Archive for Fonts category

Typography in bits: Other English micros

I’ve been wanting to do a follow-up to the popular Typography in 8-bits: System fonts post and the 16-bit sequel for some time and recent Hacker News and ArsTechnica traffic reminded me that I’m not the only one nostalgic for chunky pixel fonts of old.

This time I’m focusing on a handful British machines that were much less well known around the globe which – all seem to borrow heavily from other machines!

Sinclair QL (1984)

Specifications

Condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
256×256 (40×25 text)
512×256 (80×25 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Sinclair QL system font in medium resolution

The short-lived Sinclair QL was Sir Clive’s attempt at getting into the business market but the corner cutting on the CPU (a Motorola 68008 – the 8-bit data-bus version of the 68000) and storage (Microdrives consisting of loops of high speed tape instead of disc) meant it wasn’t taken very seriously. This was a shame as the operating system and software was advanced for its time.

Unusual characteristics

  • True descenders making the font effectively 9 pixels tall
  • Single story lower case ‘a’
  • Over-extended ‘7’
  • Squished lower-case ‘f’
  • Aligns braces and brackets to tightly wrap contents
  • Soft curves on ‘gil’
  • Unusual join on ‘k’

Rationale

A rather tidy condensed font very similar to those used on LCD displays still today. Almost certainly looked good on a monitor although perhaps not using the system default colors shown here. Almost certainly too hard to read on a TV at the time.

Influences

Has similar proportions and characters to much of the Apple ][ font but with various visual improvements such as on the 6,9,2,$ etc.

Memotech MTX512 (1984)

Specifications

Condensed sans
7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
256×192 (34×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Memotech MTX512 system font in low resolution

Memotech were a peripheral maker who decided to get in on the action and produce their own machine in the 1984-1985 period that saw a lot of machines and failures. Despite some good specifications it never made a dent and its claim to fame is being the computer in the movie Weird Science.

Unusual characteristics

  • Some very quirky decisions especially in lower-case
  • Awful character alignment especially on 'q'
  • Uneven descenders on 'gy'
  • Mismatched '.,;:'
  • Weird serifs on 'adu'

Rationale

This quirky font doesn't looks okay on low-quality TVs of the time with oddities lost in the blur. On sharper screens it looks amateur and unfinished.

Influences

Despite some similarities in the upper-case to the Apple ][ font it doesn’t take many cues from anywhere else.

Amstrad PCW (1985)

Specifications

Serif
7 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII+code pages
720×256 (90×32 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Amstrad PCW system font in high resolution

Alan Sugar’s Amstrad didn’t waste any time after the CPC in going after the business market with a range of cheap machines for word processing and other general tasks. In the UK these machines could be found everywhere either paired up with Amstrad’s own daisywheel or dot-matrix printers.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)
  • Very distinctive curves on ‘CGOQ’
  • ‘X’ looks like a different style because of high mid-point

Rationale

These machines came with their own monochrome monitors and were very high resolution for consumers at the time. The font is not a bad choice and did allow for 90 columns of text but smarter alternatives existed in word processing programs such as Locoscript.

Influences

An almost direct copy of the Amstrad CPC font disguised by the double-height pixels. Actual changes are the 0 taking on the more oval shape, O and Q taking on the boxier shape and the apostrophe loosing its slant.

The PCW was not alone in using an existing 8×8 font in a double-height manner. The Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and Acorn Archimedes all used the same trick.

Acorn Archimedes/A series (1987)

Specifications

Bold sans
6 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
various
Unknown
Download in TrueType

Acorn Archimedes using double-height pixels
Acorn’s successor to the BBC Micro was a lovely piece of hardware with an all-new 32-bit RISC processor they developed dubbed ARM. While it did well in Acorn’s entrenched education markets it never found a foothold anywhere else. After various models they cancelled their upcoming Phoebe workstation (yes, named after the Friends character) and would concentrate on thin-clients before abandoning that and focusing purely on processor design where they had immense success. The ARM design now powers almost all the smart phones on the market today.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)

Rationale

These machines came with Acorn’s color monitors and were capable of running VGA-like resolutions. The GUI on these machines really missed an opportunity here to use a specifically designed font and to add proportional text printing and take on the Mac. Instead these used a scaled fixed-width font like the Amiga and ST despite being a couple of years late to that party. Proportional fonts were supported later.

Influences

Identical to the BBC font except for ‘^|’

SAM Coupé (1989)

Specifications

Condensed sans
5 pixels
7 pixels
ASCII
256×192 (32×24 text)
512×192 (85×24 text)
Unknown
Download in TrueType

SAM Coupé in high resolution

MGT were a third-party producer of expansion products for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum who bet their company on a Spectrum successor using VLSI technology that would ‘rival an Amiga’ at a fraction of the price. While the machine was impressive by 8-bit standards when it finally arrived somewhat late and more expensive than originally touted it failed to make a dent as the market went to the 16-bit machines and it took MGT down with it.

Unusual characteristics

  • Rather ugly ‘*’ asterisk
  • Inconsistent ‘.,;:’ set
  • Inconsistent ‘ and “

Rationale

A smart font that despite the various inconsistencies looked good on a quality display in both high and low-resolution modes.

Influences

Almost a direct copy of the Sinclair QL font. The upper-case are identical and a most lower case with some exceptions to squeeze the QL’s 9 pixel high font into 8 pixels. This is especially apparent in the over-extended 7, the slashes and the bracket alignments.

Typography on the Microsoft Campus

One of the great things about working for Microsoft was the sheer breadth of the company means there are lots of cool and interesting things going on that you can peek into even if it’s not your area. With a few exceptions your Microsoft badge gets you into the whole campus (some of the Xbox studios and the executive floor are exceptions).

As many people know I have a bit of a passion for typography and the Microsoft typography team are a very nice bunch of people happy to humor a crazy enthusiast.

Before I left I paid one final visit to the typography team to snap some cool pics. Here they are, admittedly a couple of years late, with some additional typography-related snaps from elsewhere on campus.

Microsoft Typography


Gabriola rendered in 4 level (2bpp) greyscale using 1x1x1 LEGO pieces.


Microsoft, Linotype and Hermann Zapf collaborated on Palatino Linotype and these beautiful posters commemorate the occasion.


The old Windows Start button in its pixelated glory alongside the Blue-themed XP replacement presumably rendered in photoshop.


Poster showing an italic single-story a aliased and then rendered with ClearType.


Lots of lower-case ‘e’ glyphs from various fonts on display in one of the Windows UI buildings.


Simon Daniels on the typography team has his surname in steel cut in Segoe.


The Mac Quadra that Vince Connare used to create the polarizing Comic Sans.

Studios


Microsoft’s XNA has had a bit of a bumpy journey but it does have a very cool logo with some subtle typography.


In our own Shark Tank scrum area we used the time-honored tradition of sticky notes to create pixels for our own sign. Subpixels were added later.


Our content management system’s sister team had their own sticky note sign too.

Elsewhere


Even the product fair can’t resist some blocky 8-bit inspired fonts.


Somebody made their own pretty Microsoft logo. Don’t recall where this was…


The counter behind the Microsoft company store is an explosion of typefaces.

Some more

Check out Guerilla pixels via John Berry too.

You can see the full set including a few more shots, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft at Microsoft Campus on Flickr.

[)amien

Typography can be fun

People are always surprised when they hear you’re interested in typography. The appreciation and interest in the shape of letters and symbols is definitely a little more unusual to find as a hobby but it’s actually quite fun!

Here’s a few ideas I hope will prove my point.

Play games

The Rather Difficult Font Game
This game shows you some text in a certain font then asks you to name the font from one of them in the list. It isn’t as difficult as the name sounds!

Deep Font Challenge
Head down to the shooting gallery to blow away the letters from the typeface he wants or doesn’t want.

Cheese or Font
Hmm, it’s odd how cheeses and typefaces often have similar names. See if you can tell the difference.

Kern Type
Many fonts contain extra information telling the computer how to adjust the spacing between individual pairs of letters. If you think of an AV for example the top of the V might start before the A ends or be very close. This game lets you move the letters around until you think you have optimal spacing then you can see how well you did.

Shape Type
The ultimate font game! See if you can reshape disported letters back to their original forms by adjusting the lines and bezier curves. The computer will score your efforts by comparing to the original.

Find a font

FontShop newsletter
This newsletter is both infrequent and interesting so it gets to come directly to my inbox. It contains interesting new fonts, news and designer spotlights and is a great way of discovering new typefaces to use.

IdentiFont
Asks you a series of specific questions about letters in the font on a continual process to narrow it down to the hopefully right one.

WhatTheFont
This tool is a little more automated, upload the picture and it should identify the letters although you may need to fine-tune the recognition (also available as an iPhone app)

So you need a typeface infographic
This flowchart takes you through a bunch of decisions to choose a typeface. Don’t expect to find anything too original though!

Smarten your site

If you have a web site you might want to look at using a custom font to help stand-out from the crowd now that they are compatible across many browsers. Yes, I should do this for damieng.com :)

Font Squirrel
Font squirrel have a great site full of many free fonts and have prepared the necessary font and CSS files required for the subset available for use on web sites.

Google web fonts
Google have almost 300 fonts available in their free web font directory right now and with just a couple of clicks can provide the necessary HTML, CSS import or Javascript necessary to use them in your pages. The fonts are served up from their servers too so you don’t need to worry about files or bandwidth.

Fonts Live
Monotype’s hosted service is similar to Google’s but contains just their own commercial fonts including well-known ones such as Museo, Gill Sans, Bodoni, Rockwell and many of Microsoft’s typefaces. Prices start at about $40 a year for small sites (250k visits a month) but they have 30-day free trials.

MyFonts WebFonts
MyFonts have a huge collection of fonts – some 40,000+ – most of which are available to use on the web for the same price as buying the font. This makes it cheaper than FontsLive but you need to host the files and CSS on your own server.

Offline fun

Playing cards
These Helvetica based playing cards are very stylish, bold and modern. If you’re going to play cards why not do so with something a little different.

Typographical calendar
Get a daily dose of typography in this compact little desk calendar. The designer’s equivalent of a word-a-day.

Helvetica The Movie
Not just a movie about the design of this iconic font but also the modern movement it was part of. If you like this keep an eye out for Linotype: The Movie due in Feb 2012.

Typography t-shirts
Zazzle has a lot of typography t-shirts as does TypographyShop and Ugmonk.

Create your own

If any of that has been enough to pique your interest why not have a go at designing your own font?

FontStruct lets you start simply by building your own from a library of pre-build shapes you place on a grid. It’s like LEGO for typography and is very easy go get started.

If you have an iPad then you can also try out iFontMaker for an easy way to make hand-drawn fonts (it lacks fine editing facilities). I actually used a Pogo Sketch for my Damien Typewriter  but it is too soft so you could try other styluses. Once you’re done it publishes to their web gallery where you can download the TrueType font and a Web Font too.

If you enjoy that but crave more control then try the free FontForge editor which runs on many platforms and lets you create real fonts or hack apart other peoples (remember to not redistribute changes to other peoples fonts unless the licence allows it).

If you get stuck on some letters then try my favourite Designing Type book that devotes a page or two to each common character and shows how a number of well-known typefaces express it.

[)amien

Android’s Roboto system font for Ice Cream Sandwich

Google have switched system font for Android’s latest release (known as Ice Cream Sandwich) from the Droid Family to a new typeface known as Roboto.

Typographica opened today with a critique of the Roboto font which boils down to this:

Roboto compared at Typographica

The similarity to Helvetica is obvious but that similarity can be drawn with many modern typefaces – the other comparisons are tenuous indeed:

  • FF DIN has little resemblance other than having straight edges on rounded letters. Lots of faces do that. Envy Code R does extensively :)
  • Myriad is more open in it’s whitespace, ends t with a slant and features a different approach to shoulders on mnpqr
  • Ronnia only shares the single horizontal stem which is also present in many monospace bitmap fonts

Yes, some of these differences are subtle when you put them side by side but subtleties are what give the typeface its character.

There are only so many ways to draw letters with consistency and readability especially if you want a modern sans look. That’s exactly why copyright refuses to cover letterforms in the USA.

So coming to the font itself at first glance, yes, on my laptop it doesn’t look as pretty as Helvetica when blown up for comparison but here’s something you should consider.

Typefaces are designed for a specific environment

Consider the following typefaces:

Use a typeface outside its intended environment and you’ll easily believe it’s a bad design, ugly or unrefined as those very characteristics that made it great for that environments completely fail to fit new surroundings.

Even the famous Helvetica has an environment of whitespace, bold colours and clean-lines where it shines. That makes it a top choice for corporate logos.

Roboto is the work of independent type designer Christian Robertson and until I see it on a Droid device I’ll cut him and Google some slack – from the screenshots I’ve seen online it looks like a good fit.

You have to at least respect Google for continuing to improve typography by commission fonts. Microsoft are the only other major UI player doing this as Apple’s sole contribution to typefaces in the last 10 years has been a hack-job on the open-source Deja-Vu Mono to rename it Menlo, move some bars around and to trash the hinting in the process so they have something to replace the ageing Monaco with.

If you want to download the font yourself here is a complete set of the files taken from the SDK (unlike the other zip floating around this one has all variants + the licence).

Download Roboto Font Family (ZIP of TTF) (399 KB)

[)amien