Ever since I came across Jürg Lehni’s essay on typographic technology and digital fonts, Typeface As Programme, I’ve been fascinated with the story of Donald E. Knuth and his unexpected contributions to typography.

You see, Knuth is a professor and computer scientist well known to programmers as the author of The Art of Computer Programming, widely regarded as the definitive treatise on the subject. The first of the four current volumes was published in 1968 and Knuth continues to work on it to this day. Truly his life’s work.

Where this story gets interesting for designers like me is what happened in 1977. Knuth was obsessed with making The Art of Computer Programming perfect in every way right down to the print and type.

We didn’t want our papers just to be there, we wanted them to be beautiful. I wouldn’t have wanted to write The Art of Computer Programming if it was going to look ugly.

The first three volumes were stunning. It wasn’t until a new edition of Volume 2 was to be reset with primitive digital type instead of the traditional metal type of the earlier editions that there was a problem. Horrified by the inferior results, Knuth took it upon himself to improve things. After all, digital type was software, right? Determined to develop a solution, Knuth stopped work on his books and devoted himself to typography for the next 10 years. The result: The TeX typesetting system and the Metafont font description language. The combination of the two offered powerful typographic control that hasn’t been matched (even today), especially for complex typesetting like mathematical formulas.

What’s interesting about Metafont is its unique approach to digital fonts. Most fonts are described programmatically as a series of outlines and then filled with a solid color. This allows for perfectly precise and accurate representation but Metafont takes a more fundamental approach. Knuth discovered what every student of typography eventually learns, that the roots of type are in handwriting. Before the invention of printing, documents were written and copied by scribes using a broad nib pen. These flat metal tips, held at an angle resulted in the thick and thin strokes we associate with calligraphy. The typefaces used in the first printed books were meant to mimic the familiar handwritten books they replaced and even today many typefaces owe their thick and thin lines to the tradition of hand drawn letterforms.

Comparing type
Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 compared to Bembo, a modern typeface with roots in hand written lettering.

While fonts in other systems consist of outlined letterforms Metafont “draws” each letter, simulating the broad nib pen and the actual strokes you’d use to write them by hand. The resulting fonts are not only beautiful but their construction allows for greater control and variation. Rather than simply scaling to different sizes, fonts in this system can be further optimized for things like contrast, stroke, and x-height – essentially redrawn at each size like earlier metal type.

Comparing systems
Compare glyphs rendered with Metafont (left) and Postscript.

Knuth created TeX and Metafont because he wanted to extend the care he took in his writing to the design and printing of the physical books. He shared them with the rest of the academic community by putting them into the public domain and they’re still popular today, especially in the publication of mathematic and scientific journals.

I’m impressed by Knuth’s refusal to accept the status quo. When it didn’t meet his standards, he simply made something better. But even more I’m inspired by the focused dedication to his life’s work that led him to put down the familiar and immerse himself in a completely different field for an entire decade in order to realize his art.