After two decades of only using a select few fonts online, new ingenious – perhaps inevitable – technologies have suddenly opened the doors to a plethora of typographical experimentation. What’s the catch? Microsoft’s backwards font-rendering philosophy.
Ever since I was in high school making crude drawings dressed up as art pieces I’ve been told Apple Macintosh is the way to go for designers – or anyone else who works with visual media – and guess I’ve always thought this to be true, though for a long time I wasn’t quite sure why. Back in the day, our arts class shared one or two of these bad boys and to be honest the difference between the “Power” Macintosh and a PC wasn’t all that obvious to a 17 year old non-geek. I mean, they pretty much looked the same (apart from that colourful little apple on the front), and as far as I was concerned they pretty much did the same too.
Fast forward a year or two and I’m still working on a Mac, this time in Arts College studying graphic design. We weren’t allowed to touch computers for the whole of the first year (which, I have to say, is an effective way of forcing students to appreciate the mundane perfection of great typography), but once the gates to the computer room opened, sure enough – naturally – it was full of Macs, this time in shapes and colours unimaginable only half a decade earlier. I still didn’t know why they were any “better” for me than regular computers though.
In University I bought the first of my own Macs and about the same time I witnessed the magical transformation of egg-shaped machines into lamp-stands, washing-machine inspired flat-screens and aluminium space-age icons of designer-ism and coolness. Not to mention the introduction of a certain little white mp3-player that suddenly brought the Apple brand into the mainstream consumer brain – I guess you all know the rest.
So what does all this have to do with anti-aliasing? Well, during all these years as a Mac user I’ve never been able put my finger on the one reason why I prefer Mac to a PC – of course, there are lots of reasons, but many of them are both subjective and specific to how I use my computer – and to be honest I’ve been quite indifferent to what other people use. Until now, that is.
Pixels and blurriness
Ever since the birth of their competitive relationship, Mr. Gates and Mr. Jobs have always had radically different ideas on how to render fonts on computer displays. Microsoft legend Joel Spolsky wrote about this back in 2007 and he describes the different philosophies really well:
“Apple generally believes that the goal of the algorithm should be to preserve the design of the typeface as much as possible, even at the cost of a little bit of blurriness. Microsoft generally believes that the shape of each letter should be hammered into pixel boundaries to prevent blur and improve readability, even at the cost of not being true to the typeface.”
Not really a big deal you might say, each to their own and all that, and I guess for a while it didn’t really matter. If anything, older displays would favour the Microsoft approach, as too much anti-aliasing really does make for blurry reading at low resolution, and fonts designed for on-screen reading, such as Georgia and Verdana, don’t benefit much from anti-aliasing anyway, as they were masterfully designed specifically to be displayed as a bunch of hard pixels. The fact that typefaces designed for print don’t display well “hammered into pixel boundaries” didn’t mean much either, as print designers would generally use Macs with high-resolution displays, and web designers were happy to use the same set of screen-fonts for live text and Flash or images for the “fancy stuff”.
A new era
But that was then. Now we have retina displays and 40 inch monitors. We have turbo-charged graphics cards and screen savers that go way beyond the original star field. We have smart-phones and tablets and Internet on our tellies. But most of all we have a major shift in the way we use and consume on-screen typography. I’m talking, of course, about Typekit and the likes, about the new possibility of rendering a virtually endless array of fonts on a billion different computer displays around the world. Suddenly, “real fonts” on the web is no longer restricted to Flash or images. Suddenly, every single computer with a web connection is a potential recipient of live, beautifully crafted typography. And suddenly – unfortunately – it becomes blatantly obvious that Microsoft’s stance on font-rendering simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
Joel Spolsky is probably right when he quotes an imaginary Windows user who experiences anti-aliased text for the first time:
“Whoa! That’s different. I don’t like different. Why don’t I like these fonts? Oh, when I look closer, they look blurry. That must be why.”
Well, I think that attitude about to change. Unless online typography turns out to be a short-lived fad – I seriously doubt it – we’ll soon see Windows users saying:
“Whoa! How come this site looks crap on my PC when it looks so good on my iPhone? Why don’t I like these fonts? Oh, when I look closer, they look all pixelated in Windows. That must be why.”
And maybe – just maybe – Microsoft will make their ClearType technology a default factory setting (as opposed to an obscure option you only find by scouring online forums), as part of an official strategy to contribute to the exciting future of design for screen devices.