Saturday, March 17, 2012

Monospaced vs. Proportionately-spaced Typography

In a follow-up to the previous post, we learned that choosing an appropriate typeface can bridge the gap between learning to read and learning to write in young children as well as demonstrate learning cursive handwriting skills by taking a look at the Sassoon Joiner fonts and software, a demo of which is freely downloadable. In this post, we will discuss those monospaced vs. proportionately-spaced typefaces.

We talked a little in the previous post about the days of the dreaded typewriter. For the benefit of those whose eyes glazed over and rolled into the back of their skulls at the reference, let's take a trip back in time... time... time...:

In the beginning...

The first thing to learn is the difference between a monospaced typeface and a proportionally-spaced typeface (remember Steve Jobs talking about that in his Stanford commencement speech?). Below is the same sentence rendered in two similar-looking typefaces (both are serif typefaces; more on that in a minute):

The first line is in Courier; Courier is a monospaced font. The second line is in Times New Roman, which is a proportionally-spaced font. Both are 24 pt. Notice that the proportionately-spaced font takes up less horizontal space. That is because a monospaced typeface allots the same "cushion" space around the letterform for a capital W as for a lower-case i. The first line was indented two spaces; the second was indented five spaces. The third shows the difference between five and two spaces for the typeface Times New Roman. Below you can see how, in Courier, each character occupies the same horizontal amount of paper or screen real estate as any other in the typeface:

Notice how all the characters on row 1 line up with all the characters on row 2, regardless of how much horizontal space any given character actually requires to be properly represented. The monospace aspect of using typewriters can be a good thing when you need to properly align things like a column of numbers in a word processing application. It's less of a good thing when it comes to reading, because every single word has pretty much the same shape as every other word, making it difficult for the brain to engage in pattern recognition and chunk words into a single object rather than reading each character individually and then forming a word. Secondarily, for those of us who learned to type on a typewriter, the only way to create visual space demarcing the end of one sentence and the beginning of another was to type two spaces after the terminal period of a sentence, something now discouraged in this age of proportionately-spaced typefaces of the digital era. (I must admit that I have not been able to break the habit!)

Another bad habit carryover from the days of the typewriter, is the custom of using ALL CAPS WHEN WE WISH TO DRAW EMPHASIS TO SOMETHING. Because it was that or underlining (or, if you were especially clever, backspacing and double-striking each letter, because backspacing in a mechanical device never really got you to the exact same place on the paper, thus resulting in a double-strike that mimicked boldfacing a word).

Next post: Ascenders, Descenders, & x-height!

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