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’re 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
The best professional fonts are better than any system font or free 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.
@font-face declaration. After that, you can incorporate it into any of your CSS styles using the
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.
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
fontand 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,font most often denotes a whole family of styles that can be printed at almost any size.” (See “Technology has changed the meaning of this term … Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed., p. 399.) 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.