Why computer fonts can be a problem

Historically, sign painters leaned heavily on letter styles that were relatively bold. They didn’t use fonts, the name for collections of type. They didn’t even use the word “font.” “Font” was a printer’s term, not part of the sign painter’s vocabulary. Letter styles used by letterers were called alphabets. When a thick-and-thin letter style, commonly called a roman, was used on sign work, it was usually a version that was visually substantial. That is, thin strokes were thicker and serifs were not too delicate. Similarly, when lettering with script, thin strokes were not made too skinny.

Computer fonts, by contrast, can create legibility problems on signs, due to the fact that light faced letter styles predominate in sign software. Even the bold versions of many roman fonts have thin strokes that are not practical for general sign work.

Consider Times Roman, designed specifically for the London Times newspaper. It is very legible—in print. On a sign, however, more often than not, it looks weak and hinders readability. It has thin strokes that are simply too thin for distance viewing at larger sizes. Even in the bold version, the thin strokes are not substantial enough to be practical for general sign work. A sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinct anemic look. There is too much space; it is too “white.” Times Roman, and it’s sibling Times New Roman, was made for newspaper reading. It was not designed to be used in large sizes and at the distances required for sign viewing. The main problem is that the thin strokes are so thin that they tend to disappear from view as the reading distance increases, leaving only the bold strokes visible.

The fact that so many computer fonts are designed for print, not for signs, is responsible, at least in part, for the flood of poor and ineffective sign work being created today. The majority of letter styles produced with computer software are simply unsuitable for sign work.

In the days of painted signs, a sign painter could ensure that roman letters were readable by thickening the thin strokes as needed on the fly. Widening a letter stroke was as simple as applying extra pressure to a lettering brush, mashing out the hairs so that a wider line was painted. Using a larger lettering brush was also an option. Sign painters were not tied to fonts that couldn’t be modified. Modifications were easy. Type styles were usually not reproduced exactly, but that wasn’t the goal. Rather, an alphabet was adjusted as needed for legibility and readability.

It is evident that part of the solution to making signs more effective today is to make more use of heavy and medium stroked letter styles, and using light faced letters sparingly. Times Roman is really not an excellent choice for sign work, even in its so-called bold version. It’s sometimes possible to artificially improve the legibility of Times Roman by “stroking” it, that is, adding a contour or outline to the letter, in the same color as the letter, to thicken the strokes. This distorts the outline of the letter, of course, but at least the thin strokes don’t disappear as readily. It’s best to do this stroking procedure on the light or medium versions of the letter rather than the bolder versions.

Sometimes a dark background can save a letter with skinny strokes. Strokes tend to appear a little heavier when light letters are put on a dark background. Landscape painters say that light colors “advance,” or grow in perceived size, while dark colors “recede,” or shrink. Especially is this true on internally-illuminated signs. The legibility of a thin-stroked letter is almost always improved by a lighted sign that has a dark background.

My preference is to simply avoid using Times Roman on most sign work, choosing instead a naturally bolder letter. I especially like fonts that have been created by sign painters. Knowing the limitations and weaknesses of letter styles designed for print, these font designers have produced letter styles that work well in large sizes and at greater distances.

So, choose fonts for signage carefully. Make choices that circumvent the problems created by letter styles that were designed for print thus avoiding the anemic look that is so common in computer-generated sign design today.

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