In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. If you’ve never seen it, this post contains some spoilers – but then, watching it for the first time is the kind of experience where you could know every detail of the plot anyway, before being utterly blown away by actually seeing it. Kubrick has said of the film, “I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeon-holing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.” Which, I think, is basically a director’s way of saying “Just see it, because it’s not like anything else you will have ever seen before.” Which would be accurate. And if you haven’t seen it, I’ll wait here for you while you go and rectify that. See you in 2 hours and 28 minutes.
One of the film’s most iconic moments comes right at the start, in the opening seconds: as the Sun, Earth and Moon appear on screen, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” starts playing. If you don’t recognise that title, you’ll almost certainly recognise the tune. Even when performed hilariously badly – as here, by the Portsmouth Sinfonia – it remains a classic piece of film music:
The Portsmouth Sinfonia was an orchestra made up of people who couldn’t read sheet music or were playing an instrument that was totally new to them. This created an excellent demonstration of how complex reading (in this case, sheet music) can be. Even those who were able to read music weren’t able to perfectly process that information and express it back through an instrument they couldn’t play.
The antagonist in 2001: A Space Odyssey almost certainly wouldn’t have a problem reading sheet music. A super-intelligent computer called HAL 9000, he had responsibility for the running of the space ship. He boasts that he is “foolproof and incapable of error” (in the same way as the term “unsinkable” is bandied around in the film Titanic), and then obviously he goes insane. Of course. Because that’s what happens in films (bit of a pigeon-hole there Stanley, sorry). As the two crew members secretly plot to disconnect him, HAL works out their intentions from reading their lips. And then tries to kill them.
By the time cinema audiences had seen a fictional computer read lips and turn psychotic in 2001: A Space Odyssey, real, non-fictional, non-murderous (probably) computers were already just about capable of reading typed letters and numbers. This was – and still is – called OCR – Optical Character Recognition. However, in an era where computers were fairly underpowered – especially if compared to HAL 9000 – each character had to be as distinct as possible. Just as the Portsmouth Sinfonia struggled with interpreting their sheet music, computers often struggled to clearly interpret indistinct typefaces. It was this fact that lead, in 1968, the same year 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, to the creation of the typefaces OCR-A and OCR-B.
Each is designed to be easy for machines to interpret using the OCR process, but OCR-B, created by Adrian Frutiger, was specifically made to be equally natural for human eyes to read. Frutiger, best known for his extremely legible and popular Univers font family (1957), was a natural choice for the type foundry Monotype to make when it came to commissioning a human-friendly computer-readable typeface.
When confronted with a character in a typeface which could be any number of possible letters or figures, the human brain usually works out the most likely option through a wealth of experience of reading, comprehension and looking at context. Computers, however, were not capable of that sort of interpretive process. OCR-A helped computers differentiate between characters by using some rather eccentric looking design choices, which helped the computer, but looked jarring and crude to the human eye.
This is the constant tension a type designer experiences when designing any new font family – how do you keep a sense of unity through an alphabet which has to be made up of distinct and unique characters? This common type design problem was amplified for Frutiger’s task – how to differentiate between characters enough for a computer to interpret them accurately, without sacrificing the typographic integrity that the human eye appreciates. This image shows how well Frutiger did – consider the I, l, 1 and i of Gill Sans below the same characters in OCR-B, and you’ll notice the lack of variation Eric Gill got away with:
In designing OCR-B, Frutiger created a typeface which, while not as elegant as, for instance, Gill Sans, still retains typographic flair while providing a solution to the problems surrounding OCR computer technology. In a reversal of the story of HAL 9000 and his murderous insanity, it represents the best way technology should function – human and machine both putting themselves (as HAL himself says) “…to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”