font basicsfrequently asked questions

Fonts con­trol the vi­sual ap­pear­ance of all text ren­dered by a com­puter. Every word you read on screen—whether through your word proces­sor, web browser, or mo­bile app—uses a font. As does every word that the com­puter prints.

Fonts aren’t ap­pli­ca­tion pro­grams, like your word proces­sor or web browser. They are more akin to data files, like MP3s or PDFs. Each font file con­tains in­for­ma­tion that de­fines the shapes of the let­ters, spac­ing, kern­ing, Open­Type fea­tures, and other mis­cel­lany. There’s one font file for each style in the fam­ily. (A style means one vi­sual vari­ant, like ro­man, italic, bold, etc.)

The best pro­fes­sional fonts are bet­ter than any sys­tem font—and in ways that every writer, even those who think they don’t have an eye for ty­pog­ra­phy, can ap­pre­ci­ate. Though you can’t have the world’s best ty­pog­ra­phers han­dle your doc­u­ment lay­out, you can in­cor­po­rate their work into your doc­u­ments with a font.

Right. But as a writ­ing tool, they’re a great value. You can get a top-qual­ity pro­fes­sional-font fam­ily for un­der $200. These fonts will im­prove the ap­pear­ance of every doc­u­ment you cre­ate. And un­like most tech pur­chases, they don’t break, they don’t go ob­so­lete in three years, and they don’t need to be up­graded monthly (if ever). Best of all, you can put them to work with­out learn­ing any­thing new. What other hard­ware or soft­ware can you say that about?

Re­ally, the hard­est thing about us­ing pro­fes­sional fonts is choos­ing from the thou­sands avail­able. But once you nar­row them down—by prac­ti­cal re­quire­ments, by cost, by per­sonal taste —you’ll have a rea­son­ably small set to choose from.

Since this is an in­tro­duc­tion to the world of pro­fes­sional fonts, on the next pages, I’ve taken some fonts that you’re likely fa­mil­iar with—namely, com­mon sys­tem fonts—and cho­sen some pro­fes­sional fonts that would make good alternatives.

Also keep in mind that nearly every font you see in a book, news­pa­per, or mag­a­zine can be li­censed for your own use. To fig­ure out the name of the font you’re look­ing at, see iden­ti­fy­ing fonts in the appendix.

Fonts are sold on­line. You can buy fonts ei­ther di­rect from the web­sites of font de­sign­ers, or from re­tail­ers who sell fonts from many de­sign­ers. There’s not much dif­fer­ence in price, which is in the range of $20–50 per style. Af­ter you pay, you down­load the fonts and in­stall them.

How to install (or remove) fonts

Win­dows All ver­sions of Win­dows since XP use the same pro­ce­dure. Go to the Start menu → Control PanelFonts. This will open a folder with all your in­stalled fonts. Drag your new fonts into this folder. (To re­move fonts, delete font files from this same folder.)

Mac In the Applications folder, launch Font Book. Drag your new fonts into the font list. (To re­move fonts, delete fonts from the list.)

Once in­stalled, new fonts show up in your font menu along with the usual sys­tem fonts. Use them the same way.

CSS Web­fonts are pro­vided ei­ther as a re­motely hosted re­source, or as a set of files that you host on your own server. Ei­ther way, once you have ac­cess to the file, you es­tab­lish a name for the font in your CSS with the @font-face de­c­la­ra­tion. Af­ter that, you can in­cor­po­rate it into any of your CSS styles us­ing the font-fam­ily property.

When you buy pro­fes­sional fonts, what you’re really buy­ing is a li­cense to use the fonts. The most com­mon way font li­censes are vi­o­lated is when some­one buys a sin­gle-user li­cense and then shares it with oth­ers. An­other com­mon way is when a spe­cific type of li­cense is pur­chased (say, a print li­cense) and then the font is put to an un­li­censed use (say, as a webfont).

Font li­censes dif­fer. So when you’re shop­ping for pro­fes­sional fonts, make sure that the li­cense for a par­tic­u­lar font lets you do what you need.

Please—be a good ty­po­graphic cit­i­zen. Buy the li­cense you need. Don’t use fonts you didn’t pay for.

by the way
  • Most pro­fes­sional fonts are de­liv­ered in the Open­Type for­mat. Some are of­fered in the older True­Type for­mat. But both Open­Type and True­Type files can be used on ei­ther Win­dows or Mac, so the tech­no­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tions are largely moot. One no­table ex­cep­tion: Mi­crosoft Of­fice on Win­dows, for var­i­ous bad and ar­bi­trary rea­sons, still does bet­ter with True­Type fonts.

  • What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a font and a type­face? I’ll tell you, then you can for­get about it. His­tor­i­cally, type­face re­ferred to the over­all fam­ily (e.g., Baskerville) and font re­ferred to a spe­cific in­stance of the fam­ily (e.g., 10-point Baskerville Bold Italic). This dis­tinc­tion made sense in the let­ter­press age, when each font cor­re­sponded to a drawer of metal type. But, as lex­i­cog­ra­pher Bryan Gar­ner points out,Tech­nol­ogy has changed the mean­ing of this term … font most of­ten de­notes a whole fam­ily of styles that can be printed at al­most any size.” (See Gar­ner’s Mod­ern Amer­i­can Us­age, 3rd ed., p. 364.) There­fore, it’s fine to use font to mean both the fam­ily and a spe­cific style. I do.

  • Font names are con­fus­ing, even for pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phers. Names of con­tem­po­rary fonts (e.g., Myr­iad, Min­ion) are trade­marked, so their names are dis­tinct. But names of long-dead ty­pog­ra­phers (e.g., Baskerville, Gara­mond, Caslon) are not pro­tected, and their names get in­cluded in many font names whether the as­so­ci­a­tion is apt or not.

    The name of a dead ty­pog­ra­pher says noth­ing about the qual­ity of the font nor how it ap­pears on the page. For in­stance, Stem­pel Gara­mond and ITC Gara­mond are about as sim­i­lar as Bart Simp­son and Lisa Simpson.

    To fur­ther com­pli­cate the pic­ture, some fonts with trade­marked names (e.g., Hel­vetica, Palatino) have been re­vised and re­leased un­der slightly dif­fer­ent names (e.g., Hel­vetica Neue, Palatino Nova). So pay at­ten­tion to the full name.