Much to my surprise, I ended up designing a new bitmap font.
I wanted a small, monospaced font, and I assumed (apparently, erroneously) that copyright would prevent me from using Monaco. So I spent a day with a pencil and some graph paper, trying to make something new. Afterward, I took a closer look at Monaco, and was fascinated by differences.
So, without further ado, here’s what I made:
vs. the original Monaco 9:
and its latest version:
If you’re interested in all the gory details, read on.
I was trying to fit at least 24 rows of 80-column text on a 320×480 pixel screen, so it’s not surprising that I ended up with similar metrics to Monaco, since it aimed to do roughly the same thing on a 342×512 pixel screen. Specifically, The cells are 6×11 with a five-pixel x-height and a seven-pixel cap height.
As such, several of the identical characters were thoroughly expected. Given those dimensions, how could lowercase X or capital T and H be anything other than what they must be? Capital S, the dollar sign, and both O’s and Z’s are similarly irresistible and seemingly inevitable. Similarly for capital B, C, J, K, L, P, U, the exclamation point, pipe, plus sign, hyphen-minus, and equal sign.
Others were a pleasant surprise. After trying several variations on capital A, I landed on what turned out to be the same glyph. The same was true for capital E and F, lowercase M, N, R, and U, and especially lowercase C and S. We also share the numerals three and eight, but I repeatedly attempted alternates before settling on mine.
In some cases, I actually preferred my glyphs to those in Monaco. The numerals six and nine, capital D and Q, and a letter near and dear to my own heart: R.
In many other cases, Monaco was clearly better. Most notably the asterisk, capital M and N, and lowercase E and F. Monaco also has a really clever trick that I didn’t discover on my own, demonstrated in capital M, X, and Y, as well as both W’s.
Also, my Y is far too V-ish.
I already knew to look out for things that were eventually addressed in later versions of Monaco, like punctuation weight and easily distinguishing between capital O and zero or capital I, lowercase L, and the numeral one. I also ended up with the later-generation quotation mark, apostrophe, and caret.
Incidentally, later-generation Monaco also fixes the baffling horizontal positioning of the numeral one. However, it introduces a horizontal positioning error in the ASCII caret, despite getting it right with the circumflex modifier glyph. I also don’t understand why the period and colon are positioned further rightward than the comma and semicolon.
Of course, where things diverge strongly is with the descenders. For my usage, I could afford to have three-pixel descenders. Despite the greater vertical resolution on the Macintosh, Monaco had shorter descenders. Why? My suspicion: because they needed to make room for the menu bar and window title bar. Monaco’s symmetry between descender and ascender height is also nice.
Effectively, this means that my font lands somewhere between Monaco 9 and 10. Monaco 10 kept the two-pixel descenders, and used the extra height to make the cap-height and x-height taller. Given the choice between longer descenders and taller caps, I think Monaco made the right call.
I have absolutely no idea why the descender on my lowercase J is so comically small.
Others seem like a closer call. My lowercase A is too heavy, but I’m still interested in the double-story approach. Given our shared lowercase N, R, and U, I’m surprised Monaco didn’t end up with my lowercase H. Both fonts have nearly identical octothorpes and underscores, but I slightly prefer mine, which are nudged one row further down.
The remaining numerals are a diverse bunch. I ever-so-slightly prefer my two, but Monaco’s seven is definitely better. I also prefer the style of Monaco’s four. Again, I would probably have to pick Monaco’s five as the better one, especially given how readily it distinguishes itself from the capital S, but it tends to encourage the corresponding sixes and nines, which I don’t like nearly as much.
The special characters are where Monaco really puts me to shame. I’m pretty proud of my ampersand, but Monaco’s is better. My question mark is garbage; it extends above the cap height because I couldn’t bring myself to clip the tail. Similarly, I knew that Monaco’s tilde was far superior the instant I saw it.
The paired characters are a bit of a mixed bag. My curly brackets are grotesque compared to either versions of Monaco, and my parentheses are far too heavy. My angle brackets probably go too far toward use as delimiters without concern for their use as operators. At least I landed on the modern heights for most of these though. I still don’t understand the horizontal positioning of the opening square bracket. Perhaps it should have moved leftward when it grew vertically.
I’m still a fan of my lowercase at sign, and I’m reassured by the latest version’s foray below the baseline. It would be interesting to investigate doing the copyright and registered trademark symbols in a similar style.
Curiously, both of my V’s came close to the latest version, but that’s likely because I hadn’t discovered the wonderful trick used elsewhere.
My percent sign is heavy-handed and uninspired, but the original Monaco’s is a work of art. It includes a top connecting bar and oblong zeros. The central pixel isn’t even filled in! Unfortunately, it’s also a bit hard to read, but I’d bet that the modern per mil glyph is more responsible for its later version.
Given the differences in our descenders, I’m not surprised that the slashes in the latest Monaco sit higher on the baseline than my glyphs, but I can’t for the life of me understand the benefit of positioning the forward slash so far to the right. Perhaps it’s another error like the caret.
If vector typefaces are prose, bitmap fonts are poetry.
I’m clearly not a great poet, but I had a ton of fun going through this exercise. The end result was decidedly mixed. I think I ended up with a few arguably better glyphs, and I even found one or two apparent errors that were introduced in the later version of Monaco. But there were far more examples of Monaco being clearly superior. Furthermore, I was only trying to make the printable ASCII characters, but Monaco has numerous additional glyphs, which also showcase a tremendous amount of variety and creativity.