font basicsfrequently asked questions

Fonts con­trol the vi­sual ap­pear­ance of all text ren­dered by a com­puter. Every word you read on screen—whether through your word proces­sor, web browser, or mo­bile app—uses a font. As does every word that the com­puter prints.

Fonts are not pro­grams, like your word proces­sor or web browser. They’re sta­tic data files, like MP3s or PDFs. Each font file con­tains in­for­ma­tion that de­fines the shapes of the let­ters, plus spac­ing, kern­ing, Open­Type fea­tures, and so on. There’s one font file for each style in the fam­ily. (A style means one vi­sual vari­ant, like ro­man, italic, bold, etc.)

The best pro­fes­sional fonts are bet­ter than any sys­tem font —and in ways that every­one, even those who think they don’t have an eye for ty­pog­ra­phy, can ap­pre­ci­ate. Though you can’t have the world’s best ty­pog­ra­phers lay out your doc­u­ments, you can in­cor­po­rate their work into your doc­u­ments with a font.

Pro­fes­sional fonts are also a great value. Yes, they cost money. But you can get a top-qual­ity font fam­ily for un­der $200. (Though I’ve also in­cluded two that are free—Cooper He­witt and Char­ter.) These fonts will im­prove the ap­pear­ance of every doc­u­ment you cre­ate, they’re dis­tinc­tive, they’ll never break, they won’t be ob­so­lete in three years, and they won’t need to be up­graded. Best of all, you can put them to work with­out learn­ing any­thing new.

On each page, I’ve started with a com­mon sys­tem font and picked pro­fes­sional fonts that would make good sub­sti­tutes. Each sam­ple page con­tains four fonts. The sys­tem font ap­pears at the top. The sec­ond font is a baby step—a pro­fes­sional font that’s as close as pos­si­ble to the sys­tem font but still a worth­while im­prove­ment. The third and fourth fonts are vis­i­bly dif­fer­ent but would still make good alternatives.

Fonts are sold on­line. You can buy fonts ei­ther di­rect from the web­sites of font de­sign­ers or from re­tail­ers who sell fonts from many de­sign­ers. There’s not much dif­fer­ence in price, which is in the range of $20 to 50 per style. Af­ter you pay, you down­load the fonts and in­stall them. For body text, the core styles you will want are ro­man, italic, bold, bold italic, and ro­man small caps.

Font names are con­fus­ing, even for pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phers. Cer­tain font names (e.g., Myr­iad, Min­ion) are trade­marked, so their names are dis­tinct. But names of long-dead ty­pog­ra­phers (e.g., Baskerville, Gara­mond, Caslon) are not pro­tected, and their names get in­cluded in many font names whether the as­so­ci­a­tion is apt or not. These names con­note noth­ing about the qual­ity of the font or how it ap­pears on the page. For in­stance, Stem­pel Gara­mond and ITC Gara­mond are as sim­i­lar as Bart Simp­son and Lisa Simp­son. To fur­ther com­pli­cate the pic­ture, some fonts with trade­marked names (e.g., Hel­vetica, Palatino) have been re­vised and re­leased un­der slightly dif­fer­ent names (e.g., Hel­vetica Neue, Palatino Nova).

How to install (or remove) fonts

Win­dowsStart menu → Control PanelFonts. This will open a folder with all your in­stalled fonts. Drag your new fonts into this folder. (To re­move fonts, delete font files from this same folder.)

Mac OSIn the Applications folder, launch Font Book. Drag your new fonts into the font list. (To re­move fonts, delete fonts from the list.)

Once in­stalled, new fonts show up in your font menu along with the usual sys­tem fonts. Use them the same way.

Fonts are soft­ware. Like most soft­ware, fonts are of­fered un­der a li­cense. Fonts are usu­ally li­censed per user. The most com­mon way font li­censes are vi­o­lated is when some­one buys a sin­gle-user li­cense and then shares it with oth­ers in the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Please—be a good ty­po­graphic cit­i­zen. Buy the num­ber of li­censes you need and fol­low the li­cense terms.

I have no fi­nan­cial stake in any of the fonts shown here, ex­cept the ones I de­signed—Eq­uity, Cen­tury Supra, Valkyrie, Con­course, Trip­li­cate, and Ad­vo­cate.

by the way
  • Most pro­fes­sional fonts are de­liv­ered in the Open­Type for­mat (.otf ex­ten­sion). Some are of­fered in the older True­Type for­mat (.ttf). Open­Type and True­Type files can be used on ei­ther Win­dows or Mac OS, so the tech­no­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tions are largely moot. One no­table ex­cep­tion: Mi­crosoft Of­fice on Win­dows, for var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, still does bet­ter with True­Type fonts. So if you’re get­ting a pro­fes­sional font to use with Of­fice, be sure to get the True­Type versions.

  • What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a font and a type­face? His­tor­i­cally, type­face re­ferred to the over­all fam­ily (e.g., Baskerville) and font re­ferred to a spe­cific in­stance of the fam­ily (e.g., 10-point Baskerville Bold Italic). This dis­tinc­tion made sense in the let­ter­press age, when each font cor­re­sponded to a drawer of metal type. But, as lex­i­cog­ra­pher Bryan Gar­ner has pointed out, “[t]ech­nol­ogy has changed the mean­ing of this term … font most of­ten de­notes a whole fam­ily of styles that can be printed at al­most any size.” (Gar­ner’s Mod­ern Eng­lish Us­age, 4th ed., p. 399.) In­ter­net pedants may carp, but it’s fine to use font to mean both the fam­ily and a spe­cific style. I do.

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