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158: Lo-Res: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Nov 22, 2023



Name: Lo-Res


Release Date: 1985


Designer: Zuzana Licko


Classification: Modular Sans-Serif Pixel Typeface


Owned By: Emigre, Inc.


Claim to Fame: Licko was one of the first designers to use a Macintosh 128K to create fonts for the computer as an art form, starting a revolution in digital type and layouts.


Certainly, Emigre has been labeled the first foundry to have created original fonts in this way. Let's add some context.


The first digital font, designed by Rudolf Hell, was created the same year Zuzana Licko emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States with her family, 1968. Digi Grotesk was a bitmap font: fast to use in computer code and fast to change for readability, but needed a new design set for each size, using a lot of computer memory.


To this day, any typeface displayed on a digital screen is constrained to the number of pixels that can be manipulated. But back when arcade games first came out in the '70s, designers were limited to just an 8 by 8 grid for each character. Despite all their stylistic mastery, designers had been struggling to make lowercase letters work. Descenders couldn't go below the baseline, pushing up and compressing letters like the lowercase G. Vox claims the typeface in Marble Madness, released in 1984, was the best attempt.


Vector fonts were in development over that time, making use of Bezier curves: to be scalable, smaller files that process quickly. By 1985, the Postscript language could connect vector instructions to printers, but still needed bitmap fonts to display on a screen without appearing jagged. The character sets were also limited to 256, requiring a separate expert set for advanced characters, like small caps and ligatures.


TrueType fonts were developed soon after, using better curves for cleaner fonts from one file, for screen and print, and in regular, italic, and bold varieties. The learning curve was that while using a vector outline, grid-fitting is key. The pixels that turn on can misrepresent the font, especially when working with a small amount of pixels per grid, when not careful.


"Bitmap fonts" (and I say this now in quotes) can now be scaled up if designed in a vector program, though their apparent bit grid never changes, and is best done at whole multiples of any intended small size.


To complete the stage for Zuzana Licko, we must go back one year.


The first Macintosh computer with a graphical user interface, circa January 24th, 1984, was only 512 by 342 pixels. For comparison, that's a sixth of a 16" Macbook Pro from 2019, even though the Macintosh's screen was only half that size, at 9", and in black and white.


Many professional type designers saw that Macintosh as we would in the 21st century—a dinky toy, fun to play with, but relatively useless. Amateurs saw this as an opportunity: the ability to design a page of text using a desktop publisher such as PageMaker, and then print it on a laser printer, without leaving the building. Anyone could be a typographer now, not just long-trained punchcutters.


The low resolution of these digital screens created a discrepancy between fine serifs recreated from metal type and clunky pixels. When unprepared graphic designers saw their final printed pages, they objected, waiting for much higher resolution capabilities, although mostly they'd just get much larger screens.


In the meantime, leading up to that very busy year, Zuzana Licko interned for her father during the summers, gaining experience on university-standard computers. She designed her first typeface for him, a set of Greek letters for his personal use as a biomathematician at the University of California, San Francisco.


She cycled through several programs at University of California, Berkeley, such as architecture, photography, and computer programming, before settling on graphic communications. It was in university that she met her now-husband, Rudy VanderLans. And thus, Emigre was born in 1984, the same year as the Macintosh 128K.


Licko was inspired by recent technology. Rather than imitate calligraphy, letterpress, or photoset typefaces, she was driven by the 72 dots per inch dot matrix printer. The limits on design inspired her to create Emigre, Emperor, Oakland, and Universal typefaces. After all, bitmap fonts work incredibly in tiny sizes, with open counters and nothing to fill in or drop out while printing or displayed on screen. They can be bold and take-charge at a headline size. And, though she may not have known it then, bitmap fonts were very popular for video games. Resolution-independent typefaces could be used at smaller sizes, but often were not optimized for reading long paragraphs of text.


She knew that her bitmap fonts had a limited life, due to better resolution screens and printers on the horizon. Undeterred, she crafted these fonts using a public domain software for her own satisfaction. She believed the success of a typeface can be defined by experimenting with the capabilities and limitations of emerging technology, along with longevity and influence on other designers.


Licko typeset the Emigre magazine as early as Issue #3 in her new collection of fonts. Two important discoveries were made: number one, typesetting digitally was efficient, cut costs, and added design control; number two, people wanted to buy these fonts—often with a typesetting service since Macintosh computers were not as common as they are today in the professional design field.


Although Emigre began as a magazine, it continues as a digital type foundry by the name of Emigre Fonts, originally to sell Licko's experimental typefaces. Emigre's growing font collection started as an alternative pop phenomenon called ugly and hard to read, and then reached mainstream by the late '80s, appearing in places like the New York Times and ABC.


They paved the way for hundreds of smaller type foundries as one of the first independent digital foundries to use a computer for design and distribution. Licko's stylistic fonts made a huge secondary wave in digital typography.


She remained inspired by emerging tech, such as laser printers' smoother bitmaps. By 2002, she had made over 24 typeface families.


Internet-wise, 1996 brought in CSS font style rules for web pages. Online typography became super important, which required digital font services. Sadly, the clean and efficient layout early 2000s computers needed was often an afterthought by companies, but the technology inspired Licko to remaster her first latin alphabet fifteen years after its original release.


Being bitmap fonts, Emigre, Emperor, and Oakland all used a different pixel count in their bodies at different sizes, also known as the pixels per em space, which is why they are better known renamed as Lo-Res 9, 12, 15, 21, 22, and 28. Surprise?


Lo-Res also has a larger character set, such as the Euro symbol. Her goal was to unite her original fonts under one family name, including a bitmap version of Base 9, not previously mentioned. More consistency between character shapes, between style and weight, and capital letter alignment between resolutions were added, along with more size options than the original release of sets (just 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, and 24 points, for example). The font outline was additionally made compatible for Flash.


She added some high resolution typefaces, Lo-Res Plus and Lo-Res Minus, inspired by over- and under-exposing, such as when using a photocopier on bitmap work. The Minus typeface was also inspired by Mastertext Light from Rian Hughes.


Now, Lo-Res is a digital typeface family, a variable font sitting in the Emigre library of over 600 typefaces, quite a few from other unique designers she wanted to highlight.


Bitmap fonts can still be found in unusual places that require efficient, static and affordable electronics, such as microwaves. Licko has described these low-resolution functions as the link between humans and the machines they keep creating. The need for a typeface fitting a computer's display grid is always relevant.


These types of fonts during the 1980s and 90s were uncommon in print outside of referencing computers or techno music, but have come back even greater recently because of nostalgia towards video games, such as Pokémon, and websites younger designers grew up using, making these typefaces perfectly readable in their eyes.


Current, very popular games use pixel fonts such as Undertale, Deltarune, Five Nights at Freddy's, Stardew Valley, and Minecraft. In fact, the counters in Minecraft's font are similar to Lo-Res 9.


Further back in time is repeating itself too. We've used forms similar to a computer's bitmap deep into human history, such as tapestries, tiled mosaics, knitting, and weaving. Christophe Gaudard, a French graphic designer, used Lo-Res in 2007, along with Courier New, for a music festival called Citadelle Électronique. In this flier, he used Lo-Res to produce an embroidery effect.


Lo-Res has been used in print as recently as 2023. For all those who attended the Technical Association of Graphic Arts conference this year, Lo-Res 9 Narrow Bold was included prominently in the branding.


And, at last, speaking of history repeating itself: at the time of her re-release of Lo-Res, Licko suggested to an interviewer an update in another 15 years for emerging technology like OpenType. Perhaps we'll see more of Lo-Res very soon? I sure hope so!



References

Adobe. (n.d.). Lo-Res. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://fonts.adobe.com/fonts/lo-res

Blandino, G. (2021, September 17). The birth of digital fonts. Pixartprinting. Retrieved from https://www.pixartprinting.co.uk/blog/birth-digital-fonts/

Boardly, J. (n.d.). From metal to digital (G. Leonidas & B. Weiner, Reviewers). Google. Retrieved February 5, 2023 from https://fonts.google.com/knowledge/history_of_type/from_metal_to_digital

Boffy, P. (2017, November 23). Citadelle Électronique music festival. Fonts in Use. Retrieved from https://fontsinuse.com/uses/18173/citadelle-electronique-music-festival[1]

Casual survey to a Discord server about pixel fonts in gaming. (2023, February 3rd). Discord. Retrieved by Rebecca Karton.[2]

Designhistory.org. (2011). The birth of digital type. Retrieved from http://www.designhistory.org/Digital_Revolution_pages/EarlyDigType.html

Emigre. (n.d.). Emigre: About. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.emigre.com/About

Emigre Fonts. (n.d.). Lo-Res: A synthesis of bitmap fonts [Type Specimen]. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.emigre.com/PDF/Lo-Res.pdf[3]

January 24, 1984: The Apple Macintosh computer goes on sale. (2022, January 24). Vintage Everyday. Retrieved from https://www.vintag.es/2022/01/1984-macintosh.html

Lo-Res in use. (n.d.). Fonts In Use. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://fontsinuse.com/typefaces/2026/lo-res

McClelland, R. (n.d.). Zuzana Licko: Type designer & innovator. Github. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://ryanmcclelland.github.io/zuzana_licko/zuzana1.html

MoMA. (n.d.). Oakland. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.moma.org/collection/works/139320

Rubinstein, R. (2002). Emigre: essays - Eye magazine (UK). Emigre. Retrieved from https://www.emigre.com/Essays/ZuzanaLicko/Eye2002

Vox. (2020, April 6). The 8-bit arcade font, deconstructed [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5NiAoT3xsY



About Our Guest:

Rebecca Karton is, and always will be, a print enthusiast. With so many stories and paths for exploration, diving deep into historical context can push boundaries in the present! Rebecca believes in ethical and accessible uses of technology to further the graphic communications field.





Music (public domain): TRG Banks - Above the Earth


Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle


Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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