Here is the second installment of the article on "Technology and the Aesthetics of Type" from The Seybold Report of August 24, 1981.
I wrote the main article, Jonathan Seybold edited it and added parts of the conclusion.
This installment discusses digital type technology and digital type designs that were state of the art in 1981. It also makes some predictions about the future. It is fun to look back at predictions made decades ago, to see how they correspond to what we know now (or what we think we know). Upon re-reading predictions from the last page of the article, I am surprised by how many of them turned out to be true. Here are the bulleted predictions from 1981, followed by bracketed comments about what we have today.]
• "The use of new computer-aided font design techniques in the font design process." [There are now several font creation and editing tools for personal computers.]
• "Type fonts designed specifically to be electronically expanded and condensed." [Narrowing or widening by X-axis scaling are geometric transformations inherent in outline font technology, but harmoniously condensed and expanded variants are more often designed as separate fonts, usually with the aid of digital font design applications.]
• "Single font masters designed to cover a wide range of point sizes." [There are a few digital type families with size-range masters called "optical-masters" or "multiple-masters" but not as many as there should be. There have also been several digital type designs with large x-heights for use on screens at text sizes, which also are legible in print at small sizes. See, for example: "How and Why We Designed Lucida" earlier in this blog: http://bigelowandholmes.typepad.com/bigelow-holmes/2014/10/how-and-why-we-designed-lucida.html ]
• "Type fonts designed specifically to be used in conjunction with automatic character kerning programs and automatic white space reduction programs." [There is kerning and tracking functionality in typographic applications like InDesign, plus pairwise and class-based kerning tables in fonts, and auto-kerning functionality in font design applications. We got kerning up the wazoo. ]
• "Ikarus-type programs for optically scaling type weight could be built into the typesetter itself. Again, this would be most interesting if type fonts were designed to take advantage of this capability." [Not realized. A crucially important advance has been outline font scaling built into typesetters, printers, and screen displays, so the "built-in" part of this prediction came true, by 1985 with the first PostScript Laserwriter printer, but outline font scaling remains linear - it doesn't change typeface weight. Adobe's Multiple Master product did provide weight and width and optical master functionality, but it failed in the marketplace, drowned by the tsunami of dirt-cheap ripped-off fonts after Adobe opened its Type 1 font format and abandoned encryption in the Font Wars.]
The article's "Conclusions" has this to say: "At first designers attempt to use the new technology to emulate the typography produced by the old. Inevitably, this involves compromises and produces results which fall short of the model being emulated. Later, designers become more adept at working within the limitations of the new technology and learn to adapt type designs within the constraints imposed by these limitations. Finally, designers develop new type designs which take advantage of the potential of the new technology."
[That all seems to have come true over the past 34 years. At first, there were digital implementations of popular hot-metal typefaces (or their photo-type adaptations) that became widely used but not praised for their artistic qualities, and then there were new designs, often of sturdy construction to resist the degradations of digital imaging, like the few illustrated in the article, and some of those became very widely distributed and used; after those, there came yet newer designs of greater freedom as the digital medium itself improved in resolution and precision. The article showed examples of only three new digital types in 1981. It didn't predict the number or rate of new designs for digital technology, but if it had, it probably would have been an underestimate by an order of magnitude. Today there may be as many as thirty thousand new digital fonts, some of remarkable expressiveness and ingenuity (but also an equal or greater number of plagiarisms, emulations, homages, etc.). There are also many new designs in non-Latin scripts for non-European languages, providing foundations for typographic literacy around the world.
I wish I had been more daring in 1981 and predicted more things that haven't turned out to be true - typographic equivalents of the flying cars that 1950s futurists predicted we would be driving in the 21st century. Something we hoped for, wisely or not, that hasn't happened.
A possible wrong prediction would have been that digital technology together with scientific reading studies would lead to the design of much more legible typefaces. Following Moore's Law, computer speeds are 60,000 times greater today than 50 years ago, but text on computer screens is not appreciably more legible than it was on paper in 1965. The bandwidth limitation is not in digital technology but in the human visual system. A technique called RSVP (Rapid Serial Visual Presentation) in which single words are displayed on a screen in rapid succession has been used in laboratory studies since the 1970s and appears to offer substantial increases in reading speeds, sometimes doubling or tripling normal reading speeds, but RSVP has not been widely adopted, even on small devices like mobile phones where it would seem to be helpful, given small screen sizes. Although RSVP is not difficult to implement, readers don't seem to like to read that way, despite supposedly greater efficiency. Moreover, it isn't clear that increased reading speed with comprehension can be maintained over long texts. A warning comes from Woody Allen, often quoted as saying (about a different technique), "I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It's about Russia."
OK, now I'll take this opportunity to predict substantial advances in reading efficiency, if not from RSVP technology or the kind of design adjustments we discussed in "How and Why we Designed Lucida", then from some yet undiscovered visual method. Probably neither emoji nor heads-up text displays while driving :-)
Without further ado, here's the 2nd installment of "Aesthetics and Technology".
Thanks for reading. Tune in next Tuesday for installment 2.1, "Quality Type for Low, Medium, and High Resolution Printers".