Type Size and Opticals

keithdvo's picture

OK, I think I have down the general idea and it's not too complex: type designers create type to look good at certain sizes. H&FJ have a nice graphic illustrating this by showing the type at different sizes and shading out areas where the type is not intended for use.

I own Brioso Pro, my first purchase of an optical typeface, and the specimen book goes to some length to explain the uses of the various sizes.

As I mentioned in my most recent post, I'm terribly new to the issues of real type and typesetting, and I'm only self-taught, so please forgive me for asking what is likely an astonishingly basic question:

I see typefaces where there is a number after the number of the name, eg, Didot 16, Cycles 24. I am embarrassed to admit that I have wondered for you years what the numbers represented. I can't believe that "font size" never occurred to me! Je m'accuse! However, after I realized what it meant, I read somewhere (this site? a book?) that just because that number represented a size didn't mean that one was bound to that size, so I could have Didot 16 at, say, 11/13 (eleven point type with 13 point leading—in case I used the wrong convention).

So, that's what I don't understand. If Didot 16 is designed for 16pt type, then why set it at anything else? Or, is this a case of the perfect being an enemy of the good? We vary the optical to make sizes we don't have because the designer can't simply design every single point size imaginable?

I'm not even sure how to search for this or what terms to use. If there is a simple explanation, or if someone could point me to a resource or to, I'd be most grateful!

My thanks,


George Thomas's picture

My interpretation of what you wrote is that you are looking at screen fonts, not optically-designed outline fonts. Screen fonts usually have a size indicator to represent what size they appear best at on a monitor. The associated outline font is not usually size-specific.

If you were to print out a line of type with that font selected and the outline part was missing, you would get type that would be very bitmapped.

Reed Reibstein's picture

George, you are correct about screen or pixel fonts, but I don't think Keith was talking about them, as HTF Didot and Cycles are made for print, not the screen.

Keith, you're right; type with optical sizes are sometimes made for particular point sizes. But they are suggestions; your hard drive won't explode if you set Didot 16 at 24 pts! And, as you said, while some of it is that no sane type designer would design for every possible size -- especially since now it is easier than ever to set type at something like 11.128 pts -- a big part of it is that optical sizes exist to give the designer flexibility and refinement but not to prescribe rules.

In fact, many typefaces with optical sizes eschew specific point sizes altogether, e.g. Robert Slimbach's Arno Pro (Display, Subhead, Text, Small Text, Caption) and the many typefaces like Farnham that have display and text cuts. While a number may indicate exact measure (and perhaps the type designer did most of the testing at that size), any typeface can be set at any size. But certain attributes may make a particular font more useful in certain size ranges than in others.

HTF Didot is a great example. If you were to use the 96 pt version at 9 pt, the fine hairlines would disappear (among other things), making it less readable. But there's no reason you couldn't use the 64 pt version at 92 pts for a bolder, stronger look, just as you could certainly use the 16 pt version at 11 pts if you were printing at an extremely high resolution or with little distortion from the ink. The best bet is to try them all out (and print them out, not just view them on the screen!) and choose the cut that fits the look and feel you want.

Christian Schwartz emphasizes this point nicely when discussing his Giorgio: "Because the contrast between thick and thin is so extreme, this family is offered in 4 versions for different sizes. For normal use with offset printing, we recommend using Small from 24 point up to about 45 point, Medium up to about 70 point, Large up to about 90 point, and XLarge for anything above 90 point, where its delicate serifs and hairlines look their best; however, for screenprinting, reversing out of a colored background, or on-screen use (to name just a few exceptions), these guidelines may not necessarily apply."

keithdvo's picture

Greg, my thanks, but actually, Reed is correct.

Reed, thank you for your help on this. I'm almost a bit shocked I appear to have guessed correctly!

Who knew the world of type would be so exciting!

Best regards,


Fabricando fabri fimus.

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