For those who love to geek out on the alchemy of designing fonts, this is a week of plentitude. First, Frere-Jones has just published “Typeface Mechanics: 002,” which picks up where 001 left off. This time the discussion centers on degrees of weight, pointing out yet again that simple math doesn’t cut it where the human eye is involved. For instance, the vertical weight of a capital I cannot be mathematically equal to the vertical weight of a capital O. Since the I is straight while the O tapers, the human eye perceives the O as being narrower (or in typographic terms, lighter) overall. Thus, weight must be added in the middle to make it seem equal.
On the other hand, we tend to see horizontal lines and curves as heavier than they really are, so weight needs to be peeled away from those. And these additions/subtractions are not consistent from one font to another, because it depends on the relationship between the horizontals and verticals and how heavy/light/fancy the font design is.
The article is full of clear graphics that beautifully illustrate the concepts. Even if you’re not a font geek but just appreciate the complexities of designing things for the human eye, it’s worth a read.
For the bigger geeks, Apple has put up the “Introducing the new System Fonts” session video on its site. This is the half-hour session from last week’s Worldwide Developer Conference in which a font designer details the new San Francisco system font family to a roomful of app developers. I thought it might be over my head, and the speaker is a tad dry in his delivery, but the graphics are fantastic and the session itself is designed for people who are using fonts in apps, not people who create fonts. So it wasn’t over my head at all, and I was fascinated to learn why this font family has two different sixes and two different nines, and why text fonts (used for smaller type sizes) cannot be the same as display fonts (used for larger sizes). I learned about apertures and fractions and why scaling up doesn’t work, or at least, it doesn’t if you care about aesthetics and ease of use. Before this, I had no idea that a system font family had so many different fonts. No wonder you can’t just substitute any old font in for a system font.
I think font design must be 50% mathematics, 50% biomechanics, and 50% pure artistry. And yes, that’s 150%, but that’s font design in a nutshell: if it makes sense mathematically, then you’ve done something wrong.