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118. About Fonts

By Andrew D. Wright

In the beginning was the word and the word was ASCII (pronounced "askee"). Ninety-five printable characters making up the standard Western letters, numbers and punctuation marks. In 1963 the American Standard Code for Information Interchange was first published to standardize how text was sent between different devices.

Telegraphs, teletype machines, and teleprinters needed a common way to talk to each other. ASCII's 127 character set of printable characters and hidden control codes were developed to meet the need.

When computers came into common usage, one of the most heavily promoted uses for them was desktop publishing. A single computer user could create documents that would have taken a print shop with specialized equipment before.

By the 1970's typesetting by forming lines of type out of strips of molten metal had been replaced by light-sensitive printing. The type would be set by shining light through a letter-shaped stencil onto light sensitive paper. This paper would be developed like a photograph, cut into pieces to make a page layout and sent to the printer, who would take a picture of the page layout on treated light-sensitive metal sheets that would be used for the actual printing.

Light-sensitive printing made using different typefaces much easier. It was far simpler to make a stencil for light to pass through than to sculpt the letters into metal blocks.

The new dot-matrix printers and laser printers could make the shapes of letters using tiny dots of ink. Characters could now be readily printed with any font in any size.

[Graphic: different kinds of font.] There are two basic sorts of font: monospace, where every letter takes up the same amount of room, like old manual typewriters, and proportional, where thinner letters like l take up less room than wider letters like w.

Adobe Systems PostScript became the standard way to send instructions to these new printers. PostScript included instructions on how to print characters at different sizes so curves in the letters didn't look jagged or boxy when printed.

The licensing fees for using PostScript were quite expensive so Apple Computer developed their own way to make different typefaces, which eventually came to be known as TrueType. Early TrueType fonts included serif fonts Times Roman and Courier and sans serif font Helvetica.

Apple licensed TrueType to Microsoft, who worked on improved versions of the Apple fonts and included them with Windows 3.1. To this day Windows computers use TrueType fonts like Times New Roman, Courier New and Arial, each compatible with the original Apple font versions.

A TrueType font has the file extension .ttf and is a set of instructions for creating different shaped characters. Microsoft and Adobe Systems have developed a successor to it called OpenType, with a .otf file extension.

Fonts are much more complex and important than they would first appear. Design of a font combines artistry and science to make letters look good together in different combinations and sizes, convey an emotional tone and be readily legible under different conditions. A badly designed font can be tiring or difficult to read, while a well designed font can have the power to save lives, as illustrated by the scientific re-design of the font used on highway signs.


Microsoft Typography:


The Story of the new Clearview Highway Font:


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Originally published 7 October 2007

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