The (real) size of a typeface

Fiz de la PeñaFiz de la Peña Posts: 52
edited May 26 in Type Design Critiques
Hello everyone,

I've been printing some texts these past weeks, as I had some texts I wanted to preserve on quality paper. I first tried the Archer typeface by Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones. I chose a light weight at 11 pt. Upon seeing the final result, I realized the actual forms of the typeface didn't really seem to shine through when it is set at small sizes. 

I conducted a little experiment and tried to give it a go at 25 pt. Obviously, the result is not not be meant for running text in an average book, but the difference is truly astonishing. Whereas Archer seems like a rather run-of-the-mill product at small sizes, it actually reveals all kinds of quirky, cute details and gives off a generally quaint, beauiful vibe when enlarged.

Could someone please tell me why this happens? Are there any typefaces that manage to maintain its basic essence no matter how large or small they are when printed?

Thanks for your help and patience.
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  • jeremy tribbyjeremy tribby Posts: 110
    edited May 27
    some fonts are designed to work well at a particular size - this is called the "optical size" of the font
    the naming was less confusing in the metal type days, when it was more common to see fonts with names like "Font Name 12pt" and "Font Name 72pt"  sold together. the 12pt version would try to be readable at small sizes, and exaggerate some of the details that are harder to see at that size. whereas the 72pt version might have more intricate details that you can actually appreciate at a larger size. instead of exaggerating its forms toward legibility, a 72pt style you can think of as almost being exaggerated stylistically, e.g. maybe a didone style font gets a higher contrast, thinner thins that wouldn't work at small sizes, etc. or, as you are seeing in archer, tiny slabs and little quirks stand out so much more than they do when set in small blocks of text
    your choice of a light weight makes this even more complicated as it's hard to de-couple weight from optical size. the smaller the optical size, the heavier "Regular" weight is. "Font Name 12pt. Regular" is heavier than "Font Name 72pt. Regular" and "Font Name 12pt. Black" is lighter than "Font Name 72pt Black." so when you choose a light weight, as you did with archer, you might already find you have made an optical choice — a choice for a font that looks better when it's big.
    in the digital era it's become more common to see names like "Font Name Text" and "Font Name Display" or other more descriptive names like "Big" and "Small" that are intended to cover a wider variety of sizes, rather than specific point sizes. variable fonts, which have an optical axis made up of point sizes, may bring that kind of naming back into style, though
    Freight is an excellent family for demonstrating this digitally. look at the differences between "Micro" and "Text" and "Big."

    you might also enjoy the book "Size-specific adjustments to type designs"
    to your question around whether any typefaces retain their essence at any size, IMO it's hard for a typeface to do this at extremely small sizes like 6pt without considering optical sizing, but otherwise there are tons of them that look good and consistent at all sorts of sizes, too many to count. that's just my opinion, though. if you tried to be scientific about it, I would speculate it may be the case that the more common/familiar the font genre, the easier it is to use at all sizes, because then the legibility is less important as your brain can probably fill in some of the details for you... but then again you are talking about "essence" and not the ability to perceive the forms
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 173
    edited May 27
    That’s like asking why real life ants look so different from macro photos of them. Resolution ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    If you’re looking for a text face with some sort of character, just test various fonts in that specific size.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,384
    If a typeface possesses any fine details, these are naturally going to be more apparent at larger sizes. Type designers may play with this, and deliberately include details that they know will be invisible at text sizes but that will add interest to the same typeface when it is used at larger sizes.

    The fewer fine details a design possesses, the more it will seem to retain the same essential character across a greater range of sizes. This is why many sans serif types will tend to scale in a neutral way, since they involve fewer fine details such as found in the shape and bracketing of serifs or treatment of terminals.
  • some fonts are designed to work well at a particular size - this is called the "optical size" of the font
    the naming was less confusing in the metal type days, when it was more common to see fonts with names like "Font Name 12pt" and "Font Name 72pt"  sold together. the 12pt version would try to be readable at small sizes, and exaggerate some of the details that are harder to see at that size. whereas the 72pt version might have more intricate details that you can actually appreciate at a larger size. instead of exaggerating its forms toward legibility, a 72pt style you can think of as almost being exaggerated stylistically, e.g. maybe a didone style font gets a higher contrast, thinner thins that wouldn't work at small sizes, etc. or, as you are seeing in archer, tiny slabs and little quirks stand out so much more than they do when set in small blocks of text
    your choice of a light weight makes this even more complicated as it's hard to de-couple weight from optical size. the smaller the optical size, the heavier "Regular" weight is. "Font Name 12pt. Regular" is heavier than "Font Name 72pt. Regular" and "Font Name 12pt. Black" is lighter than "Font Name 72pt Black." so when you choose a light weight, as you did with archer, you might already find you have made an optical choice — a choice for a font that looks better when it's big.
    in the digital era it's become more common to see names like "Font Name Text" and "Font Name Display" or other more descriptive names like "Big" and "Small" that are intended to cover a wider variety of sizes, rather than specific point sizes. variable fonts, which have an optical axis made up of point sizes, may bring that kind of naming back into style, though
    Freight is an excellent family for demonstrating this digitally. look at the differences between "Micro" and "Text" and "Big."

    you might also enjoy the book "Size-specific adjustments to type designs"
    to your question around whether any typefaces retain their essence at any size, IMO it's hard for a typeface to do this at extremely small sizes like 6pt without considering optical sizing, but otherwise there are tons of them that look good and consistent at all sorts of sizes, too many to count. that's just my opinion, though. if you tried to be scientific about it, I would speculate it may be the case that the more common/familiar the font genre, the easier it is to use at all sizes, because then the legibility is less important as your brain can probably fill in some of the details for you... but then again you are talking about "essence" and not the ability to perceive the forms
    Thanks for the enlightening words, the sound advice and your generally helpful answer. I sometimes print some texts from newspapers and magazines to preserve them in a physical medium and I've realized there's a consistency (or maybe it's the slightly gras nature of its regular weight) in Plantin (printed at 11 points) that somehow feels reassuring. I do love a beautiful Garamond but when it's set at 11 points I get the feeling that something's not aesthetically right. Maybe I am doing something wrong?


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