Everyday Type

Everyday Type

Why We Still Need Hand Hinted Fonts

January 18, 2013

One of the few newsletters I subscribe to is the MyFonts email newsletter. The not-too-often format keeps me current on their top selling fonts, and gives me access to interviews with up-and-coming type designers. One issue I particularly look forward to is their top fonts of the year email. A glance at this will clue me in to whether my intuitions about typographic trends are on course: Was 2012 the year of the grotesk revival? Are script faces still “in”? Will any world region challenge Latin America’s prominence as a hotbed of typographic proliferation?

This year’s issue was really no surprise. It featured many typefaces that look evocative of complex emotional and aesthetic themes. It highlighted a few intriguing designs. It showcased myriad type families that looked to be well-researched and carefully executed. But it didn’t feature any fonts that looked to be designed for the screen, complete with hand hinting.

Granted, there may have been a great many faces that were released this year that featured this technical compensation for older browsers and operating systems that somehow escaped my ever watchful eye on the type community. They might simply not have made it to the top of the best sellers list.

But every day, I continue to see faces released that simply cannot hold up to the harsh rendering conditions of certain browsers. And further, I believe that this is still an issue that needs addressing in both the type design community and the web design community. In exasperation, I tweeted about my bewilderment.

One thoughtful response to my tweet suggested that, because the world is heading for retina displays, the need for hand-hinted fonts is declining, so it’s not likely worth the cost and the trouble to hand tune fonts for optimal web performance. (As a side note, you can get a refresher course on the ins and outs of hand hinting in an article I wrote on the subject.)

My response? While it may be true that the world is heading toward retina and other high pixel density displays, we are still a long way from popular adoption of this cutting edge technology. Notably, while 2013 looks to be the year that Apple’s entire MacBook Pro line will see retina displays, the jury is still out on whether this will extend to the MacBook Air line, and most experts agree that we will ring in the new year once again before Apple releases a retina display iMac. On the other side of the market share, though it is likely that PC consumers will be treated to HiDPI laptops this year, their widespread adoption is anything but imminent. Even at a more reasonable price point than Apple’s still opulent $1,699 for the bottom-of-the-line non-mobile retina device, these state of the art screens will still only find their way into the hands of early adopters with sizable cash reserves for the coming twelve months.

Thus, it may be another two years yet before even half of users are staring at ultra high resolution displays. That’s a significant amount of time in our industry. Think about how much web typography has changed over the past two to three years. Webfont services like Typekit, now widespread, are still awaiting their third birthday. Responsive design is still in its relative infancy. The widely adopted specifications of CSS3 and HTML5 still have not yet reached completion. And yet these technological advancements are old news to us.

And yet at this breakneck pace and with all this change, one thing remains constant: web design is 95% typography. We simply cannot afford to continue to use webfonts for text settings that don’t render well across browsers. Like it or not, Internet Explorer 7 and 8 are still relatively widely used, making up about a quarter of users overall, jumping up to half or more of all users one some large-scale web applications like the one I work on at my job. I imagine widely read news sites or e-commerce sites like Amazon might be experiencing similar situations. (To boot, Amazon’s pseudo-responsive site still supports 1024px wide resolutions. What browsers do you imagine those customers might be using?)

Type designers, I implore you to consider the implications of your designs on low-resolution screens and older browsers. Web designers, I encourage you to consider the extreme privilege of typing away on a $2,000+ retina display machine while another one displays a text message in your pocket, and consider that, while it is 2013, not everyone boasts your arsenal of devices. We can still look forward to a future in which hand hinted fonts and ancient browsers will be obsolete. We can dream of a world in which our children will ask what it was like to debug CSS for IE8, where all browsers will autoupdate, and no two adjacent pixels will be distinguishable from one another. But as of the time of this writing, that day simply is not yet here.