The Impact of Steve Jobs on Typography -


The Impact of Steve Jobs on Typography

Wednesday October 12th, 2011 by Extensis

In the outpouring of Steve Jobs tributes and analysis, most have understandably focused on bigger and broader questions of his impact on technology, society, and popular culture. But Digital Trends published an interesting piece last Friday just about Jobs and his impact on typography. After being interviewed for that, I decided I would like to expand on my comments there a bit. (If you’ve ever been interviewed, you know how it is—a tiny fraction of your comments usually make it to print or video. That’s just the normal and expected result, how reporting goes.) By now you’ve probably already read several, maybe even dozens, of articles about Steve Jobs life and impact (see Levy in Wired, or NPR as one of the many trumpeting the centrality of design in his technology). This is a narrower and more focused look at just one aspect of Jobs legacy: typography.

Steve Jobs holding an iPhone 4. Photo credit: Matthew Yohe. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Steve Jobs holding an iPhone 4. Photo credit: Matthew Yohe. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Before the Mac, there was digital printing and publishing, but it was far from WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get). It was a grim world of cryptic codes embedded in text to produce visual results in print, but not on screen. I imagine we would have gotten WYSIWYG publishing eventually (it was already happening at Xerox before the Mac), but how mainstream, and when?

When the Mac shipped in 1984 with built-in proportional fonts that you could see on screen (remember Chicago, Geneva, Monaco and friends? Designed by the same woman who did the original Mac icons, Susan Kare, later adapted as scalable outline fonts by Bigelow & Holmes), with printers that printed the same fonts you saw on screen, it was an immediate impact on typography for everyday computer users. When the Mac shortly thereafter (1985) combined with Aldus (later Adobe) PageMaker and the Adobe PostScript page description language (Warnock and Geschke’s brainchild), with PostScript supported both in the LaserWriter personal laser printer (even if it did cost 3x as much as a Mac) and Linotype’s Linotronic 300 imagesetter, desktop publishing arrived. Suddenly people could design and proof on a desktop hardware that was affordable to a professional or business user—and soon thereafter even to hobbyists. Compared to previous dedicated publishing systems, the ability to see what you would get, and the cost difference, were nothing short of revolutionary.

Jobs soon was drummed out of Apple for a decade, and went and did NeXT Computers instead (and Pixar, but that’s another story. By integrating Display PostScript as an integral part of the NeXT operating system, he created a computer system where for the first time WYSIWYG worked practically seamlessly and included fonts scaled on screen from the same outlines used to image them in print. NeXT never did terribly well, for a variety of reasons, but some of the ideas in it went very far (and indeed, eventually Apple bought NeXT and made the underpinning of that OS the core of OS X).

So Jobs wasn’t at Apple in the late 1980s, but I credit Apple’s next typography move in part to the example of NeXT. On the Mac (and Windows), fonts still looked like junk on screen, even if they were nominally WYSIWYG. Previews for PostScript fonts were still achieved in the 1980s by scaling bitmap fonts on screen. Other fonts were bitmaps only. For either, at a different zoom level or at any size that didn’t have a hand-tuned bitmap, they looked awful. Even at designed sizes they were jaggy. There was no system level support for scaling outline fonts on screen.

So around 1989-91 Apple developed TrueType, which they immediately swapped with Microsoft in exchange for a PostScript language clone (which was pretty awful, Microsoft got the best of that deal by far). Suddenly we had really good-looking scalable fonts on screen! Adobe responded to Apple’s announcement by making PostScript fonts also render better on screen with the “Adobe Type Manager” add-on (which would be integrated into operating systems a decade later), and even got to market first with. Between these two moves, a second typography revolution occurred in the early 90s. Suddenly fonts looked great on screen and you could print them at full resolution to just about any printer.

There have been assorted improvements since, but many key elements of modern typography were brought to the mainstream by Jobs. Being able to see what fonts look like on screen. Showing proportional fonts on screen. Scaling the same font outlines for screen as for print. Putting a “font” menu in applications, and having all applications share a pool of fonts installed at the system level (instead of associated with some specific printer).

In another company one would not necessarily credit the leader for so much. But Jobs legendarily ruled such details, and even smaller minutiae. By all accounts he was often hell to work with, and his singlemindedness caused plenty of problems. But I can’t even begin to guess how long modern digital typography would have taken to reach its current state without him, and whether so much of it would be available to the average computer user. Even 15 years ago a person on the street could have a “favorite font,” and we can thank Steve Jobs for being one of those who made it so.