Sunday, March 18, 2012

Caps, Lowercase & x-Height: The Development of Sassoon Joiner Fonts

I think we left off talking about why all CAPS is a bad thing to do to text, especially more than just a couple of words, especially when using a monospace typeface, because when you try to look at each word as a single unit, all words look alike -- boxes of varying widths:

The above is an image from Robin Williams' excellent book The Mac is Not a Typewriter and was produced to show the difficulty in reading whole words written in all-caps, especially monospaced all-caps.

Note that the two pairs of words are of the same number of characters; thus when the eye detects them as shapes, the two shapes look alike. When Rosemary Sassoon was asked to consider which would be preferable typefaces for children learning to read and write, she realized that studying children and their preferences had been left out of the study equation.

I was astonished that although various ‘experts’ had their own views, no one had bothered to ask the actual users – children... The design was based on the children’s preferences and surprising explicit comments – a slight slant, a plain top (sans serif) and a flickup like Times Italic. When rationalised that suggested that an exit stroke bound the word together. That feature, coupled with slightly extended ascenders and descenders (which had been eroded in other modern typefaces) accentuated the word shape hence made for easier recognition.

Ascenders, Descenders & x-height

Before we see why ascenders, descenders and x-height can make a great deal of difference is seeing entire words as shapes (or at least help in decoding), a few definitions are in order:

x-Height characters are everything else and have the vertical dimensions of, say, a lowercase x: They are a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, & x. Why do ascenders, descenders and x-height assist in decoding words? It's a matter of creating visual contrast:

Still skeptical? Consider the following:

In the two above examples, Ascenders (signifying either a capital letter or one of the lowercase letterforms with an ascender) and descenders provide important clues as to what the words are. As children become more expert readers they learn to read whole words, partly by shape. As Sassoon notes, modern typefaces that seek to erode the visual contrast between letterforms with ascenders, descenders and how they relate to overall x-height make that text more difficult to read more expertly by new readers.

Thus we have the Sassoon family of fonts:

In the next post, we will discuss using type creatively and how to avoid some of the common don'ts of using type.

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