Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

The craft of digital type

Digital typesetting: how does it measure up?

Metal setting is practised today by only a handful of specialists, but it continues to provide the standards by which good typesetting is judged. Photosetting, and the computer setting which has largely displaced it, are criticised for being too perfect and lacking the character of hand-crafted type. Now, increasingly, designers are using desktop publishing systems such as the Macintosh to do their typesetting. The technology has matured considerably over the last two years and the time is ripe for a reassessment: is good typesetting possible on the Macintosh?

The phenomenon of desktop publishing arose from the combination of the Macintosh, Aldus PageMaker page layout software and the LaserWriter, with its PostScript page description language. The first PostScript typefaces were those built into the Apple LaserWriter, namely Helvetica, Times, Courier and Symbol. Their quality was thought remarkable compared with bit-mapped fonts; comparison with typefaces from conventional sources was seldom made as few imagined desktop publishing would develop to the extent that it has today.

As the popularity of desktop publishing grew, Adobe (the originator of the PostScript language) released further faces. Later, traditional suppliers such as Linotype, Monotype and URW entered the fray. At the last count more than 4,000 PostScript faces were available from a variety of sources: some excellent; others lacking any saving graces. Though most have been developed from traditional faces, Emigre fonts are exceptional in having been “created on the Mac and for Mac”. The typeface Totally Gothic, based on the crude “auto tracing” of scanned black letter images, is a bizarre but authentic product of the technology.

Metal type exists primarily in the form of punches hewn out of metal; computer fonts are mathematical outlines stored in digital format. With both technologies, the practicalities of creating and using the type influences the way fonts are designed. In metal type, each size had to be individually cut, so that it was possible to introduce variations to improve legibility and robustness at different sizes, a process known as “optical compensation”. Thus 24pt display faces are lighter and more elegant than 6pt, which typically have a greater x-height, truncated descenders and increased letter spacing.

With photosetting and computer fonts, however, the same character can be scaled to virtually any size and expediency has led to the use of a single master from which all other sizes are scaled, with the consequent loss of optical compensation. Since modern offset printing presses are more precise in operation than letterpress and ink-spread is minimal, PostScript renditions of classical metal faces are emboldened to prevent printed matter looking too anaemic.

While PostScript fonts lack optical compensation in the classic sense, measures have been incorporated which improve their appearance when printed at small sizes on printers of low resolution. For example, Adobe’s Type 1 font format contains “hints”: instructions embedded within the fonts to improve their appearance. The problem is that “hinted” fonts are generally regularised by making stem widths and serifs more uniform – hence the loss of character in faces such as Adobe’s ITC Garamond and Janson Text. Monotype has resisted the grosser effects of such regularisation with its “Classic” range of fonts, including Gill Sans, Perpetua, Bembo and Plantin.

There is no reason why individual faces cannot be created for use in specific situations or at specific sizes. Both Monotype and Adobe have issued versions of Times New Roman for use in small sizes and specialist PostScript font foundries exist to meet such demand. American Type Founders are about to launch a new piece of font creation software called ATF Type Founder, which will adjust the weight, characteristics and spacing of characters at small sizes. Though not a complete solution, this represents a move in the right direction.

As the potential of typesetting on the Macintosh has been realised, more of the traditional refinements of metal type have begun to appear. Supplementary fonts called “Experts Sets” containing ligatures, small caps, swash caps, non-aligning numerals, fractions and superior and inferior figures are being developed. Although the range is small at present, Expert Sets are available for some of the Adobe Originals range – Utopia, Minion and Adobe Garamond. Monotype has sets for Baskerville, Bembo, Janson, Perpetua, Plantin, Times New Roman, Centaur and Ehrhardt. Monotype has also developed a software utility (Extension) for use with the page layout program QuarkXPress which provides for their automatic substitution.

Typesetting on the Macintosh is generally carried out within page layout programs. To simplify the process, default values for many of the parameters requiring definition have been incorporated, enabling rapid results to be achieved by the unskilled. Yet as with metal, photo- and earlier forms of digital setting, the quality of typesetting on the Macintosh still depends almost entirely on the skill of the compositor. Desktop publishing systems have often been dismissed as inadequate when lack of skill and reliance on defaults are the real problems.

When the first version of PageMaker appeared it was heavily criticised for not allowing the use of kerning pairs or manual kerning. As a consequence, programs such as Aldus PageMaker 4, DesignStudio, QuarkXPress and Adobe Illustrator 3 have gone to the opposite extreme by building in considerable power. Letter spacing, kerning and text can now be tracked to 1/1,000th em and many fonts have hundred of kerning pairs pre-defined. The leading of lines can be adjusted in 1/1000th point increments and word spacing in unjustified text can be varied widely.

Paragraphs can be aligned left or right, centred or justified with virtually any indent and overhang. However, alignments are effected on a mechanical rather than optical basis and few programs allow manual correction. Another important omission is that of hanging punctuation for justified text. Only Adobe Illustrator 3 and Quoin offer this option.

Macintosh technology has made certain things easier, for example the wrapping of text around graphics and the profiling of text to irregular shapes. Aldus PageMaker pioneered the approach of creating an adjustable “boundary fence” around a graphic to repel text. Precise effects are possible by clicking on the “fence” to insert additional “posts” which can then be moved as required. In addition, text can overlay graphics and can be flowed into boxes of almost any shape.

It is in the realm of headline creation and the customisation of fonts, however, that the Macintosh excels. The distortion of metal type for headlines and display type was virtually unknown. Photosetting introduced the uses of lenses to create a variety of effects and computers further developed these possibilities. Using Adobe Illustrator 3, headlines can now be adjusted for letter spacing and kerning and then be converted into editable outlines, allowing modification of the shapes of individual characters. The headlining program LetraStudio allows a wide range of distortions and special effects.

Among future developments, TrueType, a new font format from Apple to be released in 1991, claims to offer even greater control over the appearance of type over a wide range of sizes. Whether the drawbacks of PostScript fonts will be overcome remains to be seen, but an improvement of the PostScript font format seems a likely consequence.

While metal type possessed aesthetic qualities lost to Macintosh setting, the Macintosh has certainly brought with it new possibilities. Yet whatever the developments in technology, it remains true that good typesetting has only ever been possible with great skill and care. Typesetting on the Macintosh has changed little in this respect.

First published in Eye no. 2 vol. 1, 1991.