A tale of two typefaces

Two examples that retain their identity from ink to pixels 

It was the best of type, it was the worst of type…

This is a tale of two typefaces: Mallory and Retina. Legendary type designer, Tobias Frere-Jones, created both with the goal of ensuring legibility at the most extreme sizes, in print and on screen.

Frere-Jones identified the need for greater flexibility in the sizing up and sizing down of typefaces to enable accessibility for both printed and digital media. Type has a significant role to play in accessible design and ensuring legibility when text exists as pixels is increasingly important. For example, lowercase letters “o” and “c”, as well as lowercase “i” and uppercase “I” can appear nearly identical in small sizes. In the past, metal type has afforded typesetters the ability to make blocks of text look as good as possible at different sizes by manually adjusting the spacing until it looked just right. “Spacing is an essential structure that needs to be preserved,” explained Frere-Jones in late 2016. Automating the manual process of typesetting has dramatically decreased the complexity and increased efficiency of setting type, but it has also removed the craft of perfecting the extremes of setting small and large text.

Enter the modern concept of “designing up” and “designing down” to ensure a typeface retains its identity from ink to pixels and from tiny (“MicroPlus”) to towering (standard). Mallory was “designed down” (originally created in standard size and now optimized in MicroPlus size), while Retina was “designed up” (originally created in MicroPlus size and now available in standard size).

Standard vs. MicroPlus

Standard sizing is how the vast majority of the world’s typefaces have been designed and they are best suited for text and headlines, while MicroPlus sizing from Frere-Jones Type is designed for use with tiny type (defined as 8 points or smaller in print and 15 pixels and smaller on screen). It aims to make type more accessible in more places in more sizes. The spacing between characters and within characters (the dot over the “i”, for example) is increased in MicroPlus sizing and overall proportions have been tweaked resulting in greater legibility at smaller sizes.

Mallory is a typeface originally designed for use in standard sizes, born from the traditions of both American and British type ancestors. Mallory’s type family displays diverse widths and a range of voices “from the prim and austere Thin to the loud and gregarious Ultra” providing a great deal of value for the user. Mallory was later reworked as a MicroPlus typeface by making the letters wider, increasing the vertical x-height of the lowercase letters, loosening character spacing, and widening character apertures.

Retina was originally designed in MicroPlus size for the financial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Printers understand that numbers appearing at 5.5 points on newsprint is a dangerous combination. Small “ink wells” (notches strategically set into the characters) may look strange at larger sizes but they are an ingenious proactive design feature that helps printed ink complete each letter beautifully. After its successes on the printed page, it was time for Retina to hit the big screen and the typeface was reworked without the notches and using more conventional proportions for headlines and larger text sizes. As an added bonus, the Retina family of characters was thoughtfully developed to occupy a consistent amount of space no matter which of the seven weights are used. This “duplexed” feature means that from Extra Light to Bold, a line of text will always take up the same amount of horizontal space, making it much easier to change the weight of the type without it affecting line lengths. Retina has been revered as a milestone in type design and has been acquired by The Museum of Modern Art for its Architecture and Design Collection.

Type that is easy to read no matter the size nor the medium has a huge role to play in successful accessible design. Reworking an existing typeface to be more effective in a greater number of design situations is forward thinking and valuable to the end user. Frere-Jones said it best: “Typefaces that are only designed for one medium are short-sighted. It’s like buying a car that can only turn left.”


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.