A font is a very specific thing. A font is the entire set of characters for a given type style. In the days of letterpress (1460 to 1970), a font was all the characters in a given point size. You had Times 12-point, Times 14-point, Garamond 18-point, and so on. In some old fonts, this was hundreds of characters.
When phototype became available in the 1950s, a font came in several sizes. These film strips could be enlarged through various lenses to give you a dozen or more sizes for your money. A common setup, using twelve lenses in a turret, was 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 24, 30, and 36 point. Zoom lenses were the most exciting. For example, one phototypesetting machine went from 6-point to 72-point in half-point increments and 72-point to 144-point in one-point increments.
Today, in the digital arena, a font is simply a complete set of characters for a given style. It is available in any size from a tenth of a point to 1296 points in InDesign.
How many characters in a font?
Typewriters were limited to about 88 characters, although that varied a little. We had the QWERTY keyboard and then those same keys with the shift key held down. The shift key was called that because it physically shifted the entire set of letters—lifting them high enough to use the second set available on all the metal keys.
Many of you still think that these are all the letters we need. This is not true. This is not even close to being correct. In fact, we need access to several hundred characters, as professional typesetters. Even in English we are really limited. But first, we need to mention one of the major differences between PC and Mac.
7-bit ASCII: the PC limitation
When Bill (Gates) and the crew designed DOS, they knew nothing about typesetting. As a result, they were very pleased to offer 7-bit ASCII. ASCII is just an acronym for a regulating group setting a standard numbering order for letter characters, but the key here is 7-bit. Remembering your digital code, 7-bit is 128 choices. So, with 7-bit ASCII, PCs had 128 characters.
Good, you say. That is much more than the 88 found on a typewriter. And, in fact, these machines were used only as glorified typewriters. In truth, there wasn’t much glory there, but that’s another story.
8-bit ASCII: the Mac limitation
When the Mac came out, it supported 8-bit ASCII. We Macophiles have used this for years to lord it over our poor restricted buddies using PCs. However, even the 256 characters of 8-bit ASCII do not even come close to what is needed for typesetting. It does enable us to set type professionally in most European languages—sorta.
8-bit ASCII is essential for desktop publishing. Without all 256 characters, there are many things that are a real pain. As a PC user, you will run into that pain very quickly. There are many special characters that you will need to use all the time. On a PC, these characters are called upper ASCII characters and are only available by holding down the Alt key and typing four numbers on the numerical keypad. The chart to the left shows all 128 upper-ASCII characters. Those from 129 and up require the Alt+four-number routine. The number is in the gray bar to the right of the character the character. The code in the middle column is for the Mac keystroke: O = Option, S = Shift.
This is not to say the Mac is much better. However, all these extra characters are available with the Option key. You do have to memorize the shortcuts. But, Option-8 for a bullet is much easier to remember than Alt+0149. And, Option+Shift+8 for the degree symbol makes visual sense, at least. Many Mac keystrokes are easier to memorize.
Plus, once you learn the double-stroke combinations to add accents, they are simple to remember: Option-n, then n gives you ñ [ntilde], for example. Option-e, then any vowel will add the accent éáó [eacute, aacute, oacute]; Option-u adds the umlaut (or diaresis) ü [udiaresis]; and so on. In fact, if you have a strange letter that looks like another letter, try it with the Option key. For example, the ø [oslash] is just Option-o.
The cross-platform issues
In early desktop publishing this was a major issue. Not only were PCs 7-bit and Macs 8-bit, but PCs could not read Mac fonts and Macs could not read PC fonts. InDesign solved this problem. However, as we will see in the next couple of pages, the problem is so huge that a better solution had to be found, and it has been: OpenType. We’ll discuss this OpenType solution next week.
Additional characters needed for book typography
But we have just begun to talk about what’s in a font. There are hundreds of characters, which are necessary to typography, that we have not mentioned yet.
One of the typesetting options in most professional software (and many word processors) has been the use of small caps. Most of you are probably familiar with this from tutorials of any of the professional publishing programs. Small caps are capital letters that have been reduced to the x-height and used in place of lower case letters.
The problem is that you may have never seen true small caps. What we normally get is proportionally reduced caps. This makes small caps look much thinner and lighter than the capitals they are with. With true small caps, the stroke weights of the small caps are the same as for the caps and lowercase of the normal font. There are quite a few specialized fonts that have no lowercase — just caps and small caps.
The problem? There isn’t room to fit true small caps into an 8-bit (256 character) font that already has lowercase letters.
Old style figures
Some of you may have noticed that the numbers used in the body copy of this blog seem to flow with the type a little better than usual. That is because the font I am using has old style figures. Many of you are probably not aware that numbers come in three basic sets: oldstyle figures (lowercase), lining figures (capitals), and small cap figures.
Lining figures are appropriate for use with capital letters, but nothing else. In fact, they look like capitalized characters in the flow of regular U&lc copy (shouting in online writing parlance). Oldstyle figures are far less intrusive and flow much better when reading. Small Cap figures are used with small caps.
The problem? There isn’t room to fit oldstyle figures into an 8-bit font that already has lining figures [& certainly not Small Cap figures].
We’ll continue next week
We are already far over the basic 256 character slots found in “normal” fonts. We’ll talk about some more necessary additional characters, plus some beautiful options as we continue this talk about “What is a font?”