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Archive for May, 2009

Not-so-fine print


Today’s New York Times has an article about the new credit-card legislation that just passed the U.S. Senate (and, later in the day, the House), which would limit the exorbitant interest rates and extra fees and sudden changes of terms that have become standard practice among credit-card companies in recent years. One of the details that I noticed deep in the article has typographic relevance:

“The bill also bans expiration dates on gift cards and certificates any sooner than five years after the card’s original issue date. And the retailer or card issuer will have to print the terms of any expiration date in capital letters in at least 10-point type. Call it the fine print rule.”

Capital letters? I can see the intended effect, but the real effect will be to make the important text less readable than it would otherwise be. ALL-CAPS are inherently less readable and less inviting than upper- & lowercase – especially if they haven’t been tracked looser than normal, to give a little extra space between letters.

Legal contracts such as “Terms of Use” agreements often use all-caps to emphasize the most important parts. But if there’s a long passage in caps, it’s even more likely to be skipped by anyone reading it than the regular text might be. (Perhaps this is the point, in some legal agreements.) Far better would be to set the important bits in normal case but make it bold for emphasis. (Maybe not in Times New Roman, whose bold is really a headline typeface rather than a bolder version of the text face.)

Requiring “capital letters in at least 10-point type” does have one advantage: it’s easy to define. Although typefaces vary wildly in their apparent size, it’s usually the lowercase x-height that varies the most (compare Times and Helvetica at the same point size); the capital letters are likely to be of similar height even when the design is different. But this just highlights the folly of trying to define legible type simply by its point size.

Incriminating evidence: Type90


The first type conference I ever attended was Type90, the 1990 ATypI conference in Oxford, England. It was also the first ATypI event that was truly a conference, widely publicized, rather than a “congress” of insiders. Type90 was the brainchild of Roger Black, who even then was a well-known editorial designer and had just co-founded the Font Bureau. This year’s ATypI conference, the first one in Mexico City, is also Roger’s brainchild, which is one of the reason’s he pushed to have it called “Typ09,” as a sort of allusion to or inversion of Type90.

At Type90, I was a newcomer; I knew only a couple of people there, though I knew a few others by reputation. Several of us relative newcomers ended up hanging out together during the weekend; a number of friendships began there.

Not too long ago Thom Feild unearthed a photo from Type90, showing a bunch of us in a pub on the final day of the conference. Recognize anyone?

[Photo (counterclockwise from lower left): Phil Baines (London), Tom Bee (Edinburgh), Susan Skarsgard (Ann Arbor), me (Seattle), Iskra Johnson (Seattle), Thom Feild (Seattle), random local at the table behind us (Oxford, presumably), and April from Apple (Cupertino; sorry, neither Thom nor I can remember her last name). Photo copyright by Thom Feild. Slightly larger version here.]