Digital font technology has come of age. After nearly three decades of research and development, many of the problems caused by software bugs and platform incompatibility have been resolved, and the frustrations of limited character sets and typographic control have been largely overcome. At long last, designers have access to refined file formats and easy-to-use management systems and, with the introduction of OpenType, digital typography has become a pleasure.
It hasn't always been that way, by any stretch of the imagination. There used to be many different digital font formats: none were standardised, all were expensive and training was essential to operate the systems. In 1985 Apple adopted Adobe's PostScript pagedescription language for its Apple LaserWriter printer and this, combined with the advent of DTP software, sparked a revolution in page-layout technology. PostScript was rapidly adopted by high-end image-setting devices, becoming the native operating language of many graphics programs and dominating the typographic marketplace. At this stage Adobe was in full control of PostScript technology and protected its specifications.
Both Apple and Microsoft quickly understood the importance of a scalable font technology supported by the major operating systems, but neither company wanted a key piece of its system software controlled by a third party. So Apple developed its own solution: TrueType. Apple traded the technology with Microsoft, and in 1991 the TrueType specifications were made public and built into all subsequent versions of the Mac and Windows operating systems.
Adobe responded, first by releasing the protected PostScript specifications and then by introducing Adobe Type Manager (ATM), which scaled PostScript fonts for screen display and imaging on both PostScript and non-PostScript printers.
By the early 1990s there were two widely used outline font specifications: TrueType, which was built into operating systems used by over 95 per cent of personal computers worldwide, and PostScript, which was supported by most high-end output devices.
PostScript Type 1 and TrueType are both outline fonts, meaning they describe glyphs by way of points, which in turn defines their lines and curves. Their representation is resolution-independent and can be scaled to virtually any size. The process by which the outlines are converted into dots on the grid of the output device is known as rasterisation. When there are insufficient dots to form the glyphs, inconsistencies occur. TrueType and PostScript fonts deal with this by using 'hinting' - exploiting additional information encoded in the font to help prevent such problems.
PostScript versus TrueType
The first disparity between PostScript and TrueType fonts is that they use different sorts of mathematics to describe their curves, making conversion between the two formats less than perfect. More errors occur when going from PostScript to TrueType, and hinting information doesn't translate in either direction.
TrueType had the advantage over PostScript because it enabled better hinting. Both systems could hint vertical and horizontal features, overshoots, stem snaps, counters and curves, but TrueType could do much more. TrueType rasterising was built into several operating systems, which would rasterise fonts for screen as well as the printer. In contrast, PostScript depended on ATM to handle the rasterising to screen and converting fonts for non-PostScript printers. TrueType fonts stored all their data in a single file, while PostScript fonts required two files - one for the character outlines and the other for the metrics data, which includes character widths and kerning.
However, TrueType suffered when it came to quality - its bundles of '1,000-fonts-for-a-fiver' were originally shareware or public-domain fonts converted to TrueType using basic automatic utilities. PostScript fonts, on the other hand, were of a higher quality, were favoured by the major font publishers and had 'expert sets' of typographic necessities, such as true small caps, ligatures and old-style figures. PostScript also claimed the upper hand as the oldest of the two systems and the preferred format for serious typographic work.
All these factors meant that throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s the world of digital type was confused and difficult to negotiate. But in 1996 OpenType appeared on the market, intended to stop the font war by resolving the dilemma over which format to buy.
OpenType is a font format developed by Adobe and Microsoft. An extension of the TrueType format and PostScript data, OpenType fonts containing TrueType data have the suffix '.ttf', while those based on Postscript use '.otf'. Feature-rich Adobe OpenType fonts are distinguished by the word 'Pro' in their name.
OpenType features a number of technical advantages. All OpenType fonts use a single file, which makes management easy. Most importantly, the files will work on both OS X and Windows, and they move between platforms with noticeable improvements in portability. OpenType fonts can also be installed and used alongside both PostScript and TrueType fonts. While most Mac and Windows applications are compatible with OpenType through ATM or native operating-system support, InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop have advanced OpenType features built into the application.
OpenType's main benefit
However, the most significant benefit is the increased typographic control OpenType gives designers. PostScript fonts were restricted to 256 glyphs, which meant you had to install several related font files to access 'expert set' characters. OpenType fonts, on the other hand, contain more than 65,000 glyphs. A single font file can contain many non-standard glyphs, such as old-style figures, swash characters, titling, true small caps and a full range of ligatures. Originally, when type was designed for metal, fonts had different designs for different sizes. Several OpenType fonts include four optical size variations: caption (6-8 point), regular (9-13 point), subhead (14-24 point) and display (25-72 point). Known as 'Opticals', they've been optimised for use at their specific point sizes.
OpenType also makes non-Latin typography easier to handle because it includes characters from several alphabets in one font. All Adobe OpenType fonts contain a full range of accented characters to support central and eastern European languages such as Polish and Turkish, and many also contain Cyrillic and Greek character extensions.
However, it's not just about buying the right fonts - you have to organise them, too, unless you prefer to wade through hundreds every time you need to choose a font in an application. There are many font-management systems on the market, so there's a wide choice depending on personal preference and individual requirements. "We use a font-management program called Extensis Suitcase X1," says Dan Westwood of design agency Clusta, which has studios in Birmingham and Los Angeles. "It enables us to turn on and off specific fonts, as well as manage and locate fonts easily. You can create sets to accommodate specific fonts. For example, if we're working on a print-based project we can set up a set of fonts that are unique to that job."
Font management can become challenging and good organisation is essential. Westwood recommends naming files and fonts for easy accessibility, adding, "This includes the original file source and the sets you've created within the package."
But neither rigorous organisation nor access to the best fonts on the market will make a good piece of typography. Westwood emphasises that choosing the right typeface for the project is the key, whether you custom-build a font in-house or buy one in. "Other considerations are the sizing, the hierarchy of the typeface and how it's used within a project - the kerning and leading are vitally important, as well as the consistency," he adds. "The matching of typefaces is also important, suiting one face to another to make a cohesive piece of design." Technical advances may have put typographical perfection within reach, but its achievement remains the true test for the designer.