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One thing I keep reading, especially in discussions about fonts for the Kindle, is that some fonts were designed for print but that nowadays designing fonts for onscreen use should be a consideration, and diffferent fonts should be used.

Aren't they both exactly the same thing; the decoration of a 2d surface which either reflects (in the case of the kindle) or emits (in the case of a phone screen or monitor) glyphs representing letters, numbers and punctuation?

Is it simply a resolution issue? Would people not have this issue if the DPI of the device was, say, 100,000 DPI rather than a couple of hundred?

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Is it simply a resolution issue?

Yes.

And we're almost to the point where that issue is gone. Kindles, iPhones, iPads, all of the high-retina and e-paper devices now have resolutions that are nearly on par with paper so the issues that we had in the past due to the limited number of pixels we had at our disposal for each glyph are significantly lessened.

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    While I agree it's primarily an issue of resolution, your statement that it is wholly an issue of resolution is misleading – Zach Saucier Aug 28 '15 at 15:47
  • @ZachSaucier well, nothing is ever 'wholly' an issue. But I'd say it's mostly an issue of resolution. Any other issues, while valid issues, really aren't issues in general as much as possibly issues in specific context with specific typefaces. That said, it is 'simply' an issue of resolution. 'Complexly' (is that a word?) we could argue there are some other factors. :) – DA01 Aug 28 '15 at 16:04
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Screen and print really area different mediums--not just the "the decoration of a 2d surface". Here are a few differences:

  • Users can change type on a screen. They can override the designer's size, choice of typeface, even color. Type design on a screen needs to be able to account for this.
  • Print and screen use different color modules (CYMK vs RGB)
  • Most devices don't have a truly black screen. They often reflect light to some degree.
  • DPI for print and PPI for screens are not the same thing.
  • A screen is (usually) backlit. Reading on a computer screen is a bit light staring at a lightbulb at times, which causes fatigue when reading.
  • No screen is the same. A web page might be viewed on completely different devices, like a 22" desktop monitor or a 3.5" phone. Typography in the digital world needs to accomodate both.
  • Except in cases of ereaders, there is more stuff on a screen--other content on the web page, email notifications, xeyes, and who knows what else

These differences mean that (in general) screen typography needs to favor legibility. Not only does the average computer screen have less resolution to work with compared to print, there are distractions that draw your eyes to different places, variability in user settings (the same text on a website might be "big" on my laptop but "small" on my phone), variability in available fonts, etc. There's also the general fatigue of using a device. Fonts on screen need to be simpiler and easy to understand at a glance.

This is why sans-serif fonts with big X-heights and an open feel like Open Sans dominate the web. They are simplier and work in various sizes without much strain on the reader. They are also easier to scan and easier to find your place when you look away (oh look, a funny cat picture!).

  • Thanks for your reply. It was very interesting; however, some of it is unclear, or I don't see how to apply it to ereaders such as kindles. I'm not sure how the user being able to change the type means that Bookerly is a better font than a traditional type, for example. What is the end result of the difference beween DPI and PPI? Modern kindles have a light although they're not technically backlit (for whatever difference that makes). How does the potential for distraction (ie cat pictures) affects font design? – bye Aug 28 '15 at 12:19
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    Assuming someone just reads a book on a kindle vs the same book in paper form; black on white, no backlight, no user changing the appearance, no dancing cats, sensible DPI (say 212 or 300); can one font be said to be objectively better than another in that context? Or is subjectivity and/or marketing at play here? – bye Aug 28 '15 at 12:21
  • There is a error: Screen is additive print subtractive, not the other way around. There are also other problems. – joojaa Aug 28 '15 at 12:21
  • @joojaa I always get the terminology mixed up with the two. I replaced it with links to the wikipedia pages instead, which is probably better than any explanation I could offer. – Scribblemacher Aug 28 '15 at 12:55
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    Sans serif fonts have been popular on screens due to the low resolution we've had to work with in the past. They don't reduce reader strain compared to serif faces, though. There's also no conclusive evidence that they are easier to scan and find your place with. – DA01 Aug 28 '15 at 15:40
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When fonts are meant to be printed on paper, a type designer has to take into account how the printing plates, the ink, and the paper will interact to produce a character. This means they might have to make different cuts for different sizes, or add ink traps so the ink doesn't clog up small spaces in the letters.

When fonts are meant to be viewed on screen, a type designer has to take into account how the type rendering engine (usually built into the operating system) and the screen will interact to produce a character. This means they might have to hint the fonts so they display properly at different sizes, or construct them based on a pixel grid.

Sure, things are evened out a lot when we're talking about a high resolution display, but there will always be differences between how a font behaves on screen and on print, and if you're designing exclusively or primarily for one of these mediums, as a type designer you will do things differently.

  • Problems related to printed fonts in the (requiring ink traps, different sized cuts, etc) are surely not relevant to their use on ereaders. I don't see what rendering engines and operating systems have to do with it; both my desktop pc and my kindle run linux and use true-type fonts, and yet apparently Open Sans and Times New Roman are suitable for one device but not the other. If you need to produce hints and grids etc for some reason then sure, do so; now can I view the old fonts on my new device? – bye Aug 28 '15 at 21:23
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    No, ink traps and optical cuts are used for type that's optimized for print only. Type that's optimized for screen has other design features. A rendering engine is HOW and operating system INTERPRETS, for example, a truetype font. Open Sans will not look the same on a linux os than on windows than on mac. That doesn't mean it cannot be used on all of them, but it might be optimized to look particularly good in one. Read about hinting if you'd like to go into technical details. – spiral Aug 31 '15 at 7:39

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