We are constantly being cautioned about the fine print. As footnotes in academic articles its purpose is to expand, emphasize, and even propose a conceptual alternative; in legal documents its function is to limit; and in advertising it serves to condition, qualify, and at times even to mislead - it is always important to read the fine print, especially when visiting an ophthalmologist.
In 1929, an article was published in the Hebrew Medicinal Society publication Harefuah, entitled ‘New Hebrew and International Eye Charts'. The author of the article, David Aryeh Friedman, was an ophthalmologist, writer, and art critic. In his article, Friedman reviewed the development of the use of letters and numbers for visual acuity testing, and in doing so revealed the complex and intricate process of creating a font and the close connection between two seemingly different fields: typography, today a field primarily associated with graphic designers, typogrphers, and artists, and optics, a physics field that scientifically explains phenomena associated with the eye and vision.
Prior to charts of letters and numbers becoming the most widespread vision testing tool, physicians used simple geometric shapes. Swiss ophthalmologist Edmund Landolt created the Landolt rings - a chart featuring incomplete rings, reminiscent of the letter "C", with the gap facing in different directions (up, down, right, left). The person being tested had to decide in which direction the gap was facing. However, use of these charts did not catch on, especially due to children's difficulty with spatial orientation or identifying directions: right and left.
Use of letters and numbers for visual acuity testing seems self-evident, since ‘for the population requiring eyeglasses, numbers and letters constitute cornerstones for their entire thinking. They are units of measurement for every notion and emotion', Friedman contends. However, alongside the triviality of choosing to use the alphabet, this method also drew considerable criticism. Most of the arguments stemmed from the fact that identifying letters and numbers, as opposed to geometric shapes, required prior knowledge, the absence of which is liable to impact the results of the test. In other words, letters are identified to a different degree by a child and an adult, by an "educated" person and a "commoner".
Another reason for the criticism leveled against the method was the fact that not all the letters are easily identifiable. The distinction between one letter and another is particularly problematic in Hebrew in which many of the letters differ only in slight nuances: yod (י), vav (ו), and nun sofit (ן) are distinguished solely by the length of the vertical line ("leg"); the only difference between kaf (כ) and bet (ב) is a short "tail", and the same applies to dalet (ד) and reish (ר).
In the new charts he designed, Friedman sought to solve some of the problems he identified in the existing Hebrew charts:
‘(1) In all of them the size of the letters is not accurate', contends Friedman, ‘this means that the letters do not appear at the same distance and the same angle of vision that they are meant to according to the number printed beside their line. (2) The shape of the letters is not simple, but curlicued [...] Thus the Hebrew script loses its geometric simplicity - those curlicues and tags make identification more difficult and cause the Hebrew script to lose its geometric simplicity that is so essential for the purpose of identifying the letters'.
In response to these arguments, Friedman sought to design new Hebrew charts, and explains: ‘I determined the shape of the Hebrew letter after optical consideration and historical inquiry into the configuration of our alphabet. I found a possibility of constructing the Hebrew letter on the simplest geometric foundations'. In other words, Friedman sought to use letters with a uniform line width, with parallel lines, and right angles, in contrast with "curlicued" letters - letters based on calligraphic writing in which as a result of the writing implement the letter's horizontal lines are thicker than its vertical lines. ‘I have included in the chart only easily identifiable letters, [and] I have endeavored to be precise in the dimensions of the parts of the letters, the leg, heel, roof, and crown, as in the "white" or the space within the letter and between its parts'.
[New Hebrew and International Eye Charts, by David Aryeh Friedman, 1929, Harefuah, Vol. 3, Issue 2, published by the Hebrew Medicinal Society]
More than attesting to the difficulty in creating a standardized vision test in accordance with uniform scientific criteria, Friedman's article sheds light on the immense complexity with which letter designers have to contend on a daily basis. Whereas the average person's encounter with eye charts is a one-time, periodical encounter, the encounter with texts, paragraphs, titles, and books is an everyday encounter that mandates the creation of letters that will function whether big or small, and resemble one another in terms of style, yet at the same time be different and distinguishable from one another.
Thus, an appropriate alternative has been found for the excuse "the floor must be crooked". If you are obliged to wear glasses, you can always blame the typographer.