ve done by saturating the market with libraries full of fonts not-yet-ready-for-screen. […] But nonetheless, type-designers, get busy with it! — Angus Shamal
Right. Easier said than done. There are only a handful of people on the planet who do TrueType hinting professionally. FontLab certainly has the basic tools available, if you know how to use them or are willing to learn. So that’s one hurdle. The other is time and/or money. Hiring a third party to do your hinting is an option if you can find someone with the time and if you can afford it. It is highly specialized and is priced accordingly. But the more basic issue — regardless of the form of the investment in hinting — is whether that investment translates to a reasonable return for the originating foundry or designer after all the distributors and “providers” have taken their cut. It seems to me a more coordinated effort may be a better option and that all parties involved carefully consider the quality of the product being released, and collectively find a solution to deal with the issue.
Ross Mills is a type designer and co-founder of Tiro Typeworks. He has been involved in the design and production of multilingual and specialist typefaces for Microsoft Corp., Linotype Library, Apple Computer, the Government of Nunavut and others.