This entry is the first in a series (at least that’s the plan) of short articles explaining exactly what all those mysterious abbreviations you come across in your typographic lives actually mean. The first abbreviation we’ll examine is OCR.
OCR (as in OCR-A) stands for Optical Character Recognition. Optical character recognition is a technology which essentially allows machines to extract digital text from images. OCR is commonly used to extract information like addresses from letters, text from old books, or even letters and numbers from license plates(!). Many commercial desktop scanners are sold with OCR software.
OCR technology is even used on MyFonts! Our WhatTheFont typeface identification tool incorporates OCR technology when guessing which letters appear in a submitted image.
With OCR, the more distinct each character is from the others, the less likely the machine is to mistake similar shapes, such as 3 and B, or 1 and I, etc. Thus, several fonts have been developed specifically for use with OCR technology. The two most popular of these are probably OCR-A (released by American Type Founders in 1968) and OCR-B (its European counterpart, developed that same year by Adrian Frutiger for Monotype). OCR-A is easier for machines to read, while OCR-B is easier for humans to read.
Similar to OCR fonts in their necessity for uniquely distinguishable letter shapes are MICR fonts. MICR stands for Magnetic Ink Character Recognition, which is a technology similar to OCR, but instead of extracting information from an image, it extracts it by reading specially printed magnetic ink. The most common use of MICR printing is for routing and account numbers on the bottom of bank checks.
Since OCR and MICR fonts are more closely related to technology than typographic beauty or human legibility, they are frequently used outside of their intended function to suggest a “technology” aesthetic, as with this album cover for the German electronic music group, Kraftwerk:
Inherently, OCR and MICR fonts have distinctly recognizable formal qualities that have been associated with technology and all things digital. Because of this, many typeface designers have borrowed these formal qualities when designing typefaces that may not be intended for use with OCR or MICR technology, but are simply meant to evoke certain feelings via association. Some examples are Data 70 by Bob Newman and Fiber Eno from Behaviour.
To see more fonts like these, try a search for “OCR” on MyFonts.
If you know any more info on OCR or MICR fonts, or spotted an inaccuracy in my article, please post it as a comment.