Where do fonts come from, and why are there so many different formats? Some come loaded with your computer’s operating system, while others are bundled with software packages. A few of these widely distributed typefaces are of the highest quality, such as Adobe Garamond Pro and Hoefler Text, while others (including Comic Sans, Apple Chancery, and Papyrus) are reviled by design snobs everywhere. If you want to expand your vocabulary beyond this familiar fare, you will need to purchase fonts from digital type foundries. These range from large establishments like Adobe and FontShop, which license thousands of different typefaces, to independent producers that distribute just a few, such as Underware in the Netherlands or Jeremy Tankard Typography in the U.K. You can also learn to make your own fonts as well as find fonts that are distributed for free online. The different font formats reflect technical innovations and business arrangements developed over time. Older font formats are still generally usable on modern operating systems.

PostScript/Type 1 was developed for desktop computer systems in the 1980s by Adobe. Type I fonts are output using the PostScript programming language, created for generating high-resolution images on paper or film. A Type 1 font consists of two files: a screen font and a printer font. You must install both files in order to fully use these fonts.

TrueType is a later font format, created by Apple and Microsoft for use with their operating systems. TrueType fonts are easier to install than Type 1 fonts because they consist of a single font file rather than two.

Opentype, a format developed by Adobe, works on multiple platforms. Each file supports up to 65,000 characters, allowing multiple styles and character variations to be contained in a single font file. In a TrueType or Type 1 font, small capitals, alternate ligatures, and other special characters must be contained in separate font files (sometimes labelled “Expert”); in an OpenType font they are part of the main font. These expanded character sets can also include accented letters and other special glyphs needed for typesetting a variety of languages. OpenType fonts with expanded character sets are commonly labeled “Pro.” OpenType fonts also automatically adjust the position of hyphens, brackets, and parentheses for letters set in all-capitals.

Some Commonly Abused Terms

typeface or font?
A typeface is the design of the letterforms; a font is the delivery mechanism. In metal type, the design is embodied in the punches from which molds are made. A font consists of the cast metal printing types. In digital systems, the typeface is the visual design, while the font is the software that allows you to install, access, and output the design. A single typeface might be available in several font formats. In part because the design of digital typefaces and the production of fonts are so fluidly linked today, most people use the terms interchangeably. Type nerds insist, however, on using them precisely.

character or glyph?
Type designers distinguish characters from glyphs in order to comply with Unicode, an international system for identifying all of the world’s recognized writing systems. Only a symbol with a unique function is considered a character and is thus assigned a code point in Unicode. A single character, such as a lowercase a, can be embodied by several different glyphs (a, a, a). Each glyph is a specific expression of a given character.

Roman or roman?
The Roman Empire is a proper noun and thus is capitalized, but we identify roman letterforms, like italic ones, in lowercase. The name of the Latin alphabet is capitalized.