“It Reads Like Butter” For The Web
Call me a purist, but in my line of work as a typographer (and rarely, type designer), I usually cling tightly to the most conservative of rules: readers will read best under the condition that they’re most used to. Here, I’m concerned about legibility and readability that impact the speed of reading. I often said that the more “it reads like butter” and the more the text can deliver the information within lucidly, the better I’ve done my job.
The nascent of @font-face—epitomized by the release of Firefox 3.5 that most of the web use and will upgrade to—means that designers and developers will take advantage of the many new CSS rules available to them, including @font-face. They will shortly embed more typefaces—those outside the Core Web Fonts collection—for reading.
However, all Core Web Fonts have been hinted for on screen reading, while many type families out there have, but not very completely. Hinting is a type design process that some have the skills to handle, and even fewer have to handle well. Most chose a scripted algorithm inside their font design program to hint: essentially autohinting.
There Is Hope
There are several good examples, by the way, of superbly hinted faces: Luc(as) de Groot’s Thesis Office, FontFont’s Axel and Mark Simonson’s Anonymous—but these are exceptions rather than a rule. There is also Microsoft ClearType Font Collection that comes bundled with Windows Vista, the upcoming Windows 7, Microsoft Office 2007 and Office:mac 2008.
If you’re setting type as headlines. Hinting instructions only apply at small sizes (usually between 8–12 px). In bigger ones, the characters render well enough because the pixel isn’t as constraining, so hinting isn’t needed. This means that type will always set well on bigger sizes.
But the fact is, web readers have always used to reading onscreen texts set in Verdana, Georgia, Arial, Helvetica and Lucida Grande (the last two are if you’re on a Mac); so the question still remains:
When we’re faced with new font families, will we still read as well as we have been with Core Web Fonts?
Caveat: on the web, readers do tend to be more savvy at reading various type variations (sizes, weights, families.)