How and Why We Designed Lucida

Early roman types of the Renaissance, in particular those of Nicolas Jenson in Venice in the 1470s, are generously spaced. This equalization of spaces between letters to counter-spaces inside letters makes a regular and enjoyable rhythm of alternating strokes and voids in the pattern of text. A technical bonus was that generous letter spacing maintained distinctiveness of letters when ink squash, rough paper, type wear, and uneven printing pressures tended to degrade the text image. We thought that generous spacing would likewise help in the early days of digital type, when coarse resolutions and laser printing tended to degrade the look of well known printing types. As type technology improved in the Renaissance, letter spacing was slightly reduced in printing by Aldus Manutius with the types of Francesco Griffo at the end of the 15th century. Spacing was slightly reduced again in the second half of the 16th century and in the 17th century, as paper costs became an important factor in the printing business, and when publishers and readers began to favor economy over luxury. In the second half of the 20th century, tight letter spacing became common in advertising typography, not for economy but for fashion. Although tight spacing of grotesque style typefaces had occasionally been done by hand-trimming of sidebearings, photographic typesetting technology enabled much easier tightening letter spacing. At display sizes, tight letter spacing attracted attention, and this trend eventually affected text typography. A common rationale for tight, “sexy spacing” was that when letters were crammed together, they made distinctive word images that were easier to read, based on an hypothesis that reading is done word-by-word. Numerous reading studies have since shown, however, that words are read by recognizing letters, not as unitary chunks or gestalts, so the up-tight rationale is demonstrably false. The actual situation is more complex and still not fully understood. 

We used generous spacing for Lucida fonts not only because of humanist and typographic antecedents, but also because of some findings in vision science. 

The first interesting, to us, finding was the contrast sensitivity function (CSF) explained by Campbell and Robson in “Application of Fourier analysis to the visibility of gratings,” published in 1968 in the Journal of Physiology. Determinations of the CSF by Campbell and Robson, and other researchers, indicated that the human visual system is most sensitive to spatial frequencies in the range of three to six cycles per degree of visual angle. The contrast sensitivity function also indicated that the highest perceivable spatial frequencies are around 50 to 60 cycles per degree of visual angle. This upper threshold comes up in discussions about whether the 300+ pixels per inch resolutions of recent smart phone screens are above the resolving limits of the human eye. (Vision scientists often use visual angle as a measure of type size instead of physical size, e.g. typographic points, because visual size at the retina varies according to the eye’s distance from the text, whereas degree of visual angle is constant. Text in 12 point type read at 16 inches has the same visual angle as text in 18 point read at 24 inches.) 

Ergonomic recommendations in the early 1980s said computer screens should  be read at distances ranging from 20 to 28 inches, with 24 inches a common specification. Reading on paper was more often done in the range of 12 to 20 inches, with 16 inches a common standard. Hence, type on screens would, on average, seem only two-thirds as big as the same size on paper, assuming different reading distances for the different media. We tried to adjust the stem-to-space (black stems-white counters or spaces) frequency of Lucida to be in the range of three to six cycles per degree of visual angle, in the size range from 10 point to 14 point at screen and print reading distances of 16 to 24 inches. What we actually achieved for Lucida Sans and therefore Lucida Grande was, at a reading distance of 16 inches, nearly optimal frequencies of approximately 7 cycles per degree at 10 point, 6 cycles per degree at 12 point, and 5 cycles per degree at 14 point. At reading distance of 24 inches, we got 10.5 cycles at 10 point, 9 cycles at 12 point, and 7.5 cycles at 14 point. Higher than the optimal range in the CSF, but better than most fonts. In comparison, a popular grotesque sans-serif had spatial frequencies around 11% higher than Lucida and thus was further below the optimal range of the CSF. 

Today, it is reasonable to ask if the more generous spacing of Lucida really makes it more legible. Anecdotally, yes. Lucida Grande functioned well as system screen fonts on Macintosh OS X for 14 years, at sizes ranging from 10 to 14 point. Also, a variant, Lucida Console, has been used a terminal font in Windows for 20 years.  But, the jury is still out on whether the hypothetical  advantage of generous spacing actually improves reading speed and comprehension. It is also reasonable to point out that the contrast sensitivity function is not the same as the modulation transfer function for human vision, so using the CSF may not be the optimal way to determine the ideal stroke frequencies for a font.

Another finding from vision science was termed a “visual crowding effect” by Herman Bouma In a paper entitled “Interaction Effects in Parafoveal Letter Recognition”, published in 1970. Bouma investigated the crowding effect further in another paper, “Visual interference in the parafoveal recognition of initial and final letters of words”, in 1973, Bouma found that the ability to perceive fine details is impaired when contours are close to the details to be recognized. In particular, recognition of letters is impaired when flanking letters are close by, and impairment worsens the farther the letters to be recognized are from the fixation point of central vision. Bouma’s observation that perception of details was impaired by close contours caused us to think that generous spacing could ameliorate some problems in recognizing type on screens. We already thought that the tight letter spacing of popular grotesque faces was a hindrance to reading at text sizes, and Bouma’s papers reinforced our visual impressions. In the 30 years since we designed Lucida, there has been a great deal more research on crowding, including by Denis Pelli and other vision researchers. It now appears that loose letter spacing is not a cure-all for crowding; the more space is added between letters, the farther the outlying letters are from central fixation, and thus the worse the crowding effect, which is proportional to distance from central fixation. Although there have been some studies suggesting that wide letter spacing is helpful for dyslexic readers, other studies have not found this benefit. Still, the slightly more generous spacing of Lucida has seemed to be helpful on screens.  

Today, it should be possible to to improve readability by adjusting letter spacing automatically, depending on parameters of type size, design, and reading distance. But, in 1984, it was hard enough to make digital type at all, frankly, so we spaced Lucida to work reasonably well within the probable text size range. It was intended to be a text face, and that’s how we spaced it. It is possible to create optical size masters to tune a design to different size ranges, as has been effectively done for a few families of digital fonts. We experimented with optical masters in the 1990s, but instead of releasing them, we created more scriptal variations for Lucida, including calligraphic, casual, and handwriting styles. 


Wherever possible, we opened up counters, as in ’a’, ‘c’, ‘e’, ‘g’ in the roman styles. In the italics, we adopted a chancery cursive style with a characteristic counter-form for ‘a’, ‘’d’, ‘g’, ‘q’ in one orientation, and a rotationally contrasting counter in ‘b’ and ‘p’, to help distinguish letters that can be confused. These can be seen in italic text samples here.


Because we were designing Lucida for text sizes and, often, coarse resolutions, we distilled the letter shapes to minimalist forms that we felt would be recognizable under most imaging conditions. We wanted Lucida typefaces to be without distracting details, essentially transparent as conveyors of information. As some fellow typographers commented, Lucida is a “workhorse” design. We took that as a compliment. The true italics are somewhat showier, exhibiting traces of the fast Humanist handwriting styles still called “cursive” or ‘running’. Maybe not Lipizzaner stallion show horse style, but obviously more sprightly than the romans. For simplified italics, we assumed that most operating systems and font rendering engines could automatically turn the romans into “obliques”, which are minimally italic, differing from roman only in slant. This was not always the case, however, so in 2014, we produced “Oblique” versions for most of the Lucida families. For example, the difference between true italics and obliques for Lucida Grande can be seen here.


We learned the art and craft of letter design from several teachers and mentors, whose influence we wish to acknowledge. 


Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes studied calligraphy with Lloyd Reynolds at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Reynolds, Calligrapher Laureate of Oregon, taught calligraphy not as a decorative art but as the foundation of civilization. He taught italic handwriting in the chancery style of Ludovico degli Arrighi, as exemplified in Arrighi’s little manual, La Operina, of 1522, and in 20th century revivals of chancery cursive. He taught pen-written roman capitals in Italian humanist style, emphasizing that the classical capitals had several width groups, instead of the modern tendency to make most capitals of similar widths. and a series of historical alphabets - rustics, uncials, half-uncials, gothics, and more. For Reynolds, the graphical shapes of letters and the means of making them were not merely artistic forms or kinaesthetic exercises, nor simply functional marks, but keys to unlocking the wisdom of the ages. Kris Holmes studied brush-written roman capitals with Robert Palladino, Reynold’s successor at Reed, and with Palladino’s teacher, Edward Catich, the master of roman capitals, when he was invited to teach a workshop at Reed.


After college, Charles Bigelow studied typography as a student and teaching assistant for Jack Stauffacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. Stauffacher was a well-known book designer and much of his typographic passion was focused on legibility and clarity of text. His most famous and controversial work was a hand printed, limited edition of Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, separately described in his “A Search for the Typographic Form of Plato’s Phaedrus”. Stauffacher also excelled in large, abstract type compositions, arranged spontaneously and hand printed on his proof press. He had worked with Hermann Zapf a decade earlier to design a “private press” face, Hunt Roman, for the Hunt Botanical Library at Carnegie Mellon University, where Stauffacher was then professor of typography and director of the New Laboratory Press. (Unconnected with typography, Stauffacher was an outstanding bicyclist and bicycle polo player.) 


Bigelow studied visual perception and color vision with psychophysicist Gerald Murch at Portland State University in the mid-1970s. Studying an intriguing visual phenomenon, the McCollough Effect, with Murch led Bigelow to related literature in edge detection and spatial frequency perception, particularly a series of enlightening papers by Fergus Campbell, John Robson, and their associates and students, about spatial frequency and contrast sensitivity in the human visual system. Bigelow believed these explained some aspects of the perception of typographic forms, which are rife with edges and spatial frequencies. Thus began a continuing interest in the relevance of scientific reading studies and vision theories to type design. Long after the design of Lucida, Bigelow had occasions to write papers with Gordon Legge and Denis Pelli, who had been a post-doctoral associate and student, respectively, of Campbell and Robson. (Unconnected with the McCollough effect Jerry Murch raced cars.)


For his private press in the 1970s, Bigelow purchased foundry type of Hans Ed. Meier’s Syntax-Antiqua, a modern sans-serif based on Renaissance handwriting and early typefaces, as part of a study on how to present texts in Native American literature. Meier was a long-time teacher of lettering at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts, and widely respected for his fine book on the history and development of writing, in which he recreated and hand-wrote all historical examples himself. Bigelow & Holmes enlisted Meier’s help in designing special phonetic characters for Syntax, to represent sounds in Native American languages. Working with Meier was like a graduate education in type design, an introduction to the search for pure forms, distilled from the vast range of historical styles. (Unconnected with lettering art, Meier in his youth flew gliders off Swiss mountains. We don’t know why some of our influential teachers and mentors had a need for speed, but Chuck as a teenager had a similar propensity, as the traffic court of his home town often recorded.) 


Kris Holmes and Charles Bigelow studied calligraphy and type design with Hermann Zapf at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the summer of 1979. Zapf told his type classes about his work in digital type, such as Marconi and Edison, and emphasized his conviction that type artists should create new designs for new technologies, and avoid making, as he put it, “warmed over” versions of older designs. In his calligraphy classes, Zapf emphasized the importance of the pen in shaping letters, in particular the legible, handwritten humanist writing of the Renaissance. (Often in his class demonstrations, Zapf swiftly wrote graceful script capitals on a blackboard, but so far as we knew, he didn’t play bicycle polo, race cars, or fly gliders. Speed and agility were in his hands.)


“Does “Print Size Matter for Reading? A review of Findings from Vision Science and Typography,” by Gordon E Legge and Charles Bigelow. Journal of Vision, (2011). 

“Crowding and eccentricity determine reading rate,” by Denis G. Pelli, Katharine A. Tillman, Jeremy Freeman, Michael Su, Tracey D. Berger, and Najib J. Majaj, in Journal of Vision (2007) 7(2):20, 1–36. 

“The Science of Word Recognition or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bouma,” by Kevin Larson. 2004.

“The remarkable inefficiency of word recognition,” by Denis G. Pelli, Bart Farell & Deborah C. Moore, Nature, Vol. 423, 752-756, June 12, 2003.

"The Design of a Unicode Font,” by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes, in RIDT'94, special issue of Electronic Publishing, Vol. 6, No. 3

"The Design of Lucida: an Integrated Family of Types for Electronic Literacy," by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes in Text Processing and Document Manipulation, J.C. van Vliet, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1986 

"Principles of Type Design for the Personal Workstation," by Charles Bigelow, in Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1986, Hans-Joachim Koppitz, ed., Gutenberg-Gesellschaft, Mainz, 1986 

"Digital Typography and the Human Interface,” by Charles Bigelow, (Proceedings of the Typography Interest Group at CHI '85)," in SIGCHI Bulletin Vol 17, No. 1, July 1985. 

"Introduction" to "The Computer and the Hand in Type Design," Special Issue of Visible Language Vol. XIX, No. 1, Charles Bigelow & Lynn Ruggles, editors, Winter 1985 

"Digital Typography," by Charles Bigelow & Donald Day, Scientific American, Vol. 249, No. 2, August 1983. 

“Visual interference in the parafoveal recognition of initial and final letters of words,” by Herman Bouma, Vision Research Volume 13, Issue 4, April 1973, Pages 767–782. 

“Interaction Effects in Parafoveal Letter Recognition,” by Herman Bouma, Nature 1970 Vol: 226 (5241):177-178. 

“Application of Fourier analysis to the visibility of gratings,” by F. W. Campbell  and J. G. Robson,  Journal of Physiology (London) 197: 551-566, 1968. 

CSF Chart:

“On the Classification of Typographical Variations,” by Stanley Morison, in Type Specimen Facsimiles 1-15, John Dreyfus, ed. Bowes & Bowes and Putnam, 1963. 

“Optical scale in type founding,” by Harry Carter. Printing Historical Society Bulletin, 13, 144–148, 1984. (Original work published 1937, Typography 4, 2–8) 

© Bigelow & Holmes Inc. 2014