State of the Art Font is more readable than the Rest - Microsoft's Sitka

You won’t hear much about Microsoft’s Sitka font.  It is part of IE11 and in Windows 8.1.  Being an old font guy, I still get a kick out of studying fonts.  Long long ago I worked on typography at Apple and Microsoft.  What is Sitka?  I found the best explanation here on myfonts in an interview with the designer Matthew Carter.

The most recent project where you collaborated with technicians and scientists is Sitka, a new serif family that comes with MS Windows 8.1. You worked in close collaboration with Microsoft’s Kevin Larson, famous for his legibility research, and with the designers at Tiro Typeworks. Did the process change your mind about science? Type designers are often very suspicious of legibility research.

Yes, and I was too. I’ve always taken an interest in it, but I often found it was not useful for me as a designer. What I wanted was to find legibility research papers that told me things that I didn’t already somehow know by common sense. When we did Bell Centennial, we were obviously very concerned about legibility — it was for phone books, six-point type on bad paper. But we researched things in a very primitive way. I would put up two different versions of the figure ‘2’ on the wall for example and then we walked back until maybe one of them was indistinct… It was very seat-of-the-pants. 

When it came to the academic study of legibility, I did not find anything that I could use in a practical way. But then when I met Kevin Larson and got involved in this, it became very interesting. He has very definite ideas about how we read but at the same time he’s not overly dogmatic. Also, there are now better tools that study eye movement, and better understanding of how the brain reads. Talking to Kevin and the rest of the group at Microsoft, I was very intrigued. 

I would work on the design up to a certain point, then hand it over to Kevin, who would do whatever stage of testing was appropriate. He would generate results and tabulate them, and find very good graphic ways of expressing why this was better than that. Still, a lot of the results were ambiguous or even contradictory. There are still things about reading and the testing of legibility that we don’t understand. But I think we’ve sort of advanced the state of the art regarding this particular kind of typeface and what is useful about testing.

Matthew and Kevin have presented before on this topic in 2013.


Designing with Science

When Fri 11 Oct 1020
Where Krasnapolsky A
What Perspective alteration
Who Matthew Carter,Kevin Larson

Reading psychologists have shown that we recognize words by first recognizing individual letters, then using the letters to build up a word. This implies that if we want to study how to make a word more readable that we should be studying how to make letters more recognizable. We have developed a type design process where we iteratively conduct scientific letter recognition tests and use the results from the tests to inform design decisions. Using the results of these tests will require careful consideration as a typeface is a beautiful collection of letters, not a collection of beautiful letters. We will talk about the kinds of results that letter recognition tests might uncover and how those results could be used in practice.

Some of the research of typography and readability is in this research paper.


In this paper we demonstrate a new methodology that can be used to measure aesthetic differences by examining the cognitive effects produced by elevated mood. Specifically in this paper we examine the benefits of good typography and find that good typography induces a good mood. When participants were asked to read text with either good or poor typography in two studies, the participants who received the good typography performed better on relative subjective duration and on certain cognitive tasks. 

What’s Sitka look like.  I have Windows 8.1 on my Mac and moved the Sitka Fonts to my Mac OSX system.  If you want to see the results here is the Microsoft post.

One of the advantages of the Sitka font comes from the optical scaling addressed by its different weights. Research has shown that different letter spacing, stroke sizes, and x-height can have a positive effect on the readability of different sizes of text. An optical family contains styles specifically optimized for each size and use case – rather than trying to be one-size-fits-all, like many of the typefaces common on the Web. Thus, you can get terrific legibility in text, and style in display sizes, all with the same family. Reading view for example uses Sitka Small, which is designed with thicker strokes, larger x-height, and looser letter spacing, for image captions, and Sitka Banner, designed with thinner strokes and tighter letter spacing, for the article titles.

In this picture we show three of the optical weights of Sitka at the 2.0em size.

In this picture we show three of the optical weights of Sitka at the 2.0em size. From this you can see how the tighter letter spacing and thinner widths employed in Sitka Heading are a better reading choice for text at this size.

In this picture again we show the same three optical weights of Sitka this time at the 0.8em size.

In this picture again we show the same three optical weights of Sitka this time at the 0.8em size. It is easy to see how the greater x-height, and looser letter spacing employed in Sitka Small is substantially better for reading the text at this size.