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Location: Bellevue, Washington, United States

Nathan is both a writer and designer of books and eBooks and is part-owner of boutique publisher Long Tale Press, LLC. He is available to help make your eBook or Book publishing project come alive with great book design.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Resolution is everything/nothing

Back in the 80s when desktop publishing was new, designers, typographers, and printers all came to me with the same complaint regarding the quality of laser type and even of the first Linotronic­® set PostScript® type. The word that was used was “nervous” type. It had jagged edges. It lacked the perfectly smooth curves of phototypeset copy. It would never catch on.

In all fairness, while those of us who had adopted the technology early were oohing and aahing over 300 pixel per inch laser print compared to 72 ppi ImageWriters®, the vast consuming public (meaning the design and production component) were bemoaning the destruction of good typography and touting how laser print diminished readability. The early Linotronic imagesetters were a mere 1270 ppi and were seen only as an incremental improvement over the LaserWriter®, even though the award-winning color coffee-table book WhaleSong was set on that very device. It wasn’t until the next generation of imagesetters that bumped things up to 2540 ppi or even 3600 ppi on Agfa’s SelectSet® that designers and publishers exhaled and accepted the electronic type as “almost” as good as photo-typeset.

And so it is today that with every monitor I get that bumps the resolution up another dot, I breathe a sigh of relief that we are becoming more readable. 120 ppi, ClearType® technology, 80 hertz scan rate, and I’m nearly ready to concede that I’m comfortable reading on screen. I can’t wait for a 150 ppi monitor, and I’ve seen a couple $10,000 monitors that run over 200 ppi. That will be the day.

I held that opinion until I did a seminar on readability and a 20-year-old stood up with a comment. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I’ve always read on a monitor and the type is just fine. What we don’t have is content.”

That set me back as I realized that this guy was born the year I got my first Macintosh® with an ImageWriter. He has lived in a world where his first reading experiences were synonymous with pixelated type both on-screen and in print. The vast majority of commercial publications are set on “desktop” publishing systems and reading on-line is as much a part of this generation’s day as a morning cup of coffee is to mine. And I suspect that the characteristics of readable type for this generation will begin to include pixelation artifacts just as the chisel marks of stone carving that were integrated into the design of lead type as serifs have become an issue of readability western culture.

I’m still looking forward to a higher resolution monitor with better typography and clearer type, but I’m now ready to consider if not concede that viewing it as a barrier to readability may well be a generational thing, not an absolute.

All registered product names are owned by their manufacturers and are used here only as reference. Owners include Linotype Corporation, Agfa Inc., Apple Computer, and Microsoft Corporation.


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