The Nitty Gritty on Font Hinting: An Interview With Emil Yakupov of Paratype
August 29, 2011
Emil Yakupov, CEO of ParaType
If you’ve been following the development of typography on the web in the past year, you’ve no doubt read about and had your own (hand-wringing) experiences with font hinting. Regardless of the platform on which you work and read, you’ve come to appreciate the look and feel of the typography you’re most used to experiencing, and it can be an unnerving experience to design a webpage that renders beautifully in your platform of choice, only to test it in another browser and notice that your fonts become either hideous or, worse, illegible.
So what is hinting, and in what way is it responsible for this travesty against design?
At Typekit’s Web Fonts Roundtable in April, one of the panelists (I couldn’t be sure of the voice, but I believe it was Jeffrey Veen) succinctly defined hinting as:
A series of instructions on TrueType fonts that tell the rasterizer [the engine that translates vectors into pixels], particularly in Windows XP and Vista, what to do with the [font] outlines so that the font will loook that the designer of the webpage and the designer, want it to look.
Why isn’t this an issue on the Mac platform? Because the rasterizing engine ignores hinting.
So why aren’t more webfonts well-hinted to provide the best possible reading experience? Font hinting is still an incredibly specialized art (and science) that involves a highly trained technician to complete.
I spoke with Emil Yakupov of Paratype, one of the premier type hinting services, to get a better idea of what font hinting entails and how it affects our process of design and type selection for the web.
How many people work at Paratype? Can you tell us how what foundries and designers you work with?
ParaType is a rather dynamic company and the number of people changes. For now, we have two people in our California office and 15 people in Russia, mostly in Moscow, and a few people in Tver. Our technical group, who is responsible for hinting, building fonts, and QA, consists of 7 people. Our design studio consists of three staff designers and about a half a dozen freelancers who mostly get orders from us. In addition to original designs, we do Cyrillic and CE localizations for Latin fonts for many well-known foundries: Monotype (including ITC), Linotype, Berthold, Bitstream, FSI, Emigre, and Font Bureau. We also distribute fonts from other foundries that you can view on our store. We do a lot of technical work, mainly hinting for end users and for foundries.
What fonts have you hinted that you’re particularly proud of?
Our hinting technology constantly changes and the fonts that were of top quality a couple of years ago are less so now. An examples of the well-hinted fonts that were released recently you may look at PT Sans and PT Serif families.
How many hours does it generally take to hint a single weight and single style of one font?
There is a table of different quality levels for different rendering modes. The simplest option is a basic level for ClearType. It takes one to two days for a standard Western font of about 220 characters. The most expensive option, high level for all modes (black and white, grayscale, and ClearType) takes around a week.
In the Typekit Web Font Roundtable discussion recently, font hinting is described as a meticulous practice, “somewhere between needlepoint and gold smithing.” It sounds tedious and difficult. Can you describe what the typical day of a font hinter looks like? What exactly is involved in hinting a font?
That description sounds about right. For hinting, we use FontLab. The typical work with a font starts with setting of a global hinting parameters: stem widths; alignment zones for lower case, upper case, small caps, figures; ppems where stems will snap from one pixel to two pixels, to three pixels, and so on with widths. In short, all values of TT [TrueType] Hinting Options dialog window in FontLab. Then a hinter opens the first character, selects a test text line in the TrueType Preview window and applies a set of basic hints. Next, he looks at how the character looks in a range of selected ppems (normally from 9 to 56) and corrects the appearance by applying deltas, first for black-white mode, then the same for grayscale, and finally for ClearType. Then he opens the second character and repeats.
Why are there so few people in the world who can hint fonts? In the previously mentioned Typekit discussion, Mandy Brown notes that it requires both design skills and computer programming, and that few people are trained to do this. Why is this?
Actually, there are two different jobs. The first is to set up a technology, set of rules, methods and tricks. It requires a deep understanding of rendering mechanisms and some programming skills. The second one is the hinting itself: tedious, scrupulous work. If there is just one person who is responsible for everything, he or she must be a universal specialist that can combine many different abilities; this is a rare case. But it’s easier when there is a group and we can divide these two jobs between different people. However, it is also important that people who do hinting really understand what they are doing and why. They need to report complicated cases and be ready for innovations and changes in routines.
What type of training or education is required to be able to hint fonts well?
At ParaType, we have internal training courses. Usually, it takes about 2-3 months before a person can start work by himself or herself, and about six months to a year when he or she reaches normal productivity. All of our hinters received higher education in technical universities.
What is it about the Windows rasterizing engines that often distorts the glyphs of a font?
Windows uses different rasterizers in different versions. I would not say that they “distort” glyphs. Instead, they tries to improve appearance applying different rendering techniques. Sometimes it works better, sometimes not. But in my opinion, Windows rasterizers are currently the best.
When Windows rasterizing engines catch up with the quality that Mac OS is known for, will there still be a market for hinting fonts?
As I said before, I think that Windows shows much better results in rasterizing then Mac OS. Mac OS ignores hints, and, to my eyes, all fonts look poor and fuzzy. But the importance of hinting for regular monitors will decrease with higher screen screen resolutions. At yet, even at 300 DPI, it still makes sense. At the same time, more and more devices use LCD screens and they are gradually turning away from using internal monochrome monospaced bitmap fonts to using normal scalable ones. After Windows Phone 7, we’ll probably see, say, Windows Microwave 7, which will require hinted fonts for displaying recipe instructions. So there’ll always be a need for font hinting.