Kerning and Knuth

Although I started in publishing at OUP (Oxford University Press) more than 30 ago when hot-metal printing was still alive, I missed out on the proper training in print and typography that might have been appropriate at that time and in that place. I am embarassed to admit that I first heard about the concept of kerning, a few years later, when an enthusiastic philosopher pointed me in the direction of Donald Knuth and the mathematical typesetting language and system TeX which Knuth developed.

Knuth is an extraordinarily brilliant and unusual thinker. His home page gives you a flavour of his genius.

The maths behind kerning fascinated Knuth and is touched upon in the current issue of Wired. See the wiredblog for some discussion of kerning and the switch between page design in print and web. Carl, who linked me to the blog, must have been thinking, that Exact Editions would have solved the problem which troubles the blogger here:

The same goes for Wired’s new logo. It alternates between letters without and with serifs, yet the area between each pair of letters is about the same, thanks to the serifs on the I and E and lack thereof on the W, R and D. This equivalence makes the logo easier to see and read across a crowded supermarket aisle. The alternating fonts also make the letters seem to blink on and off as you read them from left to right, in emulation of digital ones and zeroes.

The blogger then went on to make some remarks which get trashed by comments and which he has now withdrawn. Some of the comments are very neat. Designers really care about their art.

The problems would not even begin to arise were it not for the fact that Wired on the web is a repurposed/redesigned/repackaged version of the print magazine. If Wired were on the Exact Editions platform you would just look at the digital edition exactly as it is in print. Here is an example of kerning in the typography of a title.

And here is another effect, shadow type, which can not easily be emulated in a web page design:

Of course it is trivially straightforward to include kerning, or any other subtle visual typographic effect such as shadow type, in a web page which is an exact edition or simple replica of the original print page.