De Gruyter Advent Calendar | Door 7
OF MEN AND MACHINES
With modern smartphones able to talk to us almost as if they were conscious beings, it is difficult to imagine what lies behind this form of human-machine interaction. As little as fifty years ago, communication between human beings and technology was still extremely arduous. The first computers were in use by then, but they were still years away from being able to understand us with such ease. With the invention in the 1960s of his OCR-B font, the Swiss typographer Adrian Frutiger helped to lay a foundation for communication between machines and human beings.
Optical Character Recognition
OCR stands for optical character recognition. Whilst OCR was in its infancy, fonts had to be designed that could easily be read by a computer.
In the early 1960s, error-free processing required a difference of at least 7% between the area occupied by a letter or digit and that occupied by any other letter or digit.
At the same time, humans generally recognized sans-serif fonts more easily than serif fonts. Wider spacing between characters was also advantageous.
Adrian Frutiger's challenge
When he was asked in 1963 by the European Computer Manufacturers' Association to develop a machine-readable font, the challenge facing Adrian Frutiger as a designer was therefore that of reconciling aesthetics with the demands of technology sufficiently well for the resulting font to be as suitable as possible for universal use.
For example, in order for the characters B, 8 and & to be identified reliably, Frutiger experimented for months before he hit on the idea of making all the capital letters in the font smaller than the digits.
OCR-B in everyday use
In 1973, OCR-B was declared a standard by the ISO committee. Since then, it has been continually extended.
It is still found, albeit often only in the coding line, on cheques, bank receipts and deposit slips, on identity cards, and in bar code numbers.
It is however no longer needed: computers have been able to read standard typewriter fonts since 1970, and they can now also read other printed fonts and even handwriting. Whether that includes doctors' handwriting is not stated in the article on OCR-B in the Complete Works of Frutiger.
The article does, however, contain a wealth of other interesting information on the development of fonts.
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