On Cantarell

There was something bothering me with Evolution in GNOME 3 that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Turns out it was Cantarell, the official font for GNOME 3. While both the Droid family (Droid Sans/Serif/Mono) and Cantarell were “designed for on-screen reading”, I find Droid Sans to be much better than Cantarell for small font sizes.

Don’t get me wrong: I find that Cantarell is beautiful for slide presentations and printed documents (how ironic) and I use it in various places. However, consider the following two screenshots of Evolution. If you have trouble seeing the difference, download the two images below, open one of them with Eye of GNOME and switch between the two with the arrow keys. It’s stunning.

With Cantarell (default):


With Droid Sans:

Doesn’t the second one look much cleaner, clearer and “professional”? Or am I just too used to Droid and Liberation? (I did not include a screenshot of Liberation Sans, because the result is very similar to Droid Sans and I wanted to keep it simple)

Font geeks might show up and tell me that Cantarell is vastly superior and that Droid is crap because of this and that artistic touch; that doesn’t matter to me at this point: I stare at my screen all day and have to visually scan tons of information in constrained space (such as this listview widget) and I just want my fonts to be legible. Without being a font connaisseur, I can identify some of the things annoy me with Cantarell, at first glance:

  • It has a higher difference between uppercase and lowercase letters; the lowercase letters look squished, they have less space
  • It uses serifs on the lowercase L but doesn’t have serifs on the uppercase i
  • The dots are minuscule
  • The @ symbol probably needs love
  • And various other things I can’t put my finger on

Not being a font geek myself, it is hard for me to explain why exactly I have such a hard time with it. It somehow just “feels” wrong in some places. With Evolution, Cantarell reminds me of screenshots of people customizing their desktop with grotesque or calligraphic fonts.

Again, I have tremendous respect for the work that Dave Crossland did on Cantarell and I’m not saying this is the new Comic Sans; I’m just openly reflecting on the problems I see as an everyday user of “information-rich interfaces”. Maybe Cantarell can be improved in this particular use case.

P.s.: the screenshots are in grayscale because:

  1. For some reason (colord surely), screenshots I take now all have an embedded color profile, which GIMP insists on either “converting” or “keeping as is”, neither of which creates the desired result (colors are way off). Why can’t the darn thing display as it does in “dumb” apps such as Eye of GNOME, which seems to ignore such profiles and thus renders the colors exactly as they were on my screen? I’m scared to think this might be a feature and that we would be expected to fix the the color profiles of our hardware to take a simple screenshot.
  2. You’re supposed to look at the text legibility/font shapes anyway.
  3. It saves bandwidth.


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29 Replies to “On Cantarell”

  1. >> Doesn’t the second one look much cleaner, clearer and “professional”?

    No, actually it doesn’t.

  2. @Nicolas: Yeah, I am using the Ubuntu font on my Ubuntu machines too. It is quite comfortable indeed, I don’t feel this uneasiness with Evolution when I am using it.

  3. I agree with your assessment. In addition to the reasons you stated, Cantarell also looks blurry to me compared to other fonts.

    That said, I find DejaVu Sans significantly more comfortable than Droid Sans.

  4. Yes Cantarell it’s more like a “beta” font. Android font or Ubuntu font are much more better.

  5. Looks like the kerning and Cantarell could use some love. The “Fo” and “Te” combinations in “Sourceforge.net Team” both look way too widely-spaced, while “ur,” “eF,” and “ea” pairs look way too close together. That kind of small-size detail work is what seems to always separate the free/cheap fonts from the expensive ones. But yes, the inconsistent spacing seriously hurts readability, and is the most obvious distinction for me between the two (look at the same email header, “Sourceforge.net Team,” in the other window for comparison).

    Also, randomly: just so you know, if your antialiasing settings are to use subpixel smoothing, converting to grayscale will break the rendering and potentially make text edges fuzzier, so color images will more accurately represent the shapes of the letters, as unintuitive as that is.

  6. Andrew Pendleton:

    […] just so you know, if your antialiasing settings are to use subpixel smoothing, converting to grayscale will break the rendering and potentially make text edges fuzzier, so color images will more accurately represent the shapes of the letters, as unintuitive as that is.

    Good catch! But worry not, in this particular case, there is no subpixel hinting, because (according to gnome-tweak-tool) gnome3’s default settings is “grayscale” antialiasing.

  7. the bigger problem is the padding it is awful, it might be exacerbated by a font that is difficult to read in small sizees

  8. Cantarell also looks terrible on Windows with ClearType, which is now the font used by Planet Gnome. It is very light and hard to read.

  9. Cantarell has been a ‘beta quality’ font for years now, lacks a real cursive version and is far for complete with respect to internationalization. I don’t understand why it was necessary to change the default font in Gnome. There are so many other changes in G3 already that sticking with Deja Vu (based on the excellent Bitstream Vera family) would have provided some measure of continuity.

  10. Whereas I personally prefer the screenshot using Cantarell, and I would like the font preferences back somewhere in GNOME 3 control panel, thank you very much, the biggest problem is font kerning. This will apply to all fonts out there.

    Freetype got better through the years, and its maintainers have made a wonderful work in the past, but now it’s not very good anymore.

    See for example: http://www.antigrain.com/research/font_rasterization/

    “If you want a good read”, fix libfreetype. :-)

  11. Comment #10 nails it. It’s the uneven spacing that kills Cantarell.

    (Also, why one would name a font after an overhyped oil field that is already way past its peak escapes me…)

  12. I always used Droid Sans and now use Ubuntu font. My personal preference has always been Droid Sans, but use Ubuntu font for taking screenshots for documentation (when needed).

    Cantarell has lots of problems which I can observe:
    * It looks somewhat like a serif font, which is probably due to the difference in size between small and big chars
    * Check the “Bolte de reception” below the toolbar. The characters are unevenly compressed.
    * If Cantarell looks like this on big size then how would it look when I reduce the font size. Would it be readable. I can confirm that Droid Sans looks great even at even at small font size.

    GNOME people might be proud that they have a great new font, but please fix it. Ubuntu font also had a lot of kerning problems when it was in Beta. I don’t have much problems in Ubuntu font these days.

    I tried Planet GNOME on Windows XP and it looks fine. I find it easier for reading large amounts of text than as a Desktop font. Don’t know why? Probably because it has serifs in some characters?

  13. Other than missing kerning for Cantarell, one thing of note is the small x-height compared to all the other fonts designed for on-screen viewing (including Droid Sans which has slightly larger x-height, but still smaller than DejaVu, Verdana or Tahoma). Generally, smaller x-height work wonders on high resolution output (like mobile screens or print: prime example is Garamond, though that’s a serif font as well), but is rarely suited for on-screen viewing. With that in mind, Cantarell and UbuntuFont do a great job, but I still prefer DejaVu Sans over them. If for nothing else, for proper Serbian Cyrillic.

  14. (Oh, I didn’t mean to say that Garamond would work well on mobile devices, but rather that Cantarell might, and Droid Sans certainly does; Garamond works well in print at normal type size)

  15. Try disabling hinting completely. This looks a lot like an overzealous (auto?-)hinter that forces stems into the pixel grid, destroying the glyph shapes.

    While disabling hinting probably makes the font more blurry it will improve on the “uneveness” of the letters and improve the spacing.


  16. In the interests of improving both, I was going to enquire how you felt that Cantarell and Droid Sans subjectively compared to the Ubuntu Font Family ( http://font.ubuntu.com/ ), but I see in comment #4 that Nicolas Delvaux has already beaten me to it!

  17. Creating solid fonts is extremely hard, so I can’t help feeling that picking a font primarily based on artistic style was a mistake. In an ideal world we would, but I don’t think we can afford that luxury.

    There are very very few free fonts of high quality, and unfortunately Cantarell does not appear to be one of them (yet, at least).

  18. Sadly, FOSS fonts and rendering technology are still so far behind their proprietary counterparts that I can barely stand to look at GNOME or KDE if I’ve been using OS X or even Windows for a while. Even the best fonts are only as good on-screen as the rendering algorithms used to display them, and sadly the proprietary ones are so much better.

  19. @jpobst, planet.gnome.org looks abysmal in Firefox 5 on Windows Vista, with uneven edges. I have Appearance Settings > Effects > Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts turned off (if on the only option is ClearType). The body text of http://www.gnome3.org doesn’t look too bad, but its headings are awful, with pimply gray pixel glitches on the top of ‘S’ and other characters.

    It seems the Cantarell.woff downloadable web font looks terrible if it’s not black. It’s #555753 on planet.gnome.org #999999 on gnome3.org headings.

    In Internet Explorer 9, planet.gnome.org body text is a little better, but the ‘S’ in the headers on gnome3.org still has pimples. Yuck.

  20. Not being a font geek myself, I (or anyone who is willing to) also can identify many of the things annoying with fonts like droid or others. And of course by the time Cantarell will improve.

    People who are talking about Ubuntu font, here is a fact, Ubuntu font is designed by London-based type foundry Dalton Maag, with funding by Canonical Ltd. And Droid is created by Ascender Corporation which is another digital typeface foundry. And Cantarell fonts were developed by Dave Crossland during his studies of typeface design at the University of Reading.

    So if anyone really want to blame some one, you should blame Gnome because of their decision to make this font default. However, Gnome needed a new font, and the whole new Gnome 3 UI actually suited this font perfectly (just try the old DejaVu fonts on Gnome 3, and see yourself what I meant). The Cantarell font itself is just awesome.

    And again, this font will improve for sure, just give it some time.

  21. I find that I prefer the look of Cantarell in your screenshots. I’m happy to have my opinion classed as entirely subjective and without any rational basis. My view is that this is further evidence of the importance of exposing the ability to customize fonts via the control centre.

  22. Wow, why did gnome use such an awful font? The kerning is so obviously so terrible in that screenshot that i’m surprised anybody can prefer it. Almost every word is very badly kerned but particularly poor examples: “DIRECT”, “Humble”, “Frozen”, “goire.men”, “this”, “[gmail]”, “VoIP”.

    Even the style is pretty inconsistent and to me, simply ugly. e.g. e, a (both too high on top like they will fall over: which is the shape, not just the hinting), the j is too narrow and the g is just weird. And over-all it’s just too wide for a screen-font (but that tends to be point-size specific).

    Is this preference for something so ugly just group-think? Baffling.

    The ubuntu font also has some odd shaped characters, r, and n and f spring to mind but otherwise it isn’t too bad. The ubuntu-font digits are nice.

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