Though we think of a font as a set of characters with a uniform visual appearance, the genesis of these characters is anything but uniform. Our writing system brings together characters that were originally handwritten by people in different countries, in different centuries. To achieve a uniform appearance, a type designer has to harmonize these disparate forms.
Our uppercase alphabet came from the inscriptional capitals of the Romans. Our lowercase alphabet came from the European uncial alphabets of the Middle Ages, which themselves evolved from scribal approximations of the uppercase alphabet.
But our figures were invented in India. They spread westward through the influence of Persian and Arab mathematicians. Traditionally they were known as
Type designers have met this challenge by devising sets of
It’s never wrong to use the default figures in your font—namely, the ones you get when typing the keys 0–9. Those are put in the default position because they’re intended to work well across a range of contexts.
Not every font has every set of alternate figures listed here. Alternate figures are added based on the type designer’s impression of how the font will be used, and whether the alternates will be useful.
If alternate figures are included in your font, they’ll be implemented as OpenType features. Those caveats also apply, especially pertaining to application support.
These are the most common kind of figures, and the ones you’re most likely to find in the default position of a font.
Unlike lining figures, oldstyle figures are designed to look more like lowercase letters. The ones in Equity (shown below) are typical—some are short, some descend below the baseline, and some ascend. You won’t be surprised to hear that oldstyle figures work best in lowercase body text.
Still, I won’t say that they’re inherently better than lining figures for that purpose. As with justified text, you’ll see it done both ways in professional typography. And in context, oldstyle figures sometimes look a little, well, old. So the choice is yours.
With caps, however, you should not use oldstyle figures. They look wrong.
Tabular figures are set on a fixed width, so that every figure occupies the same amount of horizontal space (somewhat like a monospaced font). Proportional figures are not likewise uniform: the figures are set on varying widths that suit the shape of the figure.
Note that whether figures are lining or oldstyle is separate from whether they’re tabular or proportional. In fact, some fonts (like Concourse) have all four possible combinations—lining proportional, lining tabular, oldstyle proportional, and oldstyle tabular.
In body text, proportional figures are preferred, because they tend to have more even spacing and a more consistent appearance. But tabular figures are essential for one purpose: vertically aligned columns, like you find in grids of numbers.
That said, the default figures on many fonts—especially system fonts—are tabular lining figures, so they can move easily from your word-processing document to your spreadsheet. How do you know if your default figures are tabular? Type a line of zeroes above a line of ones. If they’re the same length, the figures are tabular.
No version of Microsoft Excel supports OpenType features. So if you want tabular figures in your Excel spreadsheet—and I think you do—you must limit yourself to fonts with tabular figures in the default figure positions. If you’re considering the purchase of a professional font to use in Excel, you should investigate this before you buy. (Numbers on the Mac supports OpenType features, so this caveat does not apply.)
High-end professional fonts include even more alternate figures as OpenType features: superiors, inferiors, ordinals, vertical fractions, diagonal fractions, and more. They’re beyond the scope of this book. But when you’re ready, they’ll be waiting.