David Madore's WebLog: Fonts

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(Wednesday) · Full Moon


Character fonts are a strange thing: one usually doesn't consciously notice them, but one still accustoms oneself to seeing this-or-that font on a given document; so if one sees the same text (Web page, typically) with the same layout and colors but different fonts one gets this strange feeling that something is “not right”, much like hearing the wrong instrument play a familiar tune. Now imagine the feeling when a minor change in a font setup makes every single Web page appear with ever-so-slightly different fonts: then the entire Web (that is, the part one is familiar with) suddenly seems “out of tune”. Totally weird.

Well, that's more or less the feeling I'm having now. I was having some difficulties with my XFree86, so I upgraded it all, server and libraries. This shouldn't have affected font layout, but it did. I have hundreds of installed fonts on my PC, from dozens of different sources, and in all sorts of formats (TrueType, PostScript Type1, bitmap), which can further be handled at at least three different levels (the X server, the X font server or the FreeType library—just talking about display, here, not printing): the whole thing is a complete mess, it's just about impossible to track down from which file a given font came, especially when matters are further obscured by Mozilla's handling of the CSS specification. Ordinary logic has no course here, it's the rule of black magic, and apparently the upgrade changed something in the font selection mechanism and the rendering engine, and everything was subtly different.

In the end I managed to mostly clean things up by removing from the search path many broken, damaged or otherwise unpleasant fonts. Now I view nearly every Web page with completely different fonts than I used to, two days ago. Mostly it's an improvement. But strangely enough, there's one site for which things now look distinctly worse: my own.

The font I specify for viewing this page is Hermann Zapf's beautiful Optima, in my opinion the most refined and elegant font ever designed (ex æquo with Adrian Frutiger's Univers face, in a very different style). Optima is a highly readable typeface of the “humanist” kind, combining features of both serif and sans-serif types: although it doesn't have serifs, its strokes are subtly modulated—the ends of a straight stroke being slightly wider than the middle—suggesting a delicate mixture of carving and handwriting. Of course, not all Web users will have Optima installed on their computer: so I specify Palatino (Linotype), another humanist typeface designed by Hermann Zapf, as a fallback, and, if Palatino also isn't available, any serif face. Most Mac OS X users will have Optima installed, and many Windows users will have Palatino. (I have both on my system.)

[Fontshot][Fontshot]Anyway, somehow, even though the font itself (a TrueType file) stayed the same, the upgrade in the rasterizer considerably degraded the appearance of the Optima font on my screen. Before I changed it looked like the image on the left; and afterward it looked like that on the right. (Both images come from my bookmarks page.) Note how the letters in the word “Libération” are very unevenly spaced on the image on the right, and how ugly the ‘N’ in “Normale” looks; the letters ‘h’ and ‘n’ are also too narrow. This seems like an acute case of badly hinted TrueType, but I've tried everything from disabling hinting to activating autohinting, to no avail.

I hope that at least some people see a nicely rendered Optima font when viewing my Web page and not this sort of junk.

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