Other people’s fonts

A critique of existing typefaces for HDTV (EIA-708) captioning

So. We’re designing our own fonts. This makes us rather late to the game, given that everyone thinks Tiresias is all you ever need (it isn’t). But in one specific field, there’s already commercial competition for captioning fonts, and frankly, it’s pathetic.

If you’re a deaf person or another captioning viewer, keep in mind that this is all they think of you. These are the best fonts they think you deserve. They expect you to be happy with what they give you. And, more relevantly, they expect you to sit there and read it for hours and hours at a time for the lifetime of your television.

Need HDTV captioning fonts?

If you’re a television or set-top-box or software manufacturer and you need HDTV fonts in a hurry, we cannot in good conscience recommend you buy off the shelf. As you’ll see below, none of the existing font sets is good enough and none of them is backed up by research.

So what do you do? Commission custom fonts (which can be exclusives to your company and clients) and test them. We have all sorts of contacts to assist with that task.


See our collection of screenshots of HDTV and other high-end caption fonts (at Flickr).

The HDTV captioning specification

Separately, we have a full critique of the EIA-708 captioning specification itself available.

EIA-708 HDTV caption fonts

The EIA-708 standard for captioning for high-definition television in North America requires eight caption font families:

  1. Undefined
  2. Monospaced serif
  3. Proportional serif
  4. Monospaced sansserif
  5. Proportional sansserif
  6. Casual
  7. Cursive
  8. Small capitals

Of these families, three are cause for concern.


By definition a big nothing, manufacturers are apt to view this category as a justification for providing only seven typefaces, duplicating one of them into this category. We view the undefined category as the default font of the system; far from being the least important (the font of last resort), it’s the most important.


It seems ridiculous for caption fonts to include a script typeface, but in fact it makes sense for some contexts. To give a highbrow example, the voice-over reading of handwritten correspondence in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence lends itself to cursive fonts. Of course a script font could be used inappropriately by Cletus and Brandine–style captioners who think scripts are just really klassy, but that’s a separate question – one of training, not of typography.

Of perhaps greater concern is the immediate image that leaps to mind when “cursive” typefaces are mentioned; you think of something flowery and elaborate, hence hard to read. But several script typefaces are actually very easy to read at sensible sizes, and the most-abused script typeface there is, Zapf Chancery, has more variations than many sansserif fonts. Cursive fonts are to be used with caution by captioners, but to be provided with gusto and good taste by typefoundries.


We don’t know what this means, whether in Cascading Stylesheets (CSS) font definitions or here. It’s a difficult concept even for trained typographers.

  • Is Souvenir deemed “casual” because of the curved strokes and prominent serifs?
  • Is Antique Olive “casual” because of its high-bias stroke widths (thicker at the top than the bottom)? If so, why is Antique Olive casual but Balance (by the late Evert Bloemsma, and also a top-heavy typeface) is not?

For the untrained typographer, and, apparently for most existing typefoundries, “casual” means “tacky.” It means “you can’t be serious.” What it apparently does not mean is “legible” or “readable.”

The basic attitude problem

Existing typefoundries think there’s a goldmine here (there could be – someday) and sell their own font sets. Generally, foundries fall into the trap of slotting in whatever print fonts they have lying around, or whatever print fonts they have the most inexpensive licenses for. The assumption, in nearly all cases, is that HDTV has enough resolution that print fonts will do just fine. (The exceptional case is Tiresias, whose research basis we’ve already almost entirely disproved.)

Agfa Monotype

Like Ascender’s font sets, Agfa’s set (Cf. the TV Core set) has a habit of verbally camouflaging the actual typefaces in use – and worse yet, the font names are confusable and always seem to include the word “Agfa,” which we will drop.

Proportional sansserif & monospaced sansserif
Screen Sans: Seemingly a newspaper agate type. Default letterspacing much too tight. An Officina lower case in a shotgun wedding with a Verdana upper case. If these faces (and the next two) are custom-created typefaces, where is the research backing them up?
Proportional serif & monospaced serif
Screen Serif: It’s Screen Sans with added serifs. (Shades of the transformation of Avant Garde Gothic Condensed into Lubalin Graph Condensed.) Serifa-like features are probably incidental. Too-tight letterspacing, but slabserif is known to be a successful genre for onscreen type.
Ashley Script: You’ve got to be kidding. Did children design this, and if so, who bought them their Magic Markers?
Coronet: Tiny x-height dooms this one to illegibility, not to mention the top-heavy capitals. (Interestingly, a different rendering [second mention; also PDF] of Agfa’s font set shows Floridian for casual.)
Small capitals
Plate Gothic: Another bank gothic, with the same objections as Copperplate Gothic: Bank gothics’ hairline serifs are possibly ill-advised on TV monitors.

Ascender Corp.

By far the least bad collection presently available (PDF). Nonethless, only a few fonts are really reliable. Remember, we’re trying to prevent captioners from making mistakes. If you give them a couple of faces that work and many more that don’t, odds are they’ll head straight for the ones that don’t – particularly if they look fun or kooky, as in the cursive and casual categories.

Monospace serif
Courier. A seriously underwhelming choice, one that undermines the other choices in the collection. Why? Because Line 21 analogue captions, when translated to HDTV, may well be rendered in this font. (Actually, it’s something of a toss-up: Analogue captions may be rendered in the monospace serif or sansserif or the undefined font.) We didn’t spend all that money on high-definition television equipment to read captions in Courier. Besides, wouldn’t anyone with a print-typography background recognize Courier as the font you get when you can’t get the font you really want? Is that not the story of our lives here?
Proportional serif
Georgia. Possibly viable, but default letterspacing will be too tight (as it nearly always is on TV, whether standard or high definition).
Monospace sansserif
Lucida Console. It’s not that the x-height is too high, it’s that the cap height is too low. We have serious reservations about the horizontal bar on the i, which is likely intrusive in extended reading. (“Extended reading” means something different in TV-watching compared to print or computer screens. If you spend a couple of hours watching TV, you’ve been reading tens of thousands of words in a few thousand discrete captions.) It’s by far the least desirable way to differentiate i from I and l (and 1 and |). The form looks particularly bad with acute and circumflex accents (í, î).
Proportional sansserif
Verdana. Known to be unpleasant in DVD subpictures. We expect the effect will be lessened in HDTV, but still present. Verdana may set too wide for caption usage.
Yes, dear friends, Comic Sans.
Corsiva. Not quite Zapf Chancery, but halfway there. Quite possibly a viable choice.
Small capitals
Tahoma Small Caps, which didn’t even have drawn small caps until recently. On the plus side (and this isn’t insignificant), they really are drawn small caps rather than interpolated ones.


Well, they’re trying to ride the pony called Tiresias across the long prairie, but that is one nag that ain’t gonna make it.

Proportional sansserif
Tiresias Screenfont, of course. Bitstream tells us, presumably with a straight face, that Tiresias was “developed specifically for closed captioning by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).” No, it was developed for subtitling (claimed, erroneously, to be the same thing), and Bitstream itself was a codeveloper. Besides, don’t we have a problem here? What is a blind organization doing in the type-design business, particularly when the typeface is intended for the deaf? These questions have, of course, never been satisfactorily answered.
Monospaced sansserif
Letter Gothic 12 Pitch: There’s such a thing a “pitch” (characters to the inch) on a television set? We must have missed that memo. Letter Gothic has the advantage of setting rather wide in the lower case, except of course for the fact that typical captions translated from analogue TV are in upper case. If we had to reuse old IBM Selectric typefaces, why not something less regular, like Artisan?
Proportional serif
Oranda by Gerard Unger. A clearly plausible choice. Questions about spacing as usual, given that it is a typeface designed for business correspondence. Some concerns with descending upper-case J, which may never or rarely be appropriate for caption and subtitle fonts.
Monospaced serif
Courier 10 Pitch: Again, there is such a thing as “pitch”? You pretty much give the game away if you “select” Courier as a monospaced font. You have pretty much demonstrated an inability to research the actual reading needs that are embodied in the usage of that face. You show about as much acumen as a type-naïve Windows user: Well, I can read it, so what’s the problem? “I just use Courier” is as weak an argument as “I just use Arial.”
Mister Earl Light: You can’t seriously expect people to read this. Can you at least show enough respect for captioning viewers to finish drawing the lower-case g?
Kaufmann: Too flowery. Near-consistent stroke width may, however, be suitable for TV viewing.
Small capitals
Copperplate Gothic Bold Condensed: Bold? Condensed?

Bitstream also has a TV Font Pack with many similar fonts, including Zurich, their Univers knockoff, which is actually more historically accurate than some claimed Universes.


In creating font sets for HDTV captioning, existing typefoundries are using the armaments at their disposal. And that is the problem: Existing print or computer-screen fonts simply are not appropriate for caption viewing. Today’s typefoundries do not have any evidence backing up their choices for caption fonts (or, worse yet, they have severely deficient evidence), and in many cases the selected fonts are the sort of thing an amateur with bad taste would choose. We believe that significant issues of character and serif shape, spacing (especially), and height and width are completely glossed over in this practice, not to mention the fact that user testing is nonexistent.

We need you to understand that fonts that seem “good enough” aren’t. If that’s your only criterion, default everything to Arial. You can: No part of the specification requires you to actually fit your fonts into the seven defined categories. You can cheat. We don’t see any reason not to, since that’s what you’re doing already. You misapply print fonts to an onscreen medium, and you also misapply fonts from one onscreen medium to another.

In fact, the existing font sets are proof that custom fonts, backed up by research and testing, are actually needed. Remember, this is what you’re giving us when you want us to think you care. We think you indeed care a little, but not enough to do things properly.

Version history

Updated with links to photos, general advice.
Link to critique of the 708 captioning spec added.

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