back toJacket2

October 1997  |  Jacket 1  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Kurt Brereton

CyberPoetics of Typography

Kurt Brereton teaches at the University of Technology Sydney,
and writes on type and design.

While Web designers and interface designers share the computer screen their aesthetic concerns are different. Both work with multimedia information displayed on monitors yet reading an interactive CD is some distance away from the communication process of surfing the net. The challenge for cyberpoets is to construct texts that utilise the unique aesthetic qualities of hypermedia and interactive multimedia communication environments. That is, cyberpoetry is a time based spatially orientated, viewer/reader directed medium.

The page is not a surface

The page is no longer a flat surface but a virtual field unfolding in time. Words, sounds, images and graphics are now all part of the poetics of the web. Web typography now allows a kinetic plasticity of form not possible with the conventional printed page. Hot spot, image mapped words talk back, sing along or free associate. Hyperlinked phrases now launch movies, morph into animated graphics or clone themselves to infinity before your eyes. In other words, the static graphic word has the ability to metamorphose viral-like across media, across disciplines and genres. The gaze of the reader is no longer directed from a singular fixed point of view. The reader is no longer a Cartesian mind without a body contemplating the world from a reasoned distance. The cybernetic poem directly involves the reader’s body in the process of constructing meaning.

Marinetti art

Filippo Marinetti,
Vive la France, 1914

These ideas are not new or even peculiar to the digital realm. Early modernists such as poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), Futurist and Dadaist artists like Filippo Marinetti, Carlo Carra and Giacomo Balla all constructed noise-words, exploring the graphic or concrete/semiotics interface of typography and meaning (images). They went beyond the limiting salon and Academe conventions of making sense.

Software directed aesthetics

Cyberpoetics, from a typographical viewpoint, must not be condemned solely to strategies of assemblage. At the moment, the vast majority of authors are bound to use online fonts supplied by browser applications and computer systems. Text must be treated as bitmapped image if it wants to have any character beyond teletext. From a designers stance, the net, is as clunky as a model T Ford. Modernist traditions of building a text up from an internalised tissue of quotations has been overturned or externalised (even reductively erased) by the advent of menu option aesthetics: filters, plugins, applets and analog metaphors, all pose a real challenge for the cyberartist who wants to create their own recipes rather than select from the sizzler menu of predigested dishes. Cyber-aesthetics are driven by time based economics and chastened by interactive habits learnt from USA military simulation and Timezone entertainment technologies.

Type in the timezone

Typography is also governed more by time (instantaneous appearances) than by space. VR spatial techniques of ‘distancing’ and ‘levels of detail’ crash up against temporal dynamics of download wait time and interlacing. Bit depth and monitor real estate overcrowding, bandwidth and processing grunt all shape the use of typography. Unlike the printed page, virtual and digital typography is in a constant state of flux. User/viewer interactions in hyperlinking, screen hopping, scrolling, resizing or changing viewing preferences render the reading process organic and kinetic. The passive page is dead. The notion of type as dumb bearers of meaning is also outdated. The graphic as trace is replaced by the graphic as organ, active agent, generator of effects. Digital fonts are governed by protocols rather than labour laws.

Haptic Typography

Virtual typography is more haptic and aggregate than optic or systematic in nature. That is, textual elements such as words, images, objects exist in a field as discrete entities rather than as unified arrangements in a spatial continuum. Animated avatars, photographic backgrounds, 3D rooms, floating objects or suspended words are all superimposed, or directed much like cast members on a virtual 3D theatre stage. The movement of those cast members is directed by the user at home in real time.

Digital type has no body no body no body

Virtual texts have no substance in any physical terms. In a strict semiotic sense, digital characters don’t represent anything at all but themselves. Streaming texts, cascading fonts or style sheets, non-linear modes of reading, gestural rephrasings and media convergences all have upset the conventional ideas of graphic and textual representation. Multiple Master (MM) typefaces, that allow for variations between extremes such as weight, width or optical weight have started to move towards flexible response environments.

Genetic Aesthetic

The cyberpoem is open-ended in structure (if idea of structure is useful at all here?), and certainly in appearance. Always becoming, cyberpoems are emergent, heterological and heterogeneous in their constant spooling, transferences, hyperlinking and recomposition. the poem has shifted from bricolage to morphosis. Cyberpoems are not forged, mechanical or even electronic, they are genetic. Meaning has become temporamental, stochastic and interpolated rather than causal or consequential. Made of textual typographic fragments constantly moving into and out of focus, resolution and degrees of proximity, the cyberpoem is more like an installation or event than a document etched in metal or printed on paper. The reader navigates through a sea of signs visiting information ports. There is no horizon line and any scratched in reference to one is nostalgic since we see beyond what the naked eye can see via satellites, microscopes, cable and data mirrors.

Hinting at Aesthetics

Great looking print fonts don’t always look good on low resolution screens. Hinting is the name for the set of techniques designed to restore an outline’s character legibility. Small adjustments in the outline filling process (rasterisation) can be made using programs such as Fontographer or FontLab to allow for low resolution displays and small point sizes. Disappearing stems, lost hairlines and morphed bowls are a hazard of using type on low resolution screens. Both Postscript Type 1 and TrueType fonts use hinting. Postscript Type 3 fonts are unhinted.

Hinting 1 Hinting 2

[Editor’s note: A full explanation of the subtle art of hinting is given on Microsoft’s typography site at The diagrams above, showing (very much enlarged) how the character ‘Capital M’ in a sans serif font can be fitted on an eight by eleven pixel grid in slightly different ways, are borrowed from that site, with thanks. — John Tranter]

Bad kittens A poorly hinted version of Times New Roman.

Bad kittens 2
A well hinted version of Times New Roman.
Courtesy Microsoft’s typography site.

Free Web Fonts

If you search the web you will quickly find a myriad of free and saleable fonts and typefaces. Designers who need to know that the fonts they are using are technically accurate and character-complete usually buy from foundries. Freeware fonts are fine for people wanting to knock up a web site and who don’t really care if fonts a bit wonky or clunky. The new Microsoft fonts are the exception to this rule. Microsoft’s free ‘core font’ selection (including Comic, Georgia, Verdana and Trebuchet MS, all downloadable at no charge from seeks to widen the options for web designers beyond the usual meagre system offerings.

Verdana typeface

[Editor’s note: This is a screen shot of some examples of Verdana, designed by Matthew Carter for Microsoft and supplied with Microsoft Windows (graphic courtesy Microsoft’s typography site.) Notice how the alphabetical characters actually change shape (the tail of the lower-case ‘g’ for example) as they change size, the better to fit the pixel grid.

An illuminating discussion about how Microsoft’s new typefaces were designed with hinting for the computer screen in mind is available through the Microsoft site. Verdana is discussed at

and Trebuchet MS (designer: Vincent Connare) at

Georgia (for body type), and Verdana and Trebuchet MS (display type) are used in Jacket. If you download the fonts from Microsoft and instal them in your computer, the pages of Jacket will automatically display in these fonts.
Please note that to display Trebuchet in your HTML pages, you must offer your thanks to MicroSoft by specifying it as ‘Trebuchet MS’, not plain ‘Trebuchet’. — J.T.]

Open Type

Cross-platform font format Open Type is hailed as the global answer to solving frustrating problems with Microsoft’s TrueType and Adobe’sType1 Post Script font formats. The promise is that web designers will be able to utilise high quality fonts that take less time to render and display in documents. Positioning of glyphs, substitution and alignment of characters and font security (digital signatures protecting changes to form) are all special features in Open Type.

Legible is not always readable

Legibility (how well a typeface supports the process of fluent reading) and readability (the ease of reading continuous blocks of text) both affect how the reader will respond to a text. Reading words by their overall shape is faster than reading letter by letter. Larger x-height typefaces are easier to read on screen. Reversed text can also affect reading since the optical glare created by white letter forms on black background makes characters appear to run together. Serif body copy reads better than sans serif because the serifs aid the flow of the eye across words especially against bright or coloured screen backgrounds.


Vitatype digital fonts (at have produced the psychedelic set (Fillmore East, Fillmore West and Avalon) of fonts inspired by 1960s USA music posters produced by artists such Family Dog and Stanley Mouse. [sorry: dead link]

Fillmore East

      VitaType font, Fillmore East, 1997

Cool Typography Sites

1. all round info and history) [sorry:dead link]
2. This site appears to have died since this page was posted: (beautiful, text as art, animated poems)
3. [sorry: dead link] (fun type quizzes)
4. (Digital Type Review mag)
5. (Communications Arts mag)
6. (free fonts)
7. (free grunge fonts) [sorry: dead link]
8. [sorry: dead link] (free fonts)
9. (organisation promotes typography)

This is a

Kurt Brereton,, animation 1997

Animated Brereton poem

Degenerate Type — Signifyin’ Nuthin’
trash type
accidental expressions of a techno-sociological transition.
‘fontography’ coined by Macromedia, now a generic term ‘fontographists’ are really just making pictures of things
The difference between a fontographist and a type designer is this.
considerations of moving
type, random type, hyperspacial type...
cast off the line

From Jacket’s editor, a link to collection of programs and resources for the disassembly, reorganization, and reassembly of language... hopefully useful for writers and experimentalists who want to jumpstart their creativity, or otherwise wreck havoc upon an unsuspecting text: TextWorx Toolshed.

Kurt Brereton can be reached
at facelift design, email:,
web site: [sorry: dead link]
Phone (+61 42) 681 919, Fax: 672 218
PO Box 22, Bulli NSW 2516, Australia

Jacket 1 — October 1997   Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Kurt Brereton and Jacket magazine 1997
The URL address of this page is