Confused about possible overlap between grades & optical sizes

nina's picture

I have been looking at Mercury in the course of trying to select a typeface for an upcoming book project (my first 'serious' book actually!), and got pretty excited about them offering different grades to offset differences between paper / printing circumstances.

Now to my uninformed eye, the difference between the grades looks very similar to the difference between optical sizes in other typefaces, except that the different grades all share common widths / metrics so as to be interchangeable at any time. – Also, on the H&FJ page that helps in choosing a grade, under the Book section it says, "Book designers who use uncoated stock (and can rely on good inking) typically select Grade Two. Those who routinely run very small type, such as footnotes or captions, should consider adding Grade Three."

Now – wouldn't that effectively mean using the heavier grade in the function of a smaller optical size?

So, can 'grades' indeed be seen as sort of an elegant digital adaptation, or expansion, of the concept of optical sizes – as in, you need a smaller size, you choose a heavier grade (& most likely track it more loosely) – but also, if you need the same size but the print comes out too light, you can choose a heavier grade as well without the layout changing?
Or am I mixing up apples and oranges?

(If this sounds confused, it's probably because I am. :) )

Stephen Coles's picture

"Grade" probably means something a little different to each foundry, so I'll let H&FJ respond for their fonts specifically, but my understanding is that each grade differs more or less only in weight, whereas each optical size is a comprehensive redesign of each letterform, from x-height and width to contrast, serif size, and other details.

nina's picture

Thanks for the reply Stephen. I didn't realize the 'grades' don't have a universally accepted definition … interesting.

Maybe I'm seeing stuff that's not there, but the reason for my confusion is that with Mercury, the heavier grades seem to look 'sturdier' in much the same way as smaller optical sizes sometimes do (bigger serifs, less detail, less contrast); this is a direct comparison between grade 1 and 4 (taken from their overview image):

I will contact H&FJ with this question directly, I wonder what they will say. I'm pretty thrilled about the concept :)

Stephen Coles's picture

Please do ask, and bring post their answer here. My guess is still that varying grades generally represent a change in weight without a change in width or height.

Jens Kutilek's picture

I think you had it perfectly right in your first post, no confusion at all ;)

Re. the changes in contrast and robustness: You can think of grade four in your example as grade one plus "built-in" ink spread. Because ink spread adds a fixed amount of weight to every line (hairlines and stems alike), the consequence is, as you noted, lowered contrast and a sturdier look.

For example, if your hairlines are 40 units wide and the stems 120 units, you've got a contrast ratio of 1:3. If you add an ink spread of 10 units to each contour, hairlines are then 60 units wide (10 + 40 + 10) and stems are 140 units wide, thus the contrast ratio has been lowered to 1:2.33.

This change in weight is different from the way you usually change a letter's weight when making a bold weight from a regular one, where you would change the letter's proportions (baseline, cap height and x-height (mostly) stay the same), and change the contrast in the other direction (keep hairline width, make stems wider so the contrast is effectively raised).

nina's picture

Thanks for the input Jens – this clears up a lot.

I think I'm finally getting the idea now, ha. So if I use uncoated paper, and a lighter grade, that plus the ink spread that happens from the paper is going to look approximately the same as using a heavier grade on a coated (or less rough) paper? :)
Neat. I'll still drop H&FJ an email to ask about the overlap with optical sizes, though. This might be an exciting 'double function' …

dberlow's picture

"...varying grades generally represent a change in weight without a change in width or height."

That is what we invented the term grade for, changes to weight exclusively, and predominantly to deal with issues at the press, or today, on screens. This was initially accomplished for Playboy in 1990 to account for the difference between offset and gravure printing and then was applied more generally to similar issues in the printing of newspapers by 1995.

" need a smaller size, you choose a heavier grade (& most likely track it more loosely)"
You can use them this way assuming you do not have a complex typographical hierarchy depending on matching metrics across grades, and you can find suitably graded bold and italics for your use.


kentlew's picture

In addition to adjustments in weight and contrast (which Grades address), optical sizes usually also include adjustments to both vertical and horizontal proportions, as well as fitting (which Grades do not address).

-- Kent.

nina's picture

Thanks David and Kent for shedding some very clear light on this issue. I'll definitely keep my eyes peeled for this. The concept sure is enticing!

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