September 07, 2013


Unless you're a brilliant medieval scribe, initial capital letters are usually a bad idea. If you happen to be IEEE's Spectrum and have just put in a new design style for your magazine, they are ugly incarnate.

Init caps - q.v. Initials - were an artistic flourish used by scribes to enliven and ease the reading of their religious texts. In their hands, the hand-drawn script of the text was embellished with unique, specific, glorified initial letters, drawing attention to the beginning of chapters, and marking the entire book as valued.

In the modern era, when a magazine, newspaper, or online article, uses init caps, the results are usually humorous. While biblical texts are uniformly composed of an alphabet's letters, modern texts (and the desire for authors to have 'punchy' opening sentences), often begin with numbers, acronyms, punctuated abbreviations or even an emoticon. Any new style guide that mandates init caps will inevitably stumble on copy that just shouldn't use it.

Which brings us to IEEE Spectrum, the flagship (dead-tree) magazine of the international engineering society. In their quest to produce a novel and edgy (and expensive) design, the publishers got a designer to retool all aspects of the magazine style. I'm not going to go over everything, but just talk about the init caps choice. That does mean, though, I've got to talk about their display font.

IEEE Spectrum seems to have also paid for a new font to be used for various title sections. And apparently the font designer decided that for a 21st-century electronic engineering magazine, the font of choice would need to have the look and feel of electronics. What does that mean? Think bad 1970s Hollywood computer effects: What it means is low-resolution, badly pixilated retro-crap lettering. Doesn't this just scream non-artsy, nerd engineer?

This of course, totally ignores the work of real engineers and computer scientists. From the days of UNIX troff, and Donald Knuth's tex, and others in the '70s, to Jobs' Macintosh, and indeed year after year for the past 40 years, engineering technologists have worked long days and nights to produce better and better fonts. Both for printing and monitor display, there's been astounding advances in understanding what it takes for to produce beautiful and readable fonts.

And all this toil done specifically to get rid of the vestigial pixilation's and crude results of the earliest beta versions.

OK. So Spectrum has an insulting font choice. But when you compound that choice with the equally bad style choice of init caps you come up with the perfect storm of ugly text display. Here's the lead paragraph from the Aug 2013 edition page 23:

  • The pixilated "Y" is not merely rasterized, it is barely recognizable.
  • The init cap is set off in a simple blue square, with a strange amount of white space around it. An init cap is one thing - an init cap floating off the text is another.
  • So, finally, the capital "Y" and the rest of the word "ou" are barely readable as a single unit.

If the goal was to produce unreadable, ugly text, they succeeded. I would rather their goal was to use the latest technology to produce a beautiful magazine. And as Knuth points out the root "tech" comes from the Greek, meaning art and skill. A technical magazine should strive to be both skillful and artful

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Posted by netrc at September 7, 2013 01:18 PM