Expert Type Tricks

At no other time in history have so many people had the wherewithal to set type. As far as technology goes, this is typography's golden age. We have more power than the commercial typesetters of a decade ago: faster computers with larger hard drives; WYSIWYG software such as Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress that allows us to assemble whole pages with type and images in place; and access to any commercial-quality font we can think of (at a tiny fraction of the cost typographers used to pay).

One thing hasn't changed: Good typography still aims to give readers easy access to the printed word. The craft of typesetting is a never-ending quest for perfect spacing and good typographic color (a nice tweedy texture). Some of the problems that mar the graceful flow of text and impede reading are caused by a lack of appropriate characters in the fonts we use. Software is getting better at helping us solve these problems–QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign both automatically replace appropriate letter combinations with the fi and fl ligatures, for example; and InDesign can in some cases go even further, fetching old-style figures (numerals) or small caps, so long as you're using OpenType fonts that include these characters (see "The Hope of OpenType").

For now, however, we still need to search out other solutions for at least two of the problems that plague contemporary text. One problem is the tendency of some characters–the ƒ in many typefaces–to collide with their neighbors, which creates distracting blobs that not only mar the graceful flow of text but also impede reading. And the other problem is the increasingly common use of acronyms, abbreviations, and runs of figures, which create small barriers to swift reading–it's as if the reader must climb over these rectangular objects. To solve these problems, you can turn to supplemental expert, alternate, or SC&OSF (small caps and old-style figures) fonts.


It's almost certain that you'll need the standard five ƒ -ligatures ( ff, fi, ffi, fl, and ffl ) to set readable, professional-looking text. This is because the lowercase ƒ –which in many typefaces is topped by a sweeping arch that bows into the next letter's visual space–fits awkwardly next to some letters, including the l , the i , and the ƒ itself. This ugly collision of letter parts can distract even casual readers and make the words hard to read. Combinations with ƒ are especially likely to cause problems because we use ƒƒ , ƒi , and ƒl frequently in English.

Look at what happens with Carter & Cone Type's ITC Galliard and Adobe Caslon in the examples on the next page. In each case, the serif or finial at the end of the arch bumps into the dot of the i or the stem of taller letters, and the crossbars are the wrong length in these combinations. Using ligatures fixes these problems. Here are a few ways to find the ligatures you need.

ITC Galliard Without ligatures, top; with ligatures, bottom.

Adobe Caslon Without ligatures, top; with ligatures, bottom.

1. Choose a font package that includes at least five of the ƒ -ligatures in the base font. Although the mainstream font companies–among them Adobe, Agfa, Monotype, and Linotype-Hell–include only fi and fl ligatures, some smaller companies make room for five ƒ -ligatures. Most Font Bureau (617/423-8770; ) fonts have all the ligatures, for example. So do the FF Thesis font from FontShop (888/333-6687; ); Winchester New, Founders Caslon, and Johnston from ITC (212/949-8072; ); Adagio Didot from PrecisionType (800/248-3668; ); and Miller from Carter & Cone Type (800/952-2129). This approach narrows your typeface choices considerably, but having all the ligatures available at a keystroke (rather than in an expert set) is easier and less likely to cause the expert character ligatures to revert to the regular face (the font defined in your style sheet). It also helps ensure even spacing and saves on manual kerning.

The main drawback to using fonts with custom encoding schemes is that the wrong characters show up if you reset the text in a different font or if you exchange files across platforms.

2. Choose a font package that has a supplemental expert set available with the full set of ligatures. Most foundries produce these for their exclusive lines: the Adobe Original fonts, including Minion, Myriad, Utopia, Adobe Caslon, Adobe Garamond, and Jenson; some classical fonts from Monotype (800/424-8973; ), including Bembo, Centaur, and Perpetua; and Cataneo and ITC Charter from Bitstream (800/522-3668; ).

ITC Winchester New Some fonts offer ligatures (bottom) that you may not need. The f in this font behaves without ligatures (top).

The drawback to expert sets is that since kern pairs do not work from one font to another, you'll probably need to kern the imported ligatures manually to adjoining letters. If you use style sheets, there's also a risk that text will revert to the base font, so you'll have to proofread carefully just before output.

3. Choose typefaces whose ƒ doesn't overhang–they don't require ƒ -ligatures. Paradoxically, this could include ITC Winchester New, which has lovely ligatures in the base font. Other text faces with little need for ƒ -ligatures include Sabon, Meridien, and Trump Medieval.

Another impediment to well-spaced, easy-to-read text is strings of large characters, usually capital letters or figures (also called lining figures –the kind normally provided in standard fonts today). These are as disastrous to text as lumps in mashed potatoes, and they're common nowadays, with our frequent use of acronyms and abbreviations, dollar figures, long telephone numbers, and mixed letter-and-number expressions such as FY1999 or Millennium 2000 . These unyielding strings of bulky characters form dark clots in the text, which is unattractive and distracting to readers (see "Remove the Lumps"). Worse, they become barriers to easy reading. They can also cause spacing problems, forcing gaps or crowding to avoid breaking a problem term.

Remove the Lumps Text without expert characters, top; text with old-style figures and designed small caps, bottom.

Get rid of such nuisances by using old-style figures for the numbers in running text and designed small caps instead of all caps for acronyms. Today's type designers provide old-style figures and small caps for fonts inspired by many historic periods, even for that quintessentially modern invention, the sans serif typeface. Berthold Formata (from Adobe), Scangraphic's Today Sans (DsgnHaus [800/942-9110; ]), FF Scala Sans (FontShop), and non-Adobe versions of ITC Legacy Sans (from DsgnHaus or FontShop in the United States) are among the sans serif font sets that include these useful characters.

Old-Style Figures

Old-style (lowercase, nonlining) figures have ascenders and descenders like those in the text around them, and normally vary in width as do the lowercase letters, so they fit together more gracefully when mixed with text. You have a few options for incorporating old-style figures into your text:

1. Use fonts that have old-style figures with the basic character set. This is the easiest way to get old-style characters into your text, although there aren't many of these fonts. With some of its newer fonts, including ITC Octone and ITC Winchester New, ITC gives you the choice of sets with either old-style or lining figures, each with standard bold and italic variants.

2. Although only a handful of fonts, such as Monotype's Bell and Dante and Carter & Cone Type's Miller, have them, you can also use three-quarter-height figures instead of full lining figures (see "Three-Quarter-Height Figures").

Three-Quarter-Height Figures Three fonts whose figures are three-quarter-height: Bell, top; Dante, middle; and Miller, bottom.

3. Use fonts that come with an expert set. This solution gives you all the characters you need, including the ƒ -ligatures, but means that you'll be using two fonts in your text and that you'll therefore need to proofread extra carefully before printing the job.

4. Use fonts that come with an SC&OSF set. The main drawback to using a type family with only an SC&OSF supplemental font is that you have no access to the three missing ƒ -ligatures, which are essential for many type designs that feature a dramatically overhung ƒ (and useful for aesthetic reasons in many other type designs as well).

Small Caps

Designed small caps were out of style for decades (except in traditional book design), but they have had a renaissance in the past few years. These are not crudely reduced versions of the standard uppercase letters–they're proportioned differently and are usually a bit wider than their larger cousins, with line weights balanced for use in text that includes both upper- and lowercase characters (see "Small-Cap Comparison"). If your software has a small-caps function, it's simply reducing the regular caps; one of the tip-offs is a kind of pinched look to the characters, along with spindly line weights that appear awkward next to all the standard characters.

Small-Cap Comparison A designed small cap (top right) is more graceful than a regular cap reduced to match the small-cap height (top left).

Although the small caps in many fonts today are just about the same height as the lowercase x-height, they should actually be a bit taller. You may need to increase the type size of small caps by half a point or a point to make them fit more gracefully amid lowercase letters.

Small caps are useful in lieu of italics to set off book titles in text, or for acronyms of three or more letters (but you'll have to convert the text to lowercase first). Small caps make a graceful transition into standard text from a rising or dropped cap at the beginning of a chapter or article. They are also traditional for running heads and secondary titles in books.

Gently add letterspacing for small caps (that is, add space between the letters), just as you would for all caps.

The ways to create small caps are similar to the methods for attaining old-style figures:

1. Use fonts that come with an expert set that includes small caps (this also gives you the ƒ -ligatures).

2. Use fonts that come with an SC&OSF set. These fonts, available from Linotype, Adobe, and other mainstream companies, should have regular caps on the uppercase keys, which makes using caps with small caps much easier.

Our Macs may have brought typesetting to a golden age, but for all its magical powers, the computer doesn't automatically produce professional-quality type that is both appealing to the eye and easy to read. For that we need expert characters, as well as some of the tricks of the ancient typographic trade to help us use them.

November 1999 page: 129

Adobe and Microsoft have been collaborating on a new cross-platform font format called OpenType, which can include thousands of characters in a single font with either Type 1 or TrueType outlines. On the Mac, Adobe's new InDesign page-layout program, expected out by the time you read this, will be the first major application to support the new format, and some new "wide" fonts are expected from Adobe and others at the time of InDesign's release.

Unlike the case with Apple's QuickDraw GX a few years ago, users will not have to choose between traditional font formats and the new one–applications are supposed to be able to use any of the formats interchangeably. Users will be able to convert existing fonts to OpenType for purposes of exchanging fonts across platforms (although this will not cure the inherent conflicts between the Mac and Windows character sets), but no utilities will be capable of merging, say, regular and expert sets to create new wide OpenType fonts. We'll have to wait for the foundries to release these at some time in the future. So it doesn't seem that OpenType will help most of us solve problems with the use of expert characters in the next year or so.

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