Fonts

Fonts are used everywhere, but we try not to think about them. The only time we care about them is when they don’t print right or they look bad on the screen. And we always seem to have a lot of them; many, without warning, appearing in the Fonts folder.

The font situation is atrocious in terms of categorizing. There are so many different types of fonts, it becomes very confusing. The easiest, if you can possibly call it that, way to understand fonts is to start at the beginning; the beginning being bitmapped fonts.

Bitmapped fonts were nice and easy. Unfortunately, they are never used on today’s computers. On all early Macs, the bitmapped fonts were the ten that came with the computer. They were titled with a city name, such as New York, London or Chicago. They were called bitmapped because someone went and drew each character in a painting program that produced a bitmap of the letters. The bitmap describes whether a pixel is black or white. The creator would have to create a separate bitmap for each size of font. This created nice looking fonts as long as the user did not want a 13-point size font. This would cause the Mac to do some math and create a horrible guess at what the size should be. Most fonts of the day were created for 9, 12, 14, 18, and 24 point sizes.

The great thing about bitmapped fonts at the time was the way the screen and the printer were set up. The screen and the printer both had 72 dots per inch (dpi). This is where the term What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) comes from. Whatever you saw on the screen would be printed exactly as you saw it on paper. The problem with 72 dpi is that is creates very jagged looking lines. Compared to the new printers of today, it looks horrible.

Adobe then released a new technology called PostScript. PostScript is actually a set of mathematical functions that tell the print what to print on the page. Therefore, text appears on the screen at 72 dpi, but the printers could print at much higher qualities. Apple’s LaserWriter had a dpi of 300, creating a much nicer looking print-out.

PostScript actually has two files that are put in the System Folder. One is the printer font, which is what the printer uses to print at high resolutions. It’s the set of mathematical functions telling how each letter is created. Since the screen still has a very low resolution, they created a bitmapped font for each printer font, called the screen font, that is used to display the font on the screen. The screen font is exactly like the original bitmapped fonts in that they needed separate files for different point sizes. The printer font is very different because there is only one for each font. Since the file contains mathematical equations, they can easily be enlarged or reduced to get different sizes on paper. Therefore, a font could look bad on the screen, but when you print, it will look very smooth.

The problem was that fonts were no longer exactly WYSIWYG. A font could look bad on screen, but become very smooth on paper. That’s where the fantastic Control Panel known as Adobe Type Manager comes in. What this does is treat the screen as if it were a printer and uses the printer font to display fonts on the screen. It smooths the text quite a bit and can create any size fonts just as the printer does.

Apple had to pay royalties to Adobe to use their technology, so Apple created a font technology very similar to PostScript called TrueType. TrueType fonts are much easier to deal with because the printer font and screen fonts are all kept in one file. You can also see what the font looks like by double clicking on the file. You cannot do that with PostScript fonts. TrueType is great, but it has not replaced PostScript because professionals still use PostScript because it’s also a graphics technology. It can do lines and colors just as well as it does fonts. TrueType only does fonts.

Fonts are used everywhere, but they can be trouble makers. If somehow you get the same font with its PostScript and TrueType counter part, you can end up with some large headaches. Fonts are put in the System Folder by applications and generally should not be removed. Fonts can be bought from many different companies of all different types. If you ever have a font problem or question, feel free to e-mail me about it. I will do my best to rectify the problem.


Brian Koponen (briankop@mail.idt.net)

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