Thursday, August 23, 2007

I do not think "font" means what you think it means

I am regularly asked to change the font size, or asked what the best font color would be. This bugs the crap out of me, but normally I keep my mouth shut as its just too much effort. I have too traditional a design background. I've specified stuff for guys on linotype machines. Hell, I've set lead type and run a letterpress myself. So, here's the truth (the short version): A font is a collection of typefaces. Originally, sorta like the "font of wisdom," as an actual thing. Here's a physical font: A type cabinet Or, a type cabinet. Okay, actually the etymology is the same as foundry, cause you cast all the type. But it works for me to remember it. Anyway, this case does not contain a single font, but ideally its in a production environment, and a cabinet or three is occupied entirely with being one font. Within that, you have a number of typefaces. Here's a selection of them from one of my favorites, Futura: Futura typefaces Note that they vary in weight and tilt. A common weight is "bold." Ever heard it called "boldface?" That's because its a bold typeface. Even heavier weights are black, and half-divisions are usually "extra," like extra-bold, etc. Adrian Frutiger came up with a numbering scheme for his Univers face, but they are still usually labeled with the traditional names. Note the neat lighter and narrower faces that you probably didn't know existed. Italics don't really exist. Not sure where the word came from, and too lazy to look it up now. Oblique is what that's called in the type world where I come from. Now, another important thing is that all these faces exist. Selecting the bold face from the list is the right way to get pretty, accurate bold type. So, what happens when you just hilite a word, and press ctrl-B? Well, nothing good. The program applies a style to the face. It takes a guess as to what bold, or oblique, might look like in that sort of face, and just applies it, thickening lines or tilting forms. Its not bad these days, but its not right either. The type designer spent literally years perfecting his oblique face, and you just pressed ctrl-I and ignored all his work.

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