On Font Rendering

This started life as a comment but it’s a bit long, so here we are.

Over the last couple of months – particularly after the release of Safari 3 beta for Windows – there have been a few good articles about the differences between Apple’s and Microsoft’s approaches to font smoothing. predictably, it seems that Mac users prefer the Mac way, and Windows users prefer the Windows way – both due to familiarity, and, well – if I hated text display on a platform I’d switch away from it pretty damn quickly, wouldn’t you?

Obviously, I’m going to prefer Apple’s smoothing. Firstly, because I’m familiar with it. As so many people have pointed out before me, unfamiliar is almost always unwelcome, at least to begin with. Nintendo told us that when they introduced the Wii – “Don’t worry, the name seems strange now, but give it six months…” – and I have to say I don’t find it so outlandish any more. So, it makes comparing font rendering techniques difficult, and you have to recognise your bias. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Secondly, because I too have an ideological objection to bastardising a font for the sake of “clarity” – if you fuck with it, it’s not the same typeface; and that completely defeats the point (aha, haha, ha…). End of story.

Thirdly, because you actually see the fonts as they are on a Mac. On a Mac, you can really learn to love fonts. You can celebrate their differences and their similarities, and enjoy choosing the right typeface for the right place. Nothing lifts design from ‘mediocre’ to ‘great’ like the perfect font.

Incidentally, I wonder if poor rendering could help to explain the astounding prevalence of shit fonts such as Comic Sans. Maybe it’s hard to see just how atrocious it looks under Windows?

Fourthly, because I find ClearType (the Windows way) extremely difficult to read. It’s too spindly, and the letter shapes are less familiar due to being forced to fit the pixel grid. It takes far more concentration to read. In contrast, despite the slight fuzziness you get under OS X (particularly with low-resolution screens), its letter shapes are easier on the eye; it’s like reading a book, with calming, friendly curves on the letters.

Quartz smoothing just plain looks better. On a decent screen, the text is sharp, has a fantastic shape, and really shows off the letterforms. The beauty of the font itself shines through. Aesthetics are so important – they’re one of only a handful of reasons that using a computer can be pleasurable, instead of just tolerable. Don’t sacrifice your fonts at the altar of ‘clarity’ – love them and cherish them as the triumphs of design they really are.

Another brief aside. I think aesthetic appeal can even make up for inadequacies in other areas. I suppose it’s like being attracted to a beautiful girl/guy who’s not much of an intellectual :) That makes me sound shallow, so let’s try a geekier example. I love my Nokia N80 because its high-resolution screen can make me go, “Wow!” even when I’m just writing a text message. I’m totally willing to put up with the fact that the phone itself is crashy as hell and has a faulty speaker that’s beaten repair teams for twelve months. It just doesn’t matter so much, when using it is such a treat for my eyes. Of course, that’s not to say other factors aren’t desirable and important, just that nothing can make such a difference to your attitude. back »

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