A Font for a Very Specific Purpose

As I have mentioned before, I recently took possession of a HP200LX palmtop.  One of the applications I use the most it VR, the Vertical Reader.  It basically turns the LX into a pretty useful book reader — ASCII only.  You have a single column of text, rather like a newspaper column.  Using CAPLX I can get a screen grab and using one of the largest fonts it looks something like this (the book is a bit of Byzantine history/architecture taken from Project Gutenberg):

A book, viewed in the VR book reader on a HP 200LX.

/ A book, viewed in the VR book reader on a HP 200LX.

Now there are limits compared to a vastly more powerful and specialised machine like a Kindle. The screen is narrow, there is no intelligent hyphenation (though precious few book readers do that well or at all) and the screen, being rather like a big calculator LCD screen, has rather poorer contrast than the example I have shown here.  No italics, pictures, etc either.

But for reading actual books where the information is carried by words, it works extremely well and adds a useful capability to an already useful device.  The biggest problem I have is that even the biggest fonts are pretty small, with the glyphs occupying at most a grid 16 pixels high and about 8 wide.  This is OK in good light when I am wide awake, but I find it a problem when conditions are not ideal. The font files VR uses are a custom format which is really just a bunch of bitmaps whose positions within the font file (suffix VFN) accord with the ASCII table.  There is an editor available for these VFN files, and it is called PFE, the PAL Font Editor, where PAL is a whole suite of programs for LXs. Reading the VR documentation, the VFN format allows each glyph to occupy a 16×16 grid.  Now, for reading mostly sentences, as in a novel or popular history, the vast majority of the characters are lowercase.  So I thought I would try to use PFE to put together a new font for the 200LX.  It would have some unusual design guidelines:

  • Large x-height (the height of the lowercase letters);
  • Simple shapes (16×16 does not allow much subtlety);
  • Not too much thought involved — I am not spending more than a couple of hours on this;
  • Based on a modification of an existing font that came with VR.

So here is a screen of PFE, showing the sideways font I knocked together.

Importing a font into PFE.

Importing a font into PFE.

So, not being a font designer, I chose some simple guidelines.  For most chars the leftmost column of pixels is empty to give me a letterspace.  The glyphs are not monospaced but proportional.  The capitals, being not that much bigger than the minuscule, are lightly seriffed whereas the minuscules are not.  Now this sounds weird, but in practice it works remarkably well.  As noted, large x-height — since a page of a novel is really a page of lowercase letters.  I use the full height of the grid, which means that now and again lines can run into each other, but as a compromise solution is works well enough.  The main issue was to make the characters large, reasonably bold, and yet not so wide that a line would only hold one word.  Since I am trying to stuff a quart into a pint pot, this last issue cannot really be overcome.  The niceness of the glyphs was not that important.  I test that by reading then modifying anything that catches my eye so that it does not stand out — uniform mediocrity, perhaps, as a design goal?  The heaviness is uniform, the stroke is essentially unmodulated.  I only modified letters, numerals and common punctuation characters.  I ought to do accented characters, but probably won’t.  The font is available here.  And the text above looks like this now:

The same text in the big font.

The same text in the big font.

Problems: The ‘w’ bothers me a little, but I’ve fiddled with it and not got any better.  The ‘y’ might be too wide; I’ll keep playing with that too. The ‘c’ is intentionally not just a circle with a gap — I wanted stronger differentiation between glyphs, and when I tried a rounder ‘c’ the whole page looked somehow too dull. Similarly the bowls of ‘d’, ‘p’, ‘q’ and ‘b’ are not all identical circles. So it is a work in progress, but one that I am getting use from already.

Clearly one word lines are less than ideal.  Having said all that I have used this font in relatively poorer light, and more oblique light, than the ones that came with VR, and I believe I can read under a wider variety of conditions.

Also, it has been a gentle first step in designing a font and thinking about design in general.



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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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