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
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).
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.
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
fontand a typeface?Historically, typefacereferred to the overall family (e.g., Baskerville) and fontreferred 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]echnologyhas 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.