Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Time for Times

Times New Roman — almost all of us have it on our computers and almost all of us use it, at least occasionally. Obviously, it is a pretty well designed type face and has held up, but it has its drawbacks and misuses as well. Times was designed for newspaper use, to be legible in small sizes, with blurry printing, and is somewhat closely spaced to save room and work well in narrow columns. All these things also made it a pretty good screen font for the early days of the computer.

They also make it not so good for many of the everyday uses in which it is now found, such as business letters or school papers. Definitely not well suited to most books; the exception might be some school texts that are printed in columns, rather than full page width. Big blocks of Times can look like an impenetrable gray haze. I made the mistake of printing my first poetry collection in Times NR. I just didn’t know any better at the time — this was around fifteen years ago.

And it did not look that bad, as the lines were relatively short and uneven in length. Still, it was not ideal and seemed a bit bunched up. That book (Pieces of the Moon) was later reset in Gentium, a nice and somewhat artistic free font that is also widely used. It probably is not ideal for a poetry book either but it was close enough, from a size standpoint, to replace the Times without much redesign and definitely looks better. Being a bit condensed, like Times, Gentium could be an excellent type face for a magazine or something of that sort.

Not being a newspaper publisher, I have no great need for Times. I use it quite sparingly on my website, even though I do stick to large extent to ‘web-safe’ fonts. Yes, even in this day of webfonts I prefer to go with something that is pretty much foolproof. For an online serif, it’s usually Georgia for body text; Times may show up in a sidebar or for titling.

I would note that Times prints out more attractively than Georgia, letter for letter. It’s crisper, more detailed, having been originally designed for print. But again, the overall look can be crowded on a sheet of paper, and not so easy to read if the lines are too long.* There are many better choices, hundreds of them, some already on pretty much everybody’s computer, others readily downloaded for free (or bought, of course). I would take Microsoft’s latest standard, Sitka, over Times for almost any use.

It is interesting (well, to me) that not so long ago the standard for business letters and pretty much any other correspondence was something one would find on a typewriter. Monospaced, definitely, and quite likely to look somewhat like Courier. I suppose business women and men would be shocked to receive something of that sort these day! Times is kind of the standard there now but I really would suggest some other formal looking serif in its place (or even a relatively classy sanserif like Helvetica). Baskerville was chosen the ‘most trustworthy’ font in a recent poll, and that’s always a good thing (my personal choice might be the free Libre Baskerville, 10 or 10.5 point).

When it comes to using Times NR in books — especially fiction — I would be inclined to say ‘never.’ Not even in a text book or how-to manual. There are so many easier-to-read choices, some of which come with our computers (as the aforementioned Sitka), some easily found online. A decent Garamond can go a long way for fiction; it might be all one would ever need.

And leave Times New Roman for its intended purpose, the printing of newspapers. It will be happier there and so will you.

* The ideal length of a line for reading on a page is somewhere around 65 characters, including spaces. I would aim to not go too far above or below this goal — definitely not in a novel. A business letter or the like can, of course, go longer. But not TOO much longer!

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