The worst screen shot of all time

The book Avatars of Story, published by the Regents of the University of Minnesota in 2006, contains an image of Olia Lialinas My Boyfriend Came Back from the War on page 153. This piece from 1996 is considered a classic of its genre and was designed for the browser. (See Last Real Net Art Museum.) Images from the piece have been printed in dozens of books already, but this reproduction on paper marks an all time low point:

"Slightly modified to enhace readability of text" ... was the text on screen harder to read than this mush?

Detail of the original web page, screen shot

The printed version is different from what is visible on the screen in several ways:

  1. There are changed and mixed typefaces.
  2. The lower border in the frame around "Who asks you?" is partly erased.
  3. The image gives a generally "crumbly" and blurry impression.

Let's close in on the printed screen shot:

Detail from the printed screen shot

Around each letter you can see the typical shotgun bullet holes. This effect is caused by anti-aliased typefaces (rendered with "smoothed edges"), spewn out by MacOS X and most Windows operating systems. Such smoothed letters do not only contain the colors black and white, but also gray tones in between:

Enlarged screenshot of anti-aliased type

In printing there is only black ink on white paper. The gray tones have to be reproduced with black dots of different sizes and different distances from each other. (This transformation is called "halftone raster".)

1. "Smooth edged" screen type, rasterized for printing
2. Vektor graphic type, printed with the same resolution

To really "enhance readability of text" in the case of anti-aliased screen type for print, there are these options:

  1. Cover the low resolution pixel type with vector graphic type. Vector graphic type is rendered at the resolution of the imagesetter, at least 1500 dpi, and is not anti-aliased. There will be no shotgun bullets around the letters and each character's details will be visible. It will look very different from what was on the screen originally, but, well, it will be easier to read. Compare the two images above.
  2. Before taking a screen shot, switch off the "anti-aliasing" or "smooth edges" of the operating system. The type would still be rendered at the monitor's low resolution, but without shotgun bullet holes, and the complete impression of the image would stay rather unchanged.

But in the case of the book and screen shot in question, the following measurements were taken:

  1. The low resolution, anti-aliased type was replaced by equally low resolution, anti-aliased type -- from another typeface. While falsifying the impression of the image, nothing was gained. (Please also note the fresh typos: "neighbour" becomes "neighbor" and the question mark in "Who asks you?" gets an extra space.)
  2. Because these new type had to cover the old, black rectangles were used as "grounding". This was made in a very sloppy way so the lower border of the frame around "Who asks you?" was party covered.
Original and "enhanced readability"

To just leave the screen shot as it is would have been more adequate. Clumsily tampering with the text image in a piece that is mostly made from text didn't improve anything.

Please compare this halftone rasterized version of the screenshot with anti-aliasing switched off:


  1. If in doubt: Leave the bitmaps alone!
  2. On the monitor there might be cases where anti-aliasing of type improves an image. This is not the case for print.
  3. Still it is better to print originally anti-aliased type than to fool around with the screen shot. Adaption of gray tone mapping curves will lead to more pleasant outcomes in the case of hardly readable text.

Pre-Response to forseeable objections

The people at Apple® Computers are thinking that all bitmaps visible on the screen display photographic content -- others are on the road to adopt this opinion. On a Macintosh®, even icons look like photos. The operating system routine in MacOSX® that draws bitmaps to the monitor and that is also called by browsers, uses bicubic interpolation if an image should be displayed enlarged. While it might look okay with photos, with low resolution screen graphics it brings on the awful looking bicubic mush.

So if you are looking at enlarged low resolution screen graphics with a browser running on top of an Apple® operating system, then are making a screen shot and then having this screen shot printed, you are not really contributing to a faithful reproduction of bitmap graphics on paper. (This is obviously what happened in the case of the discussed screenshot, as the piece uses dynamically sized images and came out as blurry as can be.)

Most graphic designers are using Apple® computers and at the same time completely forgot about the actual pixels. Pixels are victims of overzealous anti-aliasing on the side of the operating system. Please, take your time with low resolution pixel graphics and find a way to bring pixels to paper in a dignified way. After that you might continue mushing photos.

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