Frequently-asked questions

Or rather, questions we don’t want to have to frequently answer.

Isn’t this too small a problem to worry about?

No, because most sighted people will use or at least run across captions or subtitles in their lives. There are large groups who enjoy audiovisual media with captions or subtitles nearly all the time (and, for some of those people, all the time). Pretty much every deaf or hard-of-hearing person living in a country where captioning exists will use it. Some nations tend to watch dubbed movies and TV shows, others subtitled; even the former group will happen across subtitles occasionally, and the latter group watches them day in and day out.

DVDs have increased the pervasiveness of both forms. It’s normal for commercial DVD releases (but not other kinds, like training videos) to carry subtitles, and in many cases also same-language subtitles (not very useful to deaf people) and captions.

In essence, the only people who are unaffected by captions and subtitles are unilingual anglophones with perfect hearing – that is, a lot of Canadians and most Americans. By definition, we’re not making screenfonts for people who don’t read them. If you think the topic is marginal, you don’t have to participate.

What’s wrong with just using Arial?

What’s wrong with just using Arial at all times everywhere? Do you think any particular typeface, even one like Arial, is appropriate at all times?

Arial, like other grotesks, is unsuited to captions and subtitles because of its confusable character shapes. All the usual confusable characters are applicable here – Iil1!¡, S568, comma and period (also colon and semicolon), rn and m, cl and d, OQ. The geometric letterforms in grotesk typefaces make matters considerably worse.

Arial, at any rate, is despised by expert designers. It’s a cut-rate knockoff of Helvetica; it’s inconsistent within itself, with some letters more reminiscent of humanist sansserifs; and it’s overused, chiefly by virtue of being associated with Microsoft Windows, which for many designers is a dealbreaker right there. If you’re going to use a grotesk, use a historically accurate and legitimate grotesk, not a clone.

We find that proponents of using Arial for captions and subtitles all but invariably say they “just” use Arial, rather demonstrating that they haven’t given it much thought. Or they’ve given it a tiny bit of thought (“Well, I obviously wouldn’t use Palatino”) but, through ignorance or through simple bad attitude, they don’t give the matter serious consideration. “I can read it and it doesn’t look too fancy” sums up this attitude.

We’re saying that captions and subtitles are a demanding, even high-performance application of typography. If you want people to actually read and understand words that display for an instant and then wink or scroll out of existence, you’ve got to be serious. You can’t just use whatever font’s installed on your commodity Windows box that you also happen to use in company printouts. (And did you actively choose Arial in that case, or did you just let Microsoft Word choose it for you?) Different reading environments and tasks cannot all use the very same font.

Why can’t I just use Georgia and Verdana?

Or, for that matter, Trebuchet? Because those fonts were designed for viewing on computer screens, where text may move occasionally (as with a stock-market ticker) but usually just sits there in large blocks. Georgia, Verdana, Trebuchet, and Microsoft’s upcoming screenfonts for Windows Longhorn are generally successful and justifiably famous examples of the screenfont form, but what we’re talking about are different screens that need different fonts.

Captions and subtitles don’t look like Web pages or word-processing documents or lists of files on your system, and you don’t read them the same way, either. To say the same thing one more time, we need you to understand and accept that you can’t use fonts made for one kind of reading in the context of a very different kind of reading.

Verdana in particular is somewhat unwise for captioning and subtitling because it sets very wide – an advantage for this face on a low-resolution computer monitor, but not necessarily advantageous when you’ve only got so much space and time in which to represent spoken words. (The narrower Tahoma, which was actually designed first, partly solves that problem.)

If you haven’t designed any fonts yet and existing faces like Arial aren’t good enough, what are we supposed to use in the meantime?
Good question. We have posted a page with some suggestions for Less-Bad Screenfonts to Use in the Meantime.
Why is there so much talk of testing typefaces when you haven’t published your testing protocols?
Because we’re still developing them.
Will your fonts be available for free?

Probably not. We’re not Microsoft; we can’t afford to give them away. We will not, however, license a single typeface for US$17,500, as Bitstream does with Tiresias.

In addition, we want to sign truly fair revenue-sharing deals with designers, many of whom will be working on spec at the outset. We don’t see anything wrong with charging for custom-engineered fonts. Few credible typefaces are available for free; the norm is to charge for them.

Will any fonts be open-sourced?
No, probably not.
I don’t trust the people behind your site.
That isn’t a question.