I break for descenders

Notice anything interesting about the sentence in this screenshot? Yes, it contains every letter in the English latin alphabet. Incidentally, it is set in Lucida Grande regular typeface. But what’s interesting about it, to me, is how the underlining breaks around the descenders— those tails of the letters q, j, p, y, and g that "descend" below the baseline.

I learned a long time ago that professional typography calls for minimal use of underlining, and when you must underline, you should place the underlines by hand so that they break before and after descenders. That way, you don’t get aesthetically displeasing line crossings on the letters.

What I didn’t know was that Mac OS X’s TextEdit program automatically breaks underlines before and after descenders. I don’t know when this feature was added, but I never noticed it before now. It’s great that there’s a program that automates the breaking of underlines so that they don’t cross descenders. It’s interesting to me that TextEdit — a program that comes with the Mac OS — does this, but Pages, a more advanced text editing and layout application, does not. I think it would be a good thing if Pages would offer all the features that TextEdit offers. Perhaps they will integrate Pages more with the Mac OS X font panel in the next version. I notice you can use the font panel to choose fonts and styles in Pages, but the underlining does not break around descenders in Pages the way it does in TextEdit— or MacJournal, for that matter, which integrates with the Font Panel as well as TextEdit does.

Am I missing something? Does Pages ’09 automatically break underlines around descenders? Are there other word processing programs that do? I would love to hear more about this from your experience.

Why are there nearly identical fonts?

I learned from the movie Helvetica that the reason Arial is nearly identical to Helvetica is that Microsoft didn’t want to pay license fees to distribute the Helvetica font so they hired Monotype to modify Linotype’s Helvetica slightly. They just made sure to keep the same font metrics so that a document written in Helvetica would have the same layout and pagination in Arial and vice versa.

But I don’t always understand why there are other fonts that are nearly identical but with different font metrics and/or line spacing; for instance, why are Monotype Corsiva and Apple Chancery so similar? Is it because Apple wanted their own copyright on a font similar to Monotype Corsiva? And why are Bordeaux Roman Bold LET and Monotype Onyx so similar? Is it because Microsoft commissioned Monotype to create Onyx in 1992 after LET created Bordeaux Roman Bold in 1990? Or is there just a “me too” factor involved, in which each foundry wants a product to fulfill similar demands?

I’ve spent some time looking at the differences and similarities, and I’ve noticed that Bordeaux Roman Bold has ligatures and a more extended character repertoire than Onyx, though Onyx is a bit bolder and easier on the eyes. Also, I like the tighter line spacing of Onyx. So it’s a hard to choose a favorite between Bordeaux Roman Bold and Onyx. It’s easy to pick Apple Chancery over Monotype Corsiva because Apple Chancery has a beautiful set of of both common and rare ligatures, more calligraphic letters (especially the slashed dot on the lowercase i), and a much larger character repertoire than Corsiva. When it comes to extended characters, Times New Roman beats Times, but I’ll choose Times almost every time because of its pretty ligatures. If I needed to format a text with rarer characters, though, I would choose Times New Roman. As with the choice between any two similar fonts, it comes down to the application— how many extended characters do you need for what you want to write?

And speaking of fonts whose names have “new” (or “neue”) in them, I’ve found that a “new” version of a font doesn’t always have more characters than the original. While Times New Roman and Courier New have more characters than Times and Courier, Helvetica Neue has a much smaller repertoire of characters than Helvetica. But then Helvetica Neue has all those lovely weights and widths, so it all depends…

Do you know more about the history behind fonts that are nearly identical? If so, please leave a comment and share the knowledge. Thanks!

Fonts with Descriptions

I recently reviewed all the fonts on my computer that had embedded descriptions, and I typeset the descriptions in their respective typefaces. The result is a demonstration of the typefaces and their history, features, and uses. To view these font descriptions in their proper typefaces you must have the fonts installed and enabled on your computer. To see the ligatures you will have to use a browser that supports them (Firefox 3.5 and later does). For the truest view, see Fonts with Descriptions (PDF). Below is the document in HTML format.

“Andale Monospaced is a highly legible monospaced font.” Regular only.
Arial: “Monotype Drawing Office 1982. A contemporary sans serif design, Arial contains more humanist characteristics than many of its predecessors and as such is more in tune with the mood of the last decades of the twentieth century. The overall treatment of curves is softer and fuller than in most industrial-style sans serif faces. Terminal strokes are cut on the diagonal which helps to give the face a less mechanical appearance. Arial is an extremely versatile family of typefaces which can be used with equal success for text setting in reports, presentations, magazines etc, and for display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains common ligatures that are not apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Arial Black: “…display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions.” Regular only.
Arial Narrow: “…an extremely versatile family of typefaces which can be used with equal success for text setting in reports, presentations, magazines etc, and for display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Arial Unicode MS: “This extended version of Monotype’s Arial contains glyphs for all code points within The Unicode Standard, Version 2.1.” Regular only. Contains typographical features such as common ligatures that are not apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”

Book Antigua: “This is a roman typeface based on pen-drawn letters of the Italian Renaissance. Because it is distinctive and gentle in appearance it can be used to give a document a different feel than is given by the more geometrical designs of most text faces. It is also useful for occasional lines, as in letter headings and compliments slips. Its beautiful italic has many uses of its own” (italicization mine for demonstration purposes). Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Bookman Old Style: “The origins of Bookman Old Style lie in the typeface called Oldstyle Antique, designed by A C Phemister circa 1858 for the Miller and Richard foundry in Edinburgh, Scotland. Many American foundries made versions of this type which eventually became known as Bookman. Monotype Bookman Old Style roman is based on earlier Lanston Monotype and ATF models. The italic has been re drawn following the style of the Oldstyle Antique italics of Miller and Richard. Although called ‘Old Style’, the near vertical stress of the face puts it into the transitional category. A legible and robust text face” (italicization mine for demonstration purposes). Regular, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic.
Brush Script MT: “This heavy, informal script looks as though it was written with a brush because its lowercase letters join together. Use the uppercase letters primarily as initials, although you might find it interesting to use all CAPITALS of this typeface for some words” (capitalization mine for demonstration purposes). Regular only.
Calibri “is a modern sans serif family with subtle roundings on stems and corners. It features real italics, Small Capitals, and multiple numeral sets. Its proportions allow high impact in tightly set lines of big and small text alike. Calibri’s many curves and the new rasteriser team up in bigger sizes to reveal a warm and soft character” (italicization and small capitalization mine for demonstration purposes). Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains other typographic features such as common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Cambria “has been designed for on-screen reading and to look good when printed at small sizes. It has very even spacing and proportions. Diagonal and vertical hairlines and serifs are relatively strong, while horizontal serifs are small and intend to emphasize stroke endings rather than stand out themselves. This principle is most noticeable in the italics where the lowercase characters are subdued in style to be at their best as elements of word-images. When Cambria is used for captions at sizes over 20 point, the inter-character spacing should be slightly reduced for best results. The design isn’t just intended for business documents: The regular weight has been extended with a large set of math and science symbols. The Greek and Cyrillic has been designed under close supervision of an international team of experts, who aimed to set a historical new standard in multi-script type design” (italicization mine for demonstration purposes). Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains Small Capitals and other typographic features such as common ligatures (barely) apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.” (If you magnify the text you’ll see that the ascender on the lowercase f before an o curves over farther beyond the crossbar than the f before an i.)
Candara “is a casual humanist sans with verticals showing a graceful entasis on stems, high-branching arcades in the lowercase, large apertures in all open forms, and unique ogee curves on diagonals. The resultant texture is lively but not intrusive, and makes for afriendly and readable text.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains Small Capitals and other typographical features such as common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Consolas “is aimed for use in programming environments and other circumstances where a monospaced font is specified. All characters have the same width, like old typewriters, making it a good choice for personal and business correspondence. The improved Windows font display allowed a design with proportions closer to normal text than traditional monospaced fonts like Courier. This allows for more comfortably reading of extended text on screen. OpenType features include hanging or lining numerals; slashed, dotted and normal zeros; and alternative shapes for a number of lowercase letters. The look of text can be tuned to personal taste by varying the number of bars and waves.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Constantia “is a modulated wedge-serif typeface designed primarily for continuous text in both electronic and paper publishing. The design responds to the recent narrowing of the gap between screen readability and traditional print media, exploiting specific aspects of the most recent advances in ClearType rendering, such as sub-pixel positioning. The classic proportions of relatively small x-height and long extenders make Constantia ideal for book and journal publishing, while the slight squareness and open counters ensure that it remains legible even at small sizes.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains Small Capitals and other typographical features such as common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Corbel “is designed to give an uncluttered and clean appearance on screen. The letter forms are open with soft, flowing curves. It is legible, clear and functional at small sizes. At larger sizes the detailing and style of the shapes is more apparent resulting in a modern sans serif type with a wide range of possible uses.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains Small Capitals and other typographical features such as common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Century Gothic: “A design based on Monotype 20th Century, which was drawn by Sol Hess between 1936 and 1947. Century Gothic maintains the basic design of 20th Century but has an enlarged ‘x’ height and has been modified to ensure satisfactory output from modern digital systems. The design is influenced by the geometric style sans serif faces which were popular during the 1920’s and 30’s. Useful for headlines and general display work and for small quantities of text, particularly in advertising.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Century Schoolbook: “Another member of the Century family which was based on Century Expanded. Designed to fulfill the need for a solid, legible face for printing schoolbooks. It is wider and heavier than Century Expanded, there is also less contrast between thick and thin strokes. First cut by Monotype in 1934 and based on versions from ATF and Lanston Monotype. The sturdy nature of this typeface, coupled with its inherent legibility, has made it a popular choice for setting books, newspapers and magazines.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Comic Sans MS: “Designed by Microsoft’s Vincent Connare, this is a face based on the lettering from comic magazines. This casual but legible face has proved very popular with a wide variety of people.” Regular and Bold.
Curlz MT: “Curlz was designed by Steve Matteson and Carl Crossgrove in 1995. For a unique, festive touch, add a little Curlz to posters, flyers, invitations, menus and tee shirts.” Regular only.
Didot: “The Didot family were active as designers for about 100 years in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were printers, publishers, typeface designers, inventors and intellectuals. Around 1800 the Didot family owned the most important print shop and font foundry in France. Pierre Didot, the printer, published a document with the typefaces of his brother, Firmin Didot, the typeface designer.The strong clear forms of this alphabet display objective, rational characteristics and are representative of the time and philosophy of the Enlightenment. Adrian Frutiger’s Didot is a sensitive interpretation of the French Modern Face Didot. Another model for this design is the Henriade, a historical printing of the original Didot from 1818. The font Didot gives text a classic and elegant feel.” Regular, bold, and italic. Contains Small Capitals, lining numerals, and old-style numerals, and common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Franklin Gothic Book & Franklin Gothic Medium: “Designed in 1902 by Morris Fuller Benton for the American Type Founders company, Franklin Gothic Book still reigns as one of the most-widely used sans serif typefaces. Originally issued in only one weight, the ATF version of Franklin Gothic was eventually expanded to include five additional weights, but no light or intermediate weights were ever developed. In 1979, under license from ATF, ITC developed four new weights in roman and italic: book, medium, demi and heavy. Designed by Victor Caruso, ITC’s new weights matched the original face’s characteristics, but featured a slightly enlarged lowercase x-height. ITC Franklin Gothic also features a slightly condensed lowercase a-z alphabet. In 1991, ITC commissioned the Font Bureau in Boston to create condensed, compressed and extra compressed versions of ITC Franklin Gothic, which increased the flexibility and usefulness of the design.” Franklin Gothic Book: Regular and Italic; Franklin Gothic Medium: Regular and Italic.
Futura: “Paul Renner (1878-1956) was a painter, typographer, typeface designer and teacher. Between 1908 and 1917 he designed thousands of books for Munich publishers in a refined traditional style. In the early 1920s he began to support the modern styles of architecture and typography, becoming a leading proponent of the New Typography. Renner is best known for designing the typeface Futura, which became a standard tool for the New Typography, and remains a popular typeface today. Futura does give a restful, almost bland impression, which accords with Renner’s objectives. Futura seems classical, not only due to the form of its capitals, but also to the open, wide forms of the geometrical small letters. The typeface relies on notions of classical, yet contemporary form, – harmony and evenness of texture. Thanks to the modern digital technology Futura lives on in a greater variety than ever, offering a wide choice of typographic solutions for contemporary design in the new millennium.” Medium, Medium Italic, Condensed Medium, and Condensed Extra Bold. Contains common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Garamond: “This typeface is based on roman types cut by Jean Jannon in 1615. Jannon followed the designs of Claude Garamond which had been cut in the previous century. Garamond’s types were, in turn, based on those used by Aldus Manutius in 1495 and cut by Francesco Griffo. The italic is based on types cut in France circa 1557 by Robert Granjon. Garamond is a beautiful typeface with an air of informality which looks good in a wide range of applications. It works particularly well in books and lengthy text settings” (italicization mine for demonstration purposes). Regular, Italic, and Bold.
Gill Sans: “Monotype Type Drawing Office 1928. Gill studied under the renowned calligrapher, Edward Johnston, the designer of the London Underground sans serif typeface. This influenced Gill who later experimented with sans serif designs, and in due course produced a set of capital letters. These became Monotype series 231, produced in 1923, and the forerunner of the extensive Gill Sans range now available. A twentieth century sans serif that has a simplicity of form which does not reject traditional forms and proportions, and gives the face a humanist feel. The lighter weights are highly readable in text and suitable for magazine and book work, whereas the heavier weights are best used for display in advertising, packaging, and labels.” Regular, Light, Italic, Light Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Gill Sans Ultra Bold: “…used for display in advertising, packaging, and labels.” Regular only.
Helvetica Neue: “Helvetica (Latin for Swiss) has the objective and functional style which was associated with Swiss typography in the 1950s and 1960s. It is perfect for international correspondence: no ornament, no emotion, just clear presentation of information. Helvetica is still one of the best selling sans-serif fonts.” Regular, Medium, Light, UltraLight, Italic, UltraLight Italic, Bold, Bold Italic, Condensed Bold, and Condensed Black. Contains common ligatures not apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Impact: “1965. Designed for the Stephenson Blake type foundry. A very heavy, narrow, sans serif face intended for use in newspapers, for headlines and in advertisements. Aptly named, this face has a very large “x” height with short ascenders and descenders.” Regular only.
Menlo “is based upon the Open Source font Bitstream Vera and the public domain font Deja Vu. Bitstream Vera is a trademark of Bitstream, Inc., designed by Jim Lyles. Menlo is based upon the Open Source font Bitstream Vera and the public domain font Deja Vu. Bitstream Vera is a trademark of Bitstream, Inc., designed by Jim Lyles.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Contains common ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices.”
Perpetua: “A sensitive adaptation of a style of letter that had been popularized for monumental work in stone by Eric Gill. Large scale drawings by Gill were given to Charles Malin, a Parisian punch-cutter, and his hand cut punches were the basis for the font issued by Monotype. The incised quality of Perpetua will lend distinction to any work compatible with its serenity. First used in a private translation called The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity; the italic was originally called Felicity. Widely used as a text face in quality books, Perpetua is also very popular in advertising and display work.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Perpetua Titling: “…popular in advertising and display work.” Light & Bold.
Rockwell “is a distinctive version of a geometric slab serif design, which has retained its popularity since its appearance in the 1930’s. The slab serifs, or Egyptians, originated in the nineteenth century when they were used principally for display work. Rockwell is notable for its judiciously clipped slab serifs, and is given a particular sparkle by means of its angular terminals. In more recent years this style of typeface has been increasingly used for text setting where their even colour and visual impact can be fully exploited.” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Rockwell Extra Bold: “…used principally for display work.” Regular only.
Stencil: “Stencil faces have been made for as long as people have been shipping wooden boxes. Most of the letterforms look a bit like a softer, bolder Clarendon before lines are cut through it to allow counters (those little spaces enclosed in ‘a’, ‘b’ and other letters) to remain as counters without becoming solid blobs. Consider this Stencil face a decorative font for limited use; a little goes a long way.” Regular only.
Trebuchet “…designed by Vincent Connare in 1996, is a humanist sans serif designed for easy screen readability. Trebuchet takes its inspiration from the sans serifs of the 1930s which had large x heights and round features intended to promote readability on signs. The typeface name is credited to a puzzle heard at Microsoft, where the question was asked, ‘could you build a Trebuchet (a form of medieval catapult) to launch a person from the main campus to the consumer campus, and how?’ The Trebuchet fonts are intended to be the vehicle that fires your messages across the Internet. ‘Launch your message with a Trebuchet page.’” Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic.
Zapfino: “Today’s digital font technology has allowed renowned type designer Hermann Zapf to realise a dream he first had more than fifty years ago: to create a fully calligraphic typeface.” Regular only. Contains several typographical features including ligatures apparent in the phrase “File systems for affluent field offices”.
Monotype Corsiva: “An italic typeface made in the style of the early Italian cursives, as exemplified by the work of the writing master Ludovico degli Arrighi in the sixteenth century. The capitals are of swash design, with characteristic flourishes, designed primarily for use as initial letters. Corsiva can be used for short text passages in advertising but is best used to add sparkle to invitations, greeting cards and menus, and to give a sense of occasion to certificates and awards.” Regular only.

Notes on the Making of this Document

At the end of each font description quoted, I add information about the styles available in that font family, and I typeset each style name in its respective style; e.g., italic is in italics. I also add information about typographical features along with demonstrative samples.

These fonts vary in size even at the same point sizes. I could have normalized the sizes, but I decided to leave them as is so you could see what their relative sizes are. I did not specify anything special in the formatting except that I found that I had to give the Zapfino font a 300% line-height so the descenders wouldn’t collide with the ascenders.

To learn about the fonts installed on my computer (Mac), I opened the Font Book application and selected the “Show Font Info” command in the View menu while previewing each font. I learned that most of the fonts on my Mac do not have descriptions, but the ones that do offer some interesting historical and usage tips. I also learned is that Microsoft made a typographical leap when they came out with Windows Vista. I was not aware of all the advanced typographical features in their core fonts Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Consolas, Constantia, and Corbel, and I must say I am impressed.

A note to Bitstream, International Typeface Corporation, Linotype Microsoft, Monotype, and Neufville Digital: I do not intend any copyright infringement by displaying these fonts and their descriptions. Please write to me if there is anything I need to add or remove from this document. Thank you for all your good work!

Choosing the right font styles & variants

for beautiful, readable documents

I’ve spent the last few days in my spare time learning and re-learning about choosing the right fonts, styles, and variants for writing and reading. Since other Web authors have taught me so much and answered so many of the questions I pose to Google, I like to give back by sharing what I’ve learned with others. Allow me to distill hours of my research into minutes of your time.

I’ve been puttering around with fonts again ever since I got an eBook reader and started noting the lack of advanced typography in eBooks of the ePub format. I also started to think about tinkering with ePubs to improve their readability or even publishing my own texts in the ePub format. One of the places I went to read and discuss typography in eBooks was the MobileRead Forums. Another place I learned a few things about fonts was Ralf Herrmann’s Typography Weblog, which turned me onto this funny video about some of the fonts we all know and love.

Avoid fake styles & variants

Having worked with both Mac and Windows operating systems, I think it’s fair to say that Macs support more typographical features than PCs. One of the ways in which the Mac OS differs from Windows is that it uses italic and bold fonts within a font family, rather than visual tricks, to render italic or bold text. If a font family does not contain an italic or bold font, then native Mac programs like Text Edit and Pages will not slant or thicken the font to make it look italic or bold. Likewise, if there is no small caps variant in the typeface, native Mac apps will not transform the text to small caps. This is because typographers know that a regular font that has been forced into italics, bold, or small caps does not look as good as a true italic, bold, or small caps font. Real italic, bold, and small caps fonts are carefully designed for readability and aesthetics; they are not just regular fonts that have been slanted, thickened, or shortened. To see the differences for yourself, you can read a book about typography or check out the links at the end of this article.

Whether you have a Mac or a PC, you should take a good look at the fonts on your computer and see which ones have italic / oblique, bold, bold italic / oblique, and small-caps variants. For the best-looking documents, you should use these real fonts rather than letting a program force fonts into styles they weren’t designed for— a process called font fauxing. Incidentally, while writing this blog post and previewing it in Safari, I also noticed that the browser forces regular fonts such as Lucida Grande to slant even though the font family contains no italic or oblique fonts.

Beware the regular-only font family

The downside of Mac typography is that if you change the font family for a block of text containing italic or bold styles to a font family that has only a regular font you will lose all formatting in your text. Therefore, it helps to learn your fonts and be careful not to change the font of running text including italics and bold to a font with only a regular variant. You have to be especially careful with such beautiful Roman serif typefaces as Big Caslon and New York, because they only have a regular style. Also be careful with popular sans-serif fonts such as Arial Unicode, Comic Sans MS, Geneva, Lucida Grande, and Microsoft Sans Serif, because Arial Unicode and Geneva only have a regular style and Comic Sans, Lucida Grande, and Microsoft Sans Serif only have regular and bold style. One of the tricks I’ve used this week to avoid wiping out all my emphasized and strong styles is to disable fonts that have only regular variants. To do this, I went to Font Book, selected all fonts, hit the right-arrow key to expand all, and then I dragged all the font families that had only Normal, Plain, or Regular fonts into a Collection called Display / Fantasy (because some typographers call these display fonts and in Cascading Style Sheets language they are fantasy fonts). With the Display / Fantasy Collection selected, I selected Edit from the menu bar and then Disable “Display / Fantasy”. I do this because, for the kind of writing and reading I do, I rarely if ever need to use display or fancy fonts. I like disabling all the others because, when I’m writing in Pages and I bring down the Fonts list, only the fonts that are useful to me will appear in a short list, and I’m in less danger of wiping out the bold and italic / oblique fonts in my styled running text. One note of caution, however: Geneva and Lucida Grande are essential system fonts that cannot be disabled, so be careful not to change stylized text to these fonts.

It’s okay to fantasize

Dr. Ruth was right. Sometimes Fantasy fonts are just the thing. When I want to type a letter that looks handwritten, I’ll use a cursive or script font. When I create a party invitation or welcome sign, I’ll use a fun font like Curlz MT or Party LET. When I make a flier or newsletter, I’ll use a fancy or stately font like Braggadocio, Luna ITC TT, or Princetown LET. All I have to do when I create documents like these is disable the Collection I call Versatile (those font families with regular, italic / oblique, bold, and bold italic / oblique) and enable my Display / Fantasy font Collection and I have a short list of just the fonts I need for the project at hand.

When Black is better than Bold

For headlines and headings, the Black fonts such as Arial Black, Gill Sans Ultra Bold, and Rockwell Extra Bold are better than simply using bold fonts at larger sizes. They are especially designed for headings, whereas bold fonts are designed for emphasis in running text. In addition to Black, Extra Bold, and Ultra Bold fonts which are designed to look better for headings than bold fonts at large sizes. Likewise, special regular-only fonts such as Big Caslon, Cooper Black, Impact, and Perpetua Titling MT are designed to look great at large sizes of 72 pixels or greater.

Every family has special characters

Something I learned while typing this post is that all font families have some special characters, but not many have a lot of them. If the font you’re working with doesn’t contain an extensive repertoire of special characters, you won’t be able to enter those characters into whatever you’re typing in that font. You might be able to insert the characters with another font, but that won’t likely look as good. Since I did my research while writing this blog post, I’ll share with you in a moment a list of the fonts on my computer that have a lot of special characters. There are two ways to discover this: one is to open Font Book and select Preview from the menu bar and then select Repertoire from the list. Another is to type some custom text including the characters you want to test for. My custom text is the following, because I want to see every letter of the alphabet and all whole numerals as well as common and rare ligatures and special characters. Here’s my custom text:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Affluent office file floating system selections. 1234567890 98° Nº 5′ 2″ 3² 4³

The right fonts for the job

Here is a list of the fonts on my computer (and probably yours too) that have a decent repertoire of special characters. Some of these font families only have a regular font while others have a complement of regular, italic (or oblique), bold, and bold italic (or bold oblique) fonts. The font families listed in bold have extensive character repertoires. The fonts with an asterisk after its name are the only ones that contain ligatures (which I will explain in a moment).

  • Arial: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic
  • Arial Black: Regular
  • Arial Narrow: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic
  • Arial Unicode MS: Regular
  • Comic Sans MS: Regular and Bold
  • Courier: Regular, Oblique, Bold, and Bold Oblique
  • Courier New: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic
  • Geneva: Regular
  • Georgia: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic
  • Helvetica: Regular, Oblique, Bold, and Bold Oblique
  • Impact: Regular
  • Lucida Grande: Regular and Bold*
  • Menlo: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic*
  • Microsoft Sans Serif: Regular
  • Monaco: Regular
  • Tahoma: Normal and Negreta
  • Times New Roman: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic
  • Trebuchet MS: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic
  • Verdana: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic

Microsoft Core Fonts for the Web

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see that most of the above fonts are among Microsoft’s “Core Fonts for the Web” that they distributed back in 1996 when the World Wide Web took off, and being worldwide, the Web contains pages with many different languages and special characters. These “core Web fonts” comprised Andale Mono, Arial, Arial Black, Comic Sans MS, Courier New, Georgia, Impact, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, Verdana, and Webdings. You probably already have these font families on your computer in a newer version than those given away free by Microsoft in the ’90s. Microsoft stopped distributing these fonts in 2002, but you can still download Microsoft core fonts legitimately if you don’t already have them.

Lucida Grande, Queen of the Web

After all I said about using real bold, italic, and small caps fonts, I can see now why WordPress’s default “Kubrick” style sheet specifies Lucida Grande as its typeface. Lucida Grande may not contain any real italics or small caps, but it has both regular and bold styles, it boasts one of the largest character repertoires out there, and it features ligatures that help move the eye from one letter to another— something serif fonts were designed to do for print media.

If you’re using a browser that supports ligatures, such as the latest versions of Camino, Firefox or any browser in the future that does—and if your browser preferences allow you to view the fonts suggested by web pages rather than your own fonts—then this page should display the Lucida Grande font with ligatures [at time of writing]. Take a look at my custom text sample once more. Can you see ligatures; that is, single characters tying together multiple characters such as fi, ff, ffi, fl, or ffl?

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Affluent office file floating system selections. 1234567890 98° Nº 5′ 2″ 3² 4³

If you have a Mac and want to see even more coolness with ligatures, try this: copy the above text and paste it in Text Edit. Hit Command+A to select all, and hit Command+T to bring up the Fonts HUD. Pick the Hoefler Text font, select the gear icon on the lower left, select Typography, and select Rare Ligatures. You should now see the rare ct and st ligatures in the words “system selections.” (Actually, a typographer can really go to town with Hoefler Text because it has all kinds of old style swashes, etc. Unfortunately, the font does not contain the single and double prime characters or a super extensive character repertoire.)

Lucida Grande for emphasis / strong emphasis

If you write your own CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and you choose to suggest Lucida Grande, you may want to use the following styles for emphasized and strong text:

em { font-weight: bold; }
strong { font-weight: bold; letter-spacing: 0.2em; }

Which would look like:

It is of utmost importance that you never put your hand down a garbage disposal when it’s running.

That way, you are only styling your text with real fonts rather than forcing the Lucida Sans typeface to be slanted when it does not contain a true oblique or italic font. And the “strong” text will stand out from the “emphasized” text in an obvious way without resorting to underlining, which is a holdover from typewriter days and was never used in traditional typesetting. (If a typographer wants to underline something, they will place a line under only the letters not containing “descenders” such as g, j, p, q, and y, because it doesn’t look good when underlines cut through descenders.

You’re never too old to learn something new

I myself learned a few new things this past week by reading (some parents might not want their kids reading the irreverent language in this one) Ten typographic mistakes everyone makes. For instance, I learned that straight single and double quotes are not the appropriate markers for feet and inches; rather, single and double “primes” are the right characters to use. Instead of writing that a woman is 5" 2", we should write that she is 5′ 2″. I also learned that instead of writing 90º we should write 90°. You might not notice the difference unless you are using a certain font or large size, but the first one is a true degree sign and the second one is actually a masculine ordinal indicator such as that used in Chanel Nº 5, the Nº being an abbreviation for Numéro. (Do as I say, though, and not as they do, because they used the degree sign instead of the masculine ordinal indicator. I guess it just goes to show that these really are typographic mistakes that “everyone” makes.) To enter the degree sign on a Mac, hit Alt+*. On a PC, you’re probably going to have to hit Alt+ some number or copy it from the Character Map utility. To enter the single and double primes on a Mac, there are no keyboard shortcuts, but I’ll tell you what you can do: copy the characters from this web page and paste them into the search field of the Special Characters HUD found by going to Edit, Special Characters in any Mac app. Once you find prime and double prime, add them to your favorites by hitting the down arrow on the gear icon button on the bottom left corner of the HUD (heads up display). From then on, you only have to click on the Favorites tab at the top of the HUD and double click the character you want in order to insert it at the point where your cursor is in the text you’re typing.


Here are some web pages you might want to check out: about true italics vs. fake italics, about true bold vs. fake bold, and about true small caps vs. fake small caps. If you write your own CSS style sheets, you might want to check out this page about choosing the right font-family (oddly, it doesn’t mention CSS, but it does give an overview of the five font-families in the CSS specification—that may be because font-families were around before CSS codified them).