ATypI 1998
Friday 23 October 1998, 15.30 
Palais des Congrès, Lyon

Words On Screens

I am not a typographer, nor a graphic designer. I am a reader – a consumer of texts (and a viewer, of course – a consumer of images, but more about that later). As a reader, I have a very practical relationship with texts, which can be summarised by the question: can I read them? If I can, then I can ask myself whether I like what I read, or not. From the reader’s point of view, in a very practical sense, form comes before content.

Next to being a reader, I am a writer too. I use letters to build the words that shape my texts. I used to do that with a fountainpen on paper ­ thatís how I started. And in order to make my scribbles readable to others, those who would publish my text, I would re-write the text on a typewriter and mail it.

So I got hooked on the typewriter, and forgot about hand writing altogether. But the typewritten originals of my texts were still structured like manuscripts. So, in order to make them readable to those who would publish them, I would cut up the fragments of the typescript and paste them in the right order onto new sheets of paper, which I then photocopied and faxed.

About a decade ago, I switched from the typewriter to the computer, an IBM-clone with an amazing 20 Meg on the hard drive. First, this was like just another typewriter and I would work on it the same way I would on the Remmington: take a white sheet of paper, adjust the margins to my mood, and start hammering the keyboard. Only in this case the paper was blue, the letters were white and the keyboard broke down after a month or so.

Still, the device was great, not only for cutting and pasting, but also for accentuating text. So, gradually, I developed ways of making hierarchies in the writing explicit in the appearance of the text; of discerning between finished paragraphs and sketches, sidelines and quotes, headlines and footnotes in ways that were almost impossible to achieve on a typewriter, and that would have looked completely untraceable in my own handwriting. The computer combined the flexibility of handwriting with the clarity and structure of typing. The print-outs looked like they could go straight to the press.

But gradually, I refrained from printing out my texts altogether, because I could now send them on a floppy disc to those who would publish them.

Nowadays, I’ve grown used to choosing a typeface that suits my mood when I start typing, to formatting or reformatting passages of my text in ways that indicate a shift of atmosphere or content, to adjusting the window-width and the margins to the kind of text I am writing, inserting hyperlinks or highlights where needed, and meanwhile working in the background on a compilation of screenshots of images that could go with the text. If I wanted, I could format the whole thing as HTML, or Acrobat- or QuarkXPress file – but mostly I just e-mail the roughly laid-out word document to those who publish my text.

On the whole, it seems to me that this short summary of my writing history shows a shift from reading to viewing. The visual appearance of my writing has become more and more important to me, and this is in no small way connected with the development of my writing tools. Not only does the average up to date word processor allow me to format my texts in very specific ways, but the tool that I am writing them with, the computer and the screen, almost force me to do that.

Words on screens tend to become images. Unlike a piece of hand- or typewritten paper, text on a screen wants to look like it is typeset and printed. An important part of the visual aspect of word processing software is geared to emulate this look of a printed page. Of course, this is only a simulation, but the effect is that we are often seduced into looking at a screen as if it was something else than summarilly rendered text - like it was designed and published. This is, in my view, a distancing aspect of screens. Not having rendered the text myself, it almost looks and feels as if I am watching someone else write.

There is another aspect of screens that distances them from writing: we are used to watch them, not read them. This is almost a cultural dictate: screens are for watching, paper is for reading. Although I admit to a slight exageration here, I do think I can safely state that the directly visual aspect of things on screens is generally stronger than that of things on paper. We watch TV, we read the paper. So, when I use the screen as the medium in which I write, in some respects I change from a reader into a viewer, and I become, almost by necessity, a graphic designer of my own texts.

Of course, when one has been writing about graphic design for more than fifteen years, as I have, there evolves a kind of awareness of how one’s own writing looks. Or should look. And I’ve always been blessed with the opportunity of working together with designers who would not only tolerate, but actually appreciated the way I was opinionated about the design of my own texts. As a writer about graphic design, I have gradually started to slightly mingle with the affairs of designers, when it comes to the design and typography of what I write.

Now, I am acutely aware that this is a dangerous position: All too easily comes the reproach that the critic is actually a frustrated designer who conceals his lack of talent while pontificating about quality. I assure you it is not that – I don’t want to be a graphic designer. I just want to point to an interesting aspect of today’s communication environment.

Today, we work with the same tools. Graphic designers, typographers, writers, editors, illustrators, photographers, publishers, all work on computers. Or many of them do. Yet most of them see this digital device as a tool that is programmed to help them do their work, as opposed to the work of others. In a very urbane sense that may be true. I have five different word processors, while you may have five different image manipulators. I mainly work on a PC, and most of you probably work on Macs. But we all drag and drop and click things on our screens. When working on the computer, we all physically do very similar things.

One of the interesting things about computers is that their architecture compels their users to adjust to a certain practical routine in handling digital information, that is technically the same for everyone, be they working on a hypertext or an architectural construction or a graphic design or an interactive artwork. On a computer, the basic thing you do is to order information. And the next thing you do is to edit that information. Practically you do these two things, regardless of whether you are an artist, a designer, an architect or a writer. When using a computer, you order and edit...

Another aspect of computers is that the same device can be used for very different things. It’s a mere matter of the kind of software that is installed on them. This leads to hybridisation, both in terms of what is installed on an average, or even specialised, computer and what any application can do. In daily practice this means that one can write things in QuarkXPress and design things in Word’97. Both programs perform these non-core tasks crudely, but it’s a hell of a lot better than trying to write on a Linotype machine, or to design on a typewriter.

In spite of this flexibility, or hybridisation, computers are still often used as if they were tools in the traditional sense: things that can help perform one, or a few related functions. In fact, of course, they can help you do much more…

Not only do computers, as tools, provoke a merging of disciplines, they also provide a medium through which most aspects of commnication can be channeled. This may sound rather obvious, but I think it is not yet fully and generally understood that the computer is more than a tool: it is a medium. I cannot stress this enough: it is not the World Wide Web, or the CD-ROM, or the game - these are manifestations, subcathegories - but the new medium is the computer, or more precise, the monitor, the screen. What paper is to magazines and books and letters, is the screen to the Web and CD-ROMs and e-mail: the carrier, the medium - the surface on which we can experience the ideas and content that others have produced for this medium.

Now why is this new medium so generally considered to be unfit for reading? I have mentioned a few underlying reasons: we associate the screen with viewing, and for most of those who use it to produce content, it is considered as a tool, that at best grants a preview of things that are supposed to find their definitive form printed on paper.

But this is increasingly becoming an obsolete view towards the computer. More and more people do more and more reading onscreen. And the only thing that amazes me, is that there are still so many people who print hard copies of their computer output, of documents, emails or web pages. Wasn’t the electronic revolution supposed to save us the drudgery of smearing ink on pulp of dead trees? Why do people still carry suitcases full of printouts with them, while they could just leave the information that is printed on them where it came from, on a notebook?

Partly, of course, this is because reading text onscreen can still be a difficult, even painful, process. The current architecture of computers, their screen-designs, their interfaces, their formats, is still thought from the perspective of a tool. A lot of work has still to be done on many aspects of the design of computers, before they will have become as sophisticated a medium as television or books are.

In this context I want to focus on two aspects of this problem. First of all, I’ve always been amazed at the lack of typographic scrutiny invested untill recently in making type fit for reading text onscreen. For the most part, this is because of the ‘tool-identity’ of the device: Macintosh typography, for instance, has long been focused on printing, and font foundries too, who produce digitally designed type, were and arestill to a large extent assuming that most reading would be done on paper. This is not to say that screen fonts were completely neglected, but the impetus has been more to provide a closer correlation between screen and paper versions - the ‘preview-mode’ - rather than to provide onscreen legibility.

There are, however, a handfull of type designers who have looked at it in another mode, and one of them is Matthew Carter. This distinguished typographer has interesting things to say about type on screens:

“In graphic design circles,” he says, “people think of screen fonts as preview mode – It's only when the toner hits the wood-pulp that we usually judge a typeface. But that's an increasingly short-sighted view of life. Larger numbers of computer users spend their entire time in front of a screen and never (or seldom) print anything.”

“A lot of kids nowadays can use a computer before they can write,” Carter continues, “Their introduction to the world of letters is via fonts, not via handwriting, which is an extraordinary reversal from what we are used to. The computer screen is not just a ‘preview’ mode, but rather a vehicle that delivers the final product. People are reading and interacting with the screen. Today, what happens on-screen is more important than what comes out of the printer.”

What Carter is acknowledging here, is that the screen is a medium, not a looking glass. And he has made two fonts to prove his point – Verdana and Georgia –, dedicated screens fonts that are now being given away, with Carter’s consent, by no other company than Microsoft to anyone who cares to download them from their website, be they PC or Mac users.

I have immediately installed these typefaces as defaults, instead of the ubiquitous Times and Ariel or Helvetica, because they make reading from the screen so much easier and so much more aesthetically pleasing. Most older letters still clearly suffer from the fact that they were derived from an ink-on-paper environment, whatever amount of work there has gone into hinting them for onscreen use in bitmap format. Verdana and Georgia, on the other hand, where designed as bitmaps from the beginning, and Carter tackled and solved most of the problems that pixelated type gives rise to by addressing them in their own environment – on the screen. These are letters derived from the pixel, rather than from the pen or the brush or the chisel. Spacing, kerning, weights, the balance between upper and lower case, all would probably be over- or under-proportioned in print, but they work perfectly on screen.

I don’t know how they look printed on paper – I’m one of those people who don’t own a printer anymore. I have a zip drive. That’s the archive of texts and images and things interesting or beautifull enough to archive. The rest is in books or in magazines - no print-outs. The first time I see my own work on paper, is when a new issue of Eye is published, or another magazine or book to which I have contributed.

It could also be a website, or a CD-ROM, and, of course, it is different – I love print, and books and magazines, for what they can do better than other media. But what I want to stress here, is that the computer is a medium in its own right as well. And it is a medium that is in dire need of the kind of typographic scrutiny that can make reading from paper such a rewarding experience.

Of course, as one distinguished type designer once said to me, a medium with a resolution below, say, 300 dpi is utterly uninteresting for typographers – why, you can’t even see the difference between bold and half-bold! And what kind of detailing could you possibly do on a screen that displays no more than 72 dots per inch?!

From the traditional typographers’ point of view, that is a respectable stance. But, apart from the fact that screen resolutions will ameliorate, it is a good modernist tradition to try and make something good with very simple means, as bitmap pioneers like Emigre’s Zuzanna Licko have shown from the mid-eighties onward. But in spite of these pioneering efforts, most typographic attention to rendering type on computers untill now has gone into translating existing typefaces to perform on screen, or to design new typefaces for print. The first is, I think, a rather odd thing to do - apart from sentimental reasons there is no point in trying to make a car look like a coach without horses, as Wim Crouwel once remarked. And designing new fonts for print on the computer is a sensible use of the power of the tool, but it ignores its potential as a medium.

I would rather hope that typographers would stop worrying about resolution and learn to love the screen for what it can be - a great medium for reading. Of course, they cannot perform this task all by themselves; In order to make the screen a better reading environment, a joint effort is needed by hard- and software designers, graphic and type designers, writers and publishers, and, ultimately access providers, lawers, and legislators.

But in this joint effort, type designers are indispensible. And I hope that my little plea for typographic scrutiny in screen environments will be remembered, when in this conference you will be confronted with the grand traditions of typography for print. The screen needs your attention!

max bruinsma