UUU: I’ve Just Seen a Face

(Published some time after the scheduled date.)

Bizarre. I seem to have written nearly four years' worth of columns without discussing typography. I've touched on typography in passing (as in column ddd and column UU), but I haven't said much about it, and I haven't talked about fonts.

Fonts are everywhere. I had a minor epiphany a few years back, when it occurred to me that every piece of text that's not hand-written has a font. Street signs (I just found out that there's a font called Interstate, based on the lettering of US freeway signs), store names, billboards, brand names... Someone had to design the shapes of the letters.

(I should digress right from the start to note that technically speaking, a typeface is a general design for a set of characters (such as Stone Serif), while a font is a typeface in a particular size and style, such as Stone Serif 12 Italic. (The word font is related to the word foundry, from roots having to do with pouring, presumably because metal was once poured into casts to create type.) But these days the words are often loosely used interchangeably, particularly in a computer context; one might refer to Stone Serif as a font, even though strictly speaking it's a typeface.)

I'm afraid that I don't have time or space to provide a real introduction to typography. If you need one, try The Mac Is Not a Typewriter, a useful little book laying out the fundamentals. (If you know anything about typography, you won't find much new in this book—but you may find it useful to loan out to friends who aren't used to computers and who persist in pressing return at the end of every line they type.) (It also has a sequel, The Mac Is Still Not a TypewriterBeyond the Mac Is Not a Typewriter, but I haven't read that one yet. And there's a related volume, The PC Is Not a Typewriter, for Windows users.)

The terminology of typography, like most technical jargon, can be pretty incomprehensible to outsiders—though the advent of desktop publishing in the '80s paved the way for ordinary people to talk knowledgeably about some aspects. For example, most people who've done page layout probably know that a serif is the little cross-stroke at the ends of lines in many letters, in some typefaces. One fundamental division of typefaces is between fonts that have serifs and sans-serif fonts, which don't.

In general, I dislike most sans-serif fonts. They look plain and ugly to me. In the US, they're most often and most appropriately used as display faces: that is, for things like headlines, headings, and advertisements. I'm told, though, that in Europe, sans-serif fonts are widely used for big blocks of text. There have been studies that demonstrate that serif fonts are more readable for body text, but apparently other studies make clear that what's really going on is that the most readable font for any given person is the one that's most familiar. (This probably explains why so many math and science folks seem to like the default font used by TeX.) I've recently fallen mildly in love with a sans-serif font: Verdana, a clear, readable, and elegant typeface that's popping up everywhere on the Web. (On the Web, you can't guarantee that everyone will see your text in the same font, but you can specify a list of fallback fonts: for example, specifying "Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" tells a Web browser to display in Verdana if available, and otherwise to fall back on Arial, then Helvetica, then the browser's locally specified default sans-serif font.)

But I digress. Some more typography terms:

em dash
A dash the width of a capital letter M in a given font. Used to indicate an interruption in a thought.
en dash
A dash the width of a capital letter N in a given font, wider than a hyphen. Used most often to indicate a range of numbers; not often used by non-professionals.
The amount of space between a pair of adjacent letters. In well-designed fonts, there are special kerning attributes for certain letter pairs—Av, for example, might be more closely spaced than Ax.
The amount of space between lines. Pronounced /'lEd iN/, not /'lid iN/—derives from the days of metal type, when you used a thin strip of lead between one line and the next to separate them.
Describes a font in which all characters are the same width, such as Courier or Monaco. The opposite of "proportional-spaced" fonts, in which a lowercase i, for example, is much narrower than a lowercase m.
1/72 of an inch; unit of measure for the height of type. Capital letters in a 12-point font are 1/6 of an inch high.
The height of a lowercase letter x in a given font. This is the same as the height of any letter which doesn't have an ascender (a part that reaches above the x-height line) or a descender (a part that reaches below the baseline).

There are plenty of other type-related terms: gothic, modern, bold, extended, condensed, and so on. The names of fonts are sometimes even better than the fonts themselves: I love the names Univers and Lucida, but am not terribly fond of how the fonts look. Fonts are named after people, places, art styles, inspirations, or just evocative words. Here are some more font names I like (some of which would also make good band names):

Aardvark, Arcadia, Ariadne, Azariel, Baskerville, Caledonia, Caliban, Citadel, Cloister, Comrade, Celestia Antiqua, Dizzy, Epitaph, Falstaff, Fobia, Friz Quadrata, Grotesque, Herculanum, Impact, Ironmonger, Jam, Juniper, Kniff, Lafayette, Magneto, Mistral, Narcissus, Notre Dame, Onyx, Oxford, Park Avenue, Penumbra, Quixotic, Quinquifoliolate, Rats, Sassafras, Spartan Classified, Shuriken Boy, Studz, Trebuchet, Utopia, Visigoth, Wessex, Xanadu, Xenotron, Xerox Malfunction, Yazata, Zapatec.

I still don't have space or time to launch into a philosophical discussion of letterforms and character recognition, OCR, and how we can see a letter's fundamental letterness even when it's undergone extreme distortion for design reasons. For all of those things, I'll refer you to Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas, and to Knuth's work on Metafont.

Here are some links to miscellaneous font-related pages I like:

  • The B drop-cap at the start of this column is a screen snap of a character from a font by L'Abecedarienne, based on the work of Albrecht Dürer, who apparently had very strong ideas about exactly how letters should be drawn.
  • I learned of the Interstate font from an amusing tidbit in Lines & Splines.
  • Adobe provides informative articles about type and design in Adobe Type Topics.
  • Here's a lovely April Fool's page from The Scriptorium, an online type foundry.
  • Some alien fonts.
  • The Font Bureau has great examples for each typeface they sell.
  • The Font Foundry has a bunch of freeware and shareware fonts.
  • Peachpit Press has more info about Robin Williams' design books.

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