Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 144 / SEPTEMBER 1992 / PAGE 50

Font ABC's. (fonts for microcomputers) (Column)
by Mark Minasi

This month, we'll start looking at fonts on the PC, particularly under Windows, as the release of Windows 3.1 with TrueType has reopened a source of perennial mystery for a lot of PC users. But before we get started, here's an administrative note.

I'm thankful for the amount of mail that this column generates, and I want to answer all of your questions: Keep 'em coming. But if you need a reply, please don't send letters to me or COMPUTE without a self-addressed stamped envelope! I'm absolutely swamped at the moment working on two new books (one on OS/2, one on Windows) and a video script. So if I have to hunt around for an envelope and stamp in order to reply, that letter just ends up in the do-this-sometime pile. On the other hand, if I can zip off a quick reply, drop it in a self-addressed stamped envelope, and post it, I'll get it done quickly. Thanks in advance--now on to the column.

Just a few years ago, nobody worried about fonts. The first professional computer seminar I recall doing was in 1982, on the subject of spreadsheets. The class and I worked from a course book consisting of seven Xeroxed pages of dot-matrix output. Nowadays, any instructor working from material like that would get lynched. Then, like everybody else, I graduated to laser printers, marveling at the crispness of letter quality (remember that term?) Courier type.

In 1985, really nice-looking stuff starting flowing out of laser printers attached to Macintoshes. For the next few years, anytime I produced attractive-looking printouts, people would ask, "Did you do this on a Mac?" (I always answered, "No, I did it on a computer." Sorry, Mac guys--I couldn't resist.)

What was novel in 1985 became de rigueur by 1988. People started asking when I would "desktop publish" my materials. What they meant was, When will you stop using Courier and go to Times Roman and Helvetica? One vendor suggested broadly to me in 1989 that course materials in Courier were too low-class for her company. So in 1988, I changed my materials over to Microsoft Word, seeking Times and Helvetica. It was a nightmare.

Between 1989 and 1991, I struggled with a desktop publishing system based on a mainframe language called GML/Script. I still like it, but sadly, it's not supported on PCs anymore, so I was forced to switch. Then, fortuitously, Windows 3.0 came along. Now I use Ami Pro 2.0 and like it, except for its fatal flaw. Once you've gotten a document to look really nice, there's no way to reuse that document in another document, short of recreating it. Because of all the systems I've used, I've ended up buying and rebuying fonts for every system. What I want to do here is make sure that you don't have to buy and rebuy.

Let's start off here with some basics. What, exactly, are Times Roman and Helvetica? Take a look at figure 1, and you'll see the difference.

The words Times Roman are printed in the Times Roman typeface. The word typeface refers to how letters are formed. Note that the Helvetica lettering is simpler. The Times Roman lettering has little swishes called serifs at the edges of its letters (see figure 2). Helvetica doesn't, and it's called a sans-serif typeface for that reason.

Why are there different typefaces? Type designers are artists, and people who work with printed media know that a different typeface gives a different mood to the printed page. Take, for instance, Times Roman. It's very legible and unobtrusive. You don't look at the printed page and say, "My, that's an interesting typeface." You just see the same old typeface that you've been looking at since you first read a newspaper.

Times Roman was developed in 1929 by Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent for the Times of London newspaper. It gets its name from the fact that it was developed for the Times, and it's a roman face. Here, roman just means that it's not italic or boldface, so Times Roman is just the normal text face used by the Times of London.

When unveiling the new typeface, the Times dubbed it Times New Roman. The New is often dropped because one of the first versions available was offered by Linotype, which dropped New from the name. The version of Times Roman shipped with Windows 3.1 includes New in its name. Times first saw print in 1932 and was used by the Times until November of 1991, when the newspaper replaced Times New Roman with a newly designed type called Times Millennium. As it turns out, Times Roman's popularity was its downfall in the eyes of its creators: The Times didn't want to look like everyone else, so the newspaper chose a slightly different image.

Depending on whom you read, either Times or Helvetica is the best-selling and most used typeface in the world. Helvetica was born in 1957 to two founding fathers, Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman, both designers for the Haas Typefoundry in Switzerland. Its original name was New Haas Grotesk, where Grotesk refers to an early term for sans-serif typefaces--grotesque. They were called that because, believe it or not, the whole idea of a sans-serif typeface seemed ugly at the time (the early nineteenth century). Some printers in England still use the term grotesque instead of sans-serif. A Helvetica ships with Windows 3.1, but its name is Arial.

When selecting a particular type of text to print your document in, you'll no doubt come up against a confusing item: typeface versus font. Since the advent of laser printers brought typefaces to the PC world, most people have agreed that Times Roman isn't a font; it's a typeface. A font is Times Roman in a particular size, weight (is it bold or not?), and slant (is it italic or not?). Thus, we generally don't say that Times Roman is a font, but rather that Times Roman in the normal roman face and 12-point size is a font. (Discussion of size, or points, will be coming right up.)

You may recall that I discussed some of this a few months back, when I showed you how to make a LaserJet use a particular font. Why bring it up now? Because this terminology doesn't get used in the same way in the Windows world. There, if you open a dialog box controlling your printout's typeface, you'll see a list box containing all of your typefaces (Times Roman, Helvetica, or whatever), and the list box will be labeled Fonts. For whatever reason, the folks at Microsoft have thrown us a bit of a curve, so when someone uses the word font, it can't hurt to double-check to find out what is meant. When I use font in this column, I mean a particular combination of typeface, stroke weight, stroke slant, and size. I use type-face to refer to a particular type design, such as Helvetica or Times.

You're familiar now with what type-face means, but how about the other font-selection terms? Stroke weight is another important descriptor of a font. Strictly speaking, most typefaces offer only two weights: normal roman and bold. But others may offer varying degrees of weight; when you see extra bold, don't smile. Some font vendors also offer font packages with a light weight in addition to a bold and normal. Stroke slant refers to whether or not the typeface is italic. It's important to understand that you must actually have the italic or bold versions of a typeface in order to use italic or bold attributes. The computer can't just lean the letters over to create italic; the italic version of the face must be designed separately from its roman version. The same goes for bold. In fact, the bold versions of typefaces can look quite different from the normal roman faces.

Last on the list of font descriptors is point size. It refers to the height of the font; a point is a unit of measurement equal to 1/72 inch. By default, most word processors print in 10-point text. You may want to change that, depending on your audience. It's a little tough for farsighted people to read 10-point type, and there are more and more of these people around, as the population is aging. You'll find that 12-point type is considerably easier on the eyes, particularly if you're creating text that will be read by someone over, say, 35. I print my course books out in 12-point type and get positive comments about it all the time.

While we're on the subject of readability, let me make one more point about making text readable. Text lines that are squeezed too close together are a real challenge to read. If possible, open up the space between your text lines. The term for this is leading (pronounced so that it rhymes with bedding). Printers refer to it in combination with the text point size, as in a set of instructions to set something in 10 on 12 Helvetica, for example. This means to use Helvetica in a 10-point size with a total line height of 12 points--so there are 2 points left over for leading. Leading is vitally related to readability.

Here's a leading tip you'll find useful. Most word-processing and desktop publishing programs don't set leading correctly, so don't trust the line spacing. Ami Pro, for instance, prints 12-point Palatino way too close together, a feature I didn't notice until after I'd printed out my 200-page Windows manual and gotten copies made at the printer.