Evaluating the quality of a typeface

I have long been thinking about ways to better assess the quality of different typefaces. With so many to choose from, students, graphic designers, even laypeople, often have to compare fonts to find the fitting ones for their work. But how should one do that? Leaving mere taste aside, what are some concrete criteria for good quality typefaces?.
The following is a work-in-progress draft. It currently includes points both for users of type as well as designers of typefaces. I may split this up in future versions of this list but it’s also educational for users to see what designers of type have to keep in mind.

Features of “good” fonts

– Good technical quality of the drawing/outlines, e.g. continuous curves, even rounds, no bumps or corners where straights enter curves. Only visible in the outlines: curve and tangent points placed at optimal positions, optimal balance of off-curve points, no superfluous on-curve points

– Even stroke thickness fitting the design of the typeface

– Related proportions of related characters (n/m/h, b/d/p/q, O/C/G/Q etc.)

– Similar detailing across characters (treatment of related serifs, bowls, extenders)

– Optical compensation, e.g. larger rounds, overshoots, thinning of strokes at joints, optical middle, making verticals thicker etc.

– Harmonious spacing that fits the design, i.e. fitting the size of counters, optically even space between all glyphs, not too tight or too loose (depending on intended size of use)

– Individual spacing adjustment of tricky letter combinations where needed (= kerning). A high number of kerning pairs does not equal high-quality; it may in fact indicate spacing flaws

– Wordspace that fits proportions of the design. Many low-quality free fonts forget to even set the wordspace.

– Completeness of character-set for the task and language at hand, e.g. missing basic accented characters like umlauts, ß or œ/æ

– Fitting design of auxiliary characters like punctuation, numerals, currency symbols etc. (and not just copied over from other fonts)

– Appropriate vertical dimensions, i.e. no clipping, no overlapping extenders when set solid, not too much line spacing

– Functioning OpenType features, if included, that follow the OT-specifications

– Well-designed diacritical characters that meet standards of native speakers, e.g. regarding size and position of accents, appropriate [historical] form of diacritics that fit the design

– Basic, if only automatic, hinting for reasonable rendering on Windows systems

– Related styles that fit together as a family, share design details and proportions. Just one single weight makes a typeface less useful for more complex design

More subjective things to consider:

– Does the typeface meet the design goals of its designer/publisher and does it live up to its marketing claims? For instance, is it suitable for body copy and small sizes, if they say so, or working well in large sizes and headlines as is?

– Is the typeface offered at a suspiciously low price point that could let you assume not that much work has been put into it?

– Does the typeface come from a font sharing website (potentially illegal), a free fonts website, or an otherwise less commercially established outlet?

– Is the design based on outlines by somebody else that were slightly tweaked or stylistic filters have been applied to? Does it carry a name that may indicate closeness to another design?

Criteria that font user can’t assess easily but that type designers should consider:

– Is it a unique design idea that adds something new to the pool of available typefaces?

– Is it a revival of a previously designed/released typeface that was not available digitally, or only in low quality, or incomplete?

– Does the designer have the right to base their work on previously existing forms by someone else, release them, or use a particular name for their typeface?

And then there are, of course, typefaces that are intentionally designed to be weird, wonky, imperfect, distressed, uneven, casual or handmade etc. They are not meant to be evaluated by the same set of technical criteria, but you get the idea.

Regarding taste: “If there were an individual, readily recognized quality or characteristic which the type designer could incorporate in drawings that would make any one type more beautiful, legible, or distinguished than another, it is obvious that only type of that kind would be designed.” — Frederic W. Goudy (via John Savard)

That would be very sad. So experiment away, but still make, and use, typefaces that work well for a given task and are worth the effort.

Some resources:

Underware’s Type Workshop

Briem’s Notes on type design

Microsoft’s Character design standards (how to design certain glyphs)

Bezier Curves and Type Design: A Tutorial

Tal Lemming’s OpenType Cookbook

Diacritics – All you need to design a font with correct accents

The Insect Project – Problems of Diacritic Design for Central European Languages

Context of Diacritics

Cyrillic Type Design: a Critical Context

The relatively easy way to find out the quality of a Cyrillic typeface

Adobe Latin Character Sets

The Raster Tragedy – What is Hinting

Wakamaifondue.com / whatcanmyfontdo.com

FontDrop, to check what is included in a font and how it works

and in a metaphorical sense:

Why make something that isn’t great?

Every time (every day) when I read something to the effect of “better done than perfect”, “perfection is the enemy of [progress, good, you name it]” or “move fast and break things” I have to cringe. It goes so fundamentally against my ideals, work ethics and, mh, Germanness I guess. But right after I am comforted by this quote by typeface designer Jackson Cavanaugh which I have in the back of my head, every day:

“I’m very hard to please, I sincerely want everything to be better. Everything. There is too much shit in the world and most of it exists only because someone didn’t try hard enough to make something as good as possible. I fucking hate that. Why make something that isn’t great? So instead of crapping out a dozen half-baked shit fonts I try to concentrate my efforts into making just a few things as good as I possibly can.”

And luckily, there are also some truly excellent things out there.

Upgrade, but not all the way

If you are, like me, into trying out new OSes and nightly builds but can’t fully commit to upgrading your main/only computer (worse if it’s a laptop) my following solution might also be something for you.

I settled on installing Sierra on an external drive and starting the computer with the option key pressed to select the OS I want to use. I have a 13ʺ laptop with only a smallish internal SSD drive and didn’t want to have a cabled noisy hard drive next to it, so I decided to use an SDHC card that fits snugly into the slot of my laptop without sticking out. (There are several cards and adapters like this available; I bought the Transcend option.)

Next you have to format your new hard drive with Disk Utility in the GUID format, so a Mac can use it as a startup disk, and install the new OS. Two ways: 1. start in recovery mode (press cmd+R) and install the OS onto the external drive from there, or 2. start as normal and load the installer for the new OS from the App Store. I did the latter (takes a long time if you have a slow connection!). Then when asked simply select the new external drive as location, and done. (Well, all in all took something like 2+ hours).

Other options are tiny USB-sticks, especially if you have USB3 ports since those could be faster than the average SD card. Or you can use your internal drive of course if it’s large enough. For this, you’d have to make a backup of your hard drive, reformat it with two partitions, reinstall the backup on one of the partitions, then install the new OS on the other.

Starting from an external drive is a bit slower than from the internal SSD (~30% longer) but once it’s running, it’s not that slow using it actually (totally depending on what you do). SDHC cards come in all kinds of speed though. Don’t take the cheap 30 MB/sec ones and also check the write time. The one I got is advertised as 95/60 MB/sec. SD cards in laptops use the USB bus so any card can only be as fast as the bus. USB flash drives can potentially better max that out but I like that I can keep my USB slots free by using the SD slot. As for size, the normal OS install and my minimum of experimental font/browser software takes up ~15GB, so you should at last get a 32GB card/drive.

The unforseen merits of girls’ school?

This is an excerpt of an email I sent Amy Papaelias a while ago on the topic of (few) women in design. So you know where I’m coming from.

Throughout all of my youth and adult life, I rarely to never considered that anything that happened or didn’t happen in my life has anything to do with my gender. I went to an all-girls (catholic) high-school. Naturally and unquestioned, we did everything there – science, sports, mathematics, programming (even if only super old-school Basic), cooking, building stuff … it never occurred to me that girls cannot or should not do anything they want. I actually wanted to study chemistry when I finished school. We had male teachers who were wimps and some who were hunks, we had teaching nuns and tough business lady types. If there was a conflict or bullying, we could be certain it was because of who knows what but not because we were girls. With this (maybe super naïve) mindset I went on to study and on to work. I still think it is a good basic attitude, paired with speaking up whenever you see issues or feel treated unfairly, but of course it comes with tons of mine fields I walked through and will proudly walk through in the future.

My advice for female designers: Don’t just do publication/book design and illustration, please. There are so many interesting fields in design besides these classically female dominated departments. Document your work, be an active part in the community, write and publish your thoughts and opinions (have opinions!), talk at conferences even if it’s scary (it is).

My advice for you others: educate and encourage girls, offer them flexible, equal jobs and an environment they want to work in. Be understanding about irrational fears, doubts and weird behavior. Ask their opinions, include them and just generally take them seriously and not only if they adopt male-manners.


Thank you Frau Uffelmann, who pushed through against my parents that I would coincidentally attend this school, Marienschule Fulda.


Female speakers at conferences

Yesterday, this discussion took place again on Twitter. I hear this complaint all the time, and sometimes complain myself, too. However, I also organized conferences and events in the past and know how hard it is to get more female speakers on board if you still want to cover the topics you find important to cover. We gotta be proactive if we want more women to speak, all of us. I proposed many talks via calls for papers / presentations, because I want to participate in the community, in the discussion and in research. Don’t wait around for other people to cordially invite you. Sometimes these proposals get accepted, sometimes they don’t, but I don’t automatically suspect misogyny or a scheme behind it when I get turned down.

Many times when I spoke at events where I was the only, or one of the very few women, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was only invited because they needed some (more) girls on stage. Because, you know, complaints. This is not the feeling you want to have. You want to think, they invite you or accept your proposal because they think what you could contribute is interesting and fitting.

Instead of only looking at the diversity on stage, we should take a closer look at the boards and teams that are organizing events, the councils and committees that are shaping organizations. And don’t say “they should”, be an active part in your community and offer yourself as a candidate.


Udo Jürgens – Indra

Ich habe da diese Theorie, dass ich nach einem Lied von Udo Jürgens benannt bin. Was sonst? 1970er Jahre, meine Eltern waren Schlagerfans, mein Vater hatte eine riesige Plattensammlung (zusammen mit dem hellblauen Käfer auch so ziemlich das einzige, was er mit in die Ehe brachte, wie meine Mutter ihm bis heute vorhalten würde). Erst sehr viel später erfuhr ich von der Mutter eines Freundes, einer Hinduismus-Expertin, was Indra noch ist.

Zurück zu Udo. 1970 war Indra die B-Seite von Babuschkin, einem Lied nach dem Muster seiner Erfolgsplatte Anuschka. Udofan dazu:

Nach dem Riesenerfolg mit Anuschka versuchte man auf dieser Welle weiter zu reiten. Babuschkin funktioniert nach dem gleichen Strickmuster, wie die Vorgängersingle und schaffte es wahrscheinlich auch aus diesem Grunde ebenfalls in die Charts (höchste Platzierung Rang 12). Die anspruchsvollere Nummer war aber sicherlich die B-Seite: Indra. Sie wurde von Udo Jürgens sogar in englisch aufgenommen und in Südafrika veröffentlicht.

Jetzt möchte ich das Lied natürlich brennend gerne auf englisch hören. Udo Jürgens ist gestern gestorben.

67-babuschkin_indra_frontCover Songtext: http://www.udojuergens.de/lied/indra



Since 2002, or with a clearer idea 2004, I have been working on something that started as a book. What book exactly doesn’t matter here but it’s on a topic relevant for current designers, I hope. Over these, say, 10 years the world, market, design, and technology around us (and I) have changed significantly. This is not the only reason why I’m asking myself since the fourth iteration of this thing, ca. four years ago, what it should be will it ever get finished. Is a book still a good idea? It would probably not be a book you’d want to read in bed or on the toilet, the places where some people seem to still prefer physical books over screens, not including me. Publishing has changed. We moved on from an era of large publishing houses with a lot of influence and budget, to small independent publishers with quite some influence and no budget, on our way to the next hay days of the personal “private press”.

If you want to publish something these days and propose your material or even readily written, proofed and laid-out book to a publishing house, you also have to bring up the full funds for producing this book. (Most) Publishers (I know) are only willing to take your book into their catalog and distribution chain (aka put it on Amazon and their website). They are not going to pay for production, or you for desinging it, maybe not even doing much marketing for it. And this for an average of 5% royalties on a sale? If publishing a book ever was a form of spreading ones ideas and in return making money from its sales for all the work that went into “producing” these ideas and the book, this is now very rare, at least in our typography niche. Also, for a lot of content, a searchable, indexable form and portability has many advantages. I’m a book lover. And a screen lover. I hear the critics, both sides. “You can’t monetize a website, or a PDF, or whatever form of digital content”. Fair enough, that’s hard, but if I have to bring up the production cost of the book anyway, why not just publish the thing myself, or put it on the internet, as a website, or a document, for free, or with a donate-button, like Butterick. Less production cost I have to offset against revenue.

You are probably wondering by now what/where the point of this mumbling post is. I don’t know, guess there is none, it’s coming straight from my morning-tired brain in the kitchen standing at the counter drinking a coffee. Stream of consciousness writing to try out this Writer. But I post it anyway, as a reminder for myself that I want to write about publishing here, and books, and ebooks, and reading on screens, and type on screens, typography. I’m looking forward.

My German Reunification

This is a letter I wrote to Eben Sorkin in October 2009, trying to explain my feelings about the reunification and the autumn of 1989 in Germany.


»Can you tell me more about the 3rd of October?«

This year [2009] we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down, which took place on November 9, 1989. However, the government decided some 18 years ago or so to make the 3rd of October the official memorial date, when the legal and monetary reunion took place in 1990 (so actually only 19 years ago).

Thinking about that time in 1989 still moves me to tears, like yesterday when I passed a sign/memorial on the street at Potsdamer Platz. There are a lot of interviews, clips and original audio pieces broadcasted on the radio at the moment and I am totally taken in by that – every year again. For example a few days ago it was the 20th anniversary of a special occasion in the German embassy in Prague where more than 700 refugees had been seeking shelter. After more than ten days crumbed together in the garden of the embassy they were allowed to travel to the West. There is a famous clip with Genscher, the minister of foreign affairs back then, going something like: “I came to tell you, that today, your depart…” and nothing more than incredible screaming was to be heard. Everytime I hear that, and even when I write about it now, I get goosebumps.

That all may sound weird, because especially younger folks don’t quite share my strong feelings, but I am old enough to have a clear memory of these days 20 years ago. I grew up close to the border in the West, maybe you have heard of the so-called “Fulda gap”, a potential spot for a cold war show-down? Every guest was taken to the frontier, and everybody had relatives in the East, sometimes just a few kilometers away, but unfortunately on the other side. My father is from (West-) Berlin, so our family used to embark at least once a year on this long and exhausting journey through the former East by car, waiting for hours at the border, cars getting searched. I remember sending parcels to the Eastern relatives with the classic West stuff – coffee and chocolate – every now and then.

Since the embassy thing in September 1989 it was clear that there was a change going on, but it still was a big surprise when suddenly on November 9 we were able to watch the wall coming down on television. That was a very emotional moment for us Eastern West-Germans. And then suddenly they all came over! The Fulda region already admitted a lot of refugees since the summer of 1989 but then from November 10 on Fulda was INVADED by Thuringians and Saxonians, being one of the nearest cities. They all came to pick up their 100 DM “Begrüßungsgeld” (welcoming money), queueing for hours in the freezing cold, with babies and elderly because everybody got 100 DM. The city council couldn’t cope with the big run and asked in our nearby school (me aged 16) for volunteers to help. So I found myself taking care of the East-German visitors and refugees for more than a week, providing tea, soup and babyfood etc.



The form to pick up the Begrüßungsgeld


After some occasional visits I made my first serious steps direction East in 1991 to Weimar to join some fellow architecture students, and from 1993 on studying visual communication at the Bauhaus University. I ended up living there for almost 13 years, with some breaks inbetween in Berlin, The Netherlands and Hamburg. If I’m asked where my hometown is, I tended to say Weimar instead of Fulda for many years because I lived there for the most important part of my life and met most of my best friends there. And that all would never have been possible without the German reunion. My life would be completely different.

This, in short, is the background of my great emotional involvement with the German reunification. I wish more people would still remember these days – and the years and conditions before the autumn of 1989. When I moved to the far West, to Rhineland (Düsseldorf, Cologne area) I was shocked, that most of the people I met there had never been to the Eastern part of Germany. After all these years! And unfortunately meanwhile a lot of East-Germans tend to romantizise the GDR times as “not all bad” which is absolute rubbish. It was a bad, criminal, repressive system, let us not forget.



Former border at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin


I hacked my Messages

I’m not a fan of Apple’s Messages desktop application, but there was no escape when I bought a new computer last December. Because this is not my only discomfort with Mountain Lion (slow RSS-less Safari, slow scrolling, ugly GUIs, weird file system, weird lots) I kept using my 3,5 year old MBP a lot. But mainly because I disliked so many things about this new chat program. In the way I work I’m depending on chat (and disliking Skype even more), and I need the search functions for text, links and images to refer to discussions at a later date.

Messages is great when you use iMessages with email addresses and want to have the conversations on all your devices. This does not work with phone numbers (how I text message mostly) and not with my ancient AIM name which I still happily use. But what I’m bemoaning most are the missing inline images as soon as you close the chat, the inaccessible way it stores chat transcripts and loss of the ability to determine where they get saved, plus the lousy search function. Basically I miss all the great functionality the Chax extension added to iChat.

So I did some investigations and hacks.

Despite the (buggy) infinite scroll in the chat window, there are still individual transcripts of all chats, stored in the same why as it was in iChat: named by recipient and date, sorted into folders per day. These live in your user library folder (User/Library/Messages/Archive) which is invisible by default, but you can make it visible by alt-clicking into the Go-to menu in the Finder. One tip I read is to then drag this folder into the side bar of a window if you want to access it frequently. There are also tool sets like Mountain Tweaks that let you make the the library folder permanently visible (and many more handy things).

Okay, I found my logs and can open them individually for easier search and reference, but all inline files are still missing. That makes it hard to reconstruct conversations and you have to remember to save important files to your desktop. There is an Attachments folder in the Library/Messages folder, but it seems to only stores images that are send in an iMessages conversation from a phone number.

A second important thing for me is to determine the place where to save the transcripts. I had set up iChat to store these in a folder in my Dropbox. This is a handy auto-backup and great if you use more than one computer and want to have them all saved into the same archive. I googled a fair bit and finally found this recipe how to change the location of your Messages archive folder. After a tiny struggle with Terminal it worked. Be sure to follow the instructions exactly. The command creates an alias where the default library-folder was that links to your new folder in your dropbox.*


Rejoice, I now have one unified place again for both iChat and Messages transcripts in my Dropbox. But the coolest discovery is this: since Messages still uses the same file format as iChat, it displays chats I did on iChat together with the chats from Messages in its chat window. In reverse I can open all chats from Messages in iChat on my old computer – WITH THE INLINE IMAGES ALL IN PLACE! What the hell Apple!? Why don’t you let us see the images when they are still all saved into the log files? These are just as big or small as before, depending on how many images you pasted (from 2K for a single line of text to several 100 MB.)

This all may not bother you if you only us one computer or don’t want to reference your chat logs, but for me it lets me make peace with this unbeloved machine and finally start enjoying it in all its high res glory.


* Potential problems: If you try to chat right after hacking your Messages and it doesn’t work with peeps you were talking to shortly before, Messages might have a hick-up and confuses the transcripts. Quit the app, move the latest convo with that contact out of the archive folder and try again. Secondly, after my first Terminal attempt, my video chat icon disappeared and Messages told me my computer is not able to video chat. If this happens to you, put “defaults write com.apple.iChat newbwdup 300000” into your Terminal and it will reset something magically.