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Know If a Font Sucks
Good fonts look right, by compensating for tricks our eyes play. Here's how.

by Thomas Phinney

9. Even weight (monoline)
Sans serif typefaces are more popular than ever right now. In the WebINK webfont service I run as my day job, nine of the top ten typefaces for 2013 are not only sans serif, but also monoline—where the strokes are of even weight, whether horizontal, vertical or curved.

Or are they? It turns out that our eyes fool us here as well, and to achieve the appearance of a monoline typeface, the designer needs to create optical compensations. All of the earlier issues apply here, but also at least one new one: In type, it is rarely desirable for horizontal elements to be heavier than vertical ones, unless an "old West" or circus look is desired. But in amateur monoline typefaces, the horizontals look just a bit heavier than the verticals. The reason is simple: they are actually the same weight, but to make them appear to be the same thickness, the type designer needs to make the vertical strokes a bit thicker, on the order of 10%. This applies to curves as well, as in an “O.”

Top letters uncorrected and mathematically even; bottom adjusted.

Left letters uncorrected and mathematically even; right adjusted.

10. Stretching and squishing
All these delicate balances get distorted when type is stretched or squeezed, as it not only changes the widths of letters, but also the relative thickness of vertical and horizontal strokes. That’s why pro typographers tell folks not to do it, and why a condensed or expanded font made by simply stretching or squeezing will look like hell. “Proper” condensed and expanded fonts maintain the relative horizontal and vertical stroke weights.

11. Midline position
Sometimes features such as the crossbar of an H are deliberately high or low. But to look vertically centered, the crossbar must be 2–3% above the midline. If it is drawn at the exact middle, it will appear lower. Similarly, if a font has strokes that taper toward the middle, the thinnest points on the vertical elements should be 2–3% above the middle to seem symmetrical.

Left H crossbar is mathematically centered vertically; right is corrected.

12. Perfect circles
We already know that an apparently circular O must be slightly taller than it is wide, and have heavier vertical parts than horizontal. But even then the “corners” tend to look just slightly squashed in. Bulging them out just the tiniest bit can help achieve apparent circularity.

There are countless markers to look for, but these are the biggest ones (and a few of the small ones) that should help you distinguish most of the junk fonts out there from the good stuff—and perhaps make better fonts if you are just getting into that. Happy fonting! ca

Like most other software, fonts are licensed rather than sold, under an End User License Agreement (EULA). The font’s license is a functionality every bit as critical as the outline quality and the spacing. The terms of the EULA tell you what you can and cannot do. Most font licenses don’t let you modify the font. Most expect you to pay separately for privileges such as using the font on the web, embedding it in an e-book for sale or letting more than five people use it. A few even charge extra to use the font in a logo, or on merchandise for sale! So the first rule is to check your license terms and make sure that you can do what you need to do.

These and other restrictions have led to an increased interest in “libre,” or free, fonts, which have an open-source license that allows you to do almost anything you want (although some require you to change the name if you modify the font). Libre fonts are also free in price, which is nice from an end-user perspective. Sadly, while there are some real gems among libre fonts, economic and historical factors have led to inferior quality on average in comparison to proprietary fonts—though there are plenty of the latter that suck, too.

These top-twelve markers of quality are best judged by cracking open a font with a font editor. I suggest you use the free FontForge app, try a demo version of FontLab Studio or go for an inexpensive font editor such as FontLab TypeTool or Glyphs Mini for less than $50. For further study on type design, read Designing Type by Karen Cheng and Fontographer: Type by Design by Stephen Moye (out of print, but a great intro even if you don’t use Fontographer). Also recommended, but less narrowly focused: Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst; Logo, Font & Lettering Bible by Leslie Cabarga; Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander Lawson; and the sadly out-of-print Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy. For web resources, try and, and even my own Phinney
Thomas Phinney is senior product manager for fonts and typography at Extensis, including the WebINK web font solution, and treasurer of ATypI. From 1997-2008 he did type at Adobe, lastly as product manager for fonts and global typography. His typeface Hypatia Sans is an Adobe Original. Phinney has long been involved in the design, technical, forensic, business, standards and history of type. His interest in forensic typography has led to testifying as an expert witness in court, being quoted in newspapers from the Washington Post to the Dallas Morning News, and being consulted by organizations ranging from PBS (for History Detectives) to the US Treasury. Phinney has an MS in printing from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and an MBA from UC Berkeley.