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Font Wrangling: Take Control of Your Typefaces

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 2, 2014 Deadline
October 2014 Issue

Font Wrangling: Take Control of Your Typefaces

Too many typefaces are cluttering up printed pages, online spaces and computer drives. Hundreds, or even thousands, of fonts on our computing devices prove too tempting for some people. It’s time to wrangle your fonts and refine your designs.

A high school teacher rejected the first term paper I typed into a computer. Notice that I didn’t write the paper on the computer; I entered text I had written on paper. I sought to avoid the hassles of using correction fluid with my typewriter by switching to the computer and its dot-matrix printer.

Despite using the “letter quality” mode of my Epson printer, the built-in font looked odd. The teacher complained that the lowercase g, p and q were squished and lines of ink smudges were unacceptable. Unless you could afford a daisy-wheel printer with its typewriter mechanism, a personal computer was an unacceptable writing technology.

As a sophomore at Golden West High School, I enrolled in journalism and joined The Pathfinder newspaper staff. We used the computers at the Times-Delta offices to phototypeset our stories and headlines, a process that fascinated me. For the nameplate and special headlines, we used Letraset transfer letters. Rubbing the letters with a rounded wooden stick was tedious and prone to mistakes.

A few years later, I obtained an OKI Data OL400 laser printer. Armed with WordPerfect 4.2 and a four-page per minute laser, my college papers were beautiful. The printer included Times, Helvetica, Courier and Symbol typefaces, each in four sizes, ranging from 9-point to 14-point. A Line Printer font at 12-points was also included. The printer emulated the popular Hewlett-Packard LaserJet II. Back then, printers and software maintained the original meaning of “font” as a typeface at a specific size, so the printer’s manual celebrated “17 fonts included!”

The Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows revolutionized printing at home and work. Bitstream FaceLift and Adobe Type Manager gave personal computers and affordable printers access to hundreds of typefaces, scalable to any size. I remember driving to Egghead Software in Culver City to buy ATM and a trio of font packs at the start of my sophomore year at USC. I couldn’t wait to spice up my papers with Palatino and Avant Garde.

Now, I’m the instructor telling students that their laser-printed papers and digital documents are unacceptable. I find myself longing for the limits of those early laser printers. Simply because you can use any of a thousand typefaces doesn’t mean you should. And you certainly shouldn’t mix and match five or six typefaces in a school paper.

There is no irony when a typophile, a font fanatic, advises students and clients to practice restraint. Although I do own thousands of licensed, high-quality fonts from the best digital foundries, I appreciate that pairing fonts and using them appropriately respects the artistic integrity of the letterforms. I own dozens of books on typography and the history of printing. The texts consistently recommend a handful of classic typefaces, and some experts suggest good designers rely on a dozen or so faces, turning to other faces for special uses like logos or advertisements.

Typefaces have the power to convey historical periods, personal moods and a sense of style. Choosing the right typeface requires thinking about a document’s purpose and its audience. You might love the uniform strokes of ITC Stoclet or Rilke, with their nod to the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but those typefaces do not belong in a business résumé or as the body of a term paper. If you must use something other than Arial or Helvetica for sans-serif headings, try Gil Sans, Universe or Futura.

Most computers have too many fonts installed and activated. Although it’s convenient to have a thousand or more typefaces ready for immediate use, they can slow your software and create unexpected problems. Install a few applications for word processing and document design and there’s a good chance you’ll find a couple of hundred typefaces on your computer. My Windows 7 system has only the Microsoft Office suite and CorelDRAW installed, and there are 724 fonts available. I will never use most of the fonts.

Paring down the font menus of your software does not mean you have to delete the fonts or remove them from your operating system’s font folders. Instead, use a font manager to organize and control which fonts are available in various applications.

Popular font managers for Windows and OS X include FontExplorer X Pro, FontAgent Pro and Suitcase Fusion. If you buy CorelDRAW for Windows, Corel includes a copy of Bitstream FontNavigator. Apple includes the basic Font Book application with OS X.

My favorite font manager is FontExplorer X Pro, developed by the Monotype foundry. If you open a document with fonts it cannot find on your computer, FontExplorer offers in-app purchases of the typefaces. For designers, this is a great feature. FontExplorer also offers SkyFonts, a tool that downloads updated fonts from the Internet.

All three leading font managers allow you to search for fonts based on their classification, foundry, format and popular usage. Themed font sets like “formal” or “corporate” help guide the selection of typefaces for particular purposes. Period sets like “Roaring 20s” or “Wild West” give a sense of the right typefaces for the right “time” a design seeks to evoke.

The simplest classification grouping of familiar text fonts is serif and sans-serif. The serif faces have accents, called serifs, at the ends of the letter strokes, additional marks for artistic effect and improved readability. The sans-serif faces are smooth, lacking the extra flourishes. Times and Georgia are serif typefaces, while Helvetica and Arial are sans-serif faces. In the United States, it is common to use serif faces for smaller text and sans-serif faces for headings.  

The font managers can also automatically activate fonts found in documents, so you see what the designer intended. This automatic activation means you can have all but essential fonts disabled most of the time, which can speed up software loading times dramatically. For example, when Microsoft Word loads, it creates a font menu cache. The more fonts you have, the more sluggish Word might be.

Take control of your typefaces with a font manager. Your computer applications will be snappier and your documents will look better.


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