Fonts 101: The Basics and What They Mean

On one of the designer focused lists on Ravelry, there has been an interesting discussion started by Janet Szabo, Queen of Aran Knitting (I don’t say this lightly). Namely, would fonts are we all using for our patterns? This is a little different than my usual content, as I am looking at offering up some learning for new designers or those interested in learning about this aspect of the business of designing (or at least those who are looking to self publish).

You may think you are going to do it all on your inkjet at home, or that you will just do PDF files. It is still good to learn if you are going to “go pro”. Be bold, and don’t neglect the learning content outside your knitting when you are going to be a designer as it impacts your business.

Introduction to Fonts

There is a lot to using fonts well. Have you ever wondered what goes into the fonts used for the printed things we enjoy? What makes the knitting patterns you reach for most easy to read? There is a field out there for designing type and fonts, and there is a way to marry creativity with usability and it is in my opinion an art. When mastered it is unobtrusive. All the reader is aware of is the story. The page flows.

Good font design is all about enhancing the message via the medium it is expressed in. Choice in fonts make or break your message and add or detract from the page layout. Page Layout is also an art, but that is another topic.

Warning: technical information following. I have tried to make it painless, I really have.

Types of Fonts Defined

For those who don’t know and have heard different terms tossed around, Type is originally what the printers used to do before the advent of computers. Fonts are the digital things we get for our computers to give us different styles of letters.

Different fonts come in different flavors of files. There are files for Mac, and files for PC. In the old days (not too distant), the choice was True Type and Post Script. True Type is meant for the home user, and Post Script is meant for Professional uses because of the printer files that come with the Post Script files. Oh, and did I mention that there is a Windows and Mac version for each and that not only are they not compatible they don’t always look exactly the same from one platform to the other?

That is it in a simplified nutshell for those two.

Advances in Technology and the Impact For The Designer

Along came Microsoft and Adobe with Open Type, which has really redefined how things are done. In a nutshell, it is great for graphic designers and publishers as well as desktop publishers or those who want something they did to display the same on their friend’s machine, which is a different operating system. As long as the font file is on both a mac and a pc, it displays exactly the same and is compatible because it contains the necessary info for both platforms.

Open Type Fonts are also post script or true type fonts. Being Open Type just means that they are cross platform compatible. The post script files are the “professional” files and have some pretty neat things like extended character sets, glyphs, other language characters, and so on. These have an otf file extension and you will see them listed as “Pro” on sites where you purchase fonts, like Monotype, Linotype, and Adobe.

The Open True Type Fonts have a ttf file extension and are like the other true type fonts in that they are a single font without lots of added goodies. They are listed as “Standard” (std). I think Monotype has a good description of it (with notes on functionality in programs as well).

The files are more compact and take less system resources too. A bonus when you have hundreds of fonts on your machine.

What’s It To Me?

For the home user it wouldn’t matter a fig.

If you are self publishing, doing desktop publishing, or file sharing with a different platform between yourself and another worker including work for the web or print, look for Open Type fonts. On sites that you can download fonts, they have an “O” representing them. They will also have a designation of “Pro” or “Std”. If you are on Linotype, you will see three different types of Open Type Fonts. The Pro and Std, plus Com.  “Com” stands for communications, and is an open type font with extended language support. You will also want to check out the Monotype link I listed earlier which lists backward compatibility with programs in regards to Open Type.

If you don’t need fancy glyphs and other stuff, you could opt for the Std. The issue with printers (as in printing companies) are that their platforms are typically (or I should say were typically) Mac based. Hence issues at times with Windows based True Type Fonts. This isn’t an issue as much anymore with enhanced cross platform abilities, but you would want to check with your printing company.

How Can I Tell What I Have?

For your home computer, you can tell by looking at your fonts folder on your computer (in Windows XP and I assume the new version) you find this folder in the control panel (click start, scroll up to settings, and then click control panel. A window pops up and you can scroll down to the font folder and click on it). The nice thing about XP, is when you see an O it is an Open Type Font, and it tells you underneath the font name that you see in your font menu in your programs whether it is a True Type Open Font, or an Open Type Open Font.

What About Older Systems?

Older windows systems will have the file name listed and the only way of telling, sometimes, of what the name that shows up in the font menu is right clicking on a cryptic name and clicking on the properties tab so that you can see what the name that displays is. At least you can see at a glance what the file extension is (ttf versus otf, for example, although on older systems you won’t see otf files as they are not compatible with older systems). I am assuming if I am telling you all this and you are learning a lot, you don’t have font management software on your computer (which makes it easier to find this information, I use Extensis Suitcase).

This Is Too Confusing! Do I Really Need This?

First off if you are not using graphic design programs, at this time you won’t get the full power and functionality of the open type fonts, as not all applications (desktop publishing programs for example, like Microsoft Word) have full support.

If you need cross program compatibility and are not concerned about all the extended stuff, which can be really fun to play with if you are into fancy letters and so on, then your needs will still certainly be met with Open Type, provided you don’t have an old operating system and old software.

If you are doing your own printing, you don’t have to worry. You can use what you want.

If you are making content for the web, and you are not working with a graphic designer, do a lot of research. The graphic designer figures it out for you which is a plus. You cannot use every single font on your computer on a web page and expect it to display properly on other systems (this is more true with fonts that are not as common).

Notes For New Designers

If you are serious about designing, do a lot of research. Set your work up so that you don’t have to work so hard as your business becomes more professional. Don’t limit yourself by thinking “I could never do that”. Think instead what you want in the end, and look at what you can do now and how you can move towards your end goal as easily as possible. Pick the things that you can take with you or are easy to convert.

This doesn’t mean you can never change your mind once you pick out your fonts. Just do some research and choose wisely so that your layout doesn’t scream “Neophyte!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (you may think it looks cool, but it can still scream Neophyte and not Professional). You want your image to be a complete package, from print to web, be it business cards, business stationary, patterns, or web pages. You don’t necessarily have to use one font for all, but you don’t want a large number of fonts in use either as it doesn’t present a cohesive image.

If you don’t want to hire a professional (or cannot) and want to/have to do the work yourself, you must invest your time in learning in order to do it well. You are either going to pay with time in learning or money out of your wallet, and it is no small investment in time. Remember though, to think in terms of your end goal. You will save neither time nor money in the end if you don’t.

Questions to ask yourself and think about would be what image you are trying to present? Does that image constrain and narrow how you can present yourself, or does it enable you to expand? Does the message you are sending in your image appeal to your target audience? Have you thought about your target audience? If not you will need to think of that too, because your image will need to appeal to that audience. You will need to do this regardless of whether you do the research and subsequent work yourself or whether you farm it out.

There is a very brief amount of time for you to make an impact on those not familiar to your work before they move on. The object of graphic design is to present your message. Not only your pattern in an easy to digest manner, but also who you see yourself as. Your professional image. The package is the first thing the consumer sees. Everything you pick represents you. Think in big terms so that you don’t box yourself in.

What I Use

The font I use for my text is Trebuchet, an Open Type font. I have my patterns laid out in Microsoft Word (not the charts, but the patterns themselves). I have InDesign, but have not made the conversion yet. However, I can copy my text and paste it into InDesign. There is a learning curve there and I have not had the time to fit it in. But I know what I want for my layout, and I defined that in my style sheet. I can use the same style sheet to set up a template in InDesign, so that my patterns look the same. When setting up my style sheet, I studied style sheets found online at different magazine publishers that were posted along with submission guidelines.

As for my patterns, the font that I use for my headings is Dauphin, a font from Corel. It is identical to Delphin. Dauphin is a True Type Font. I do my charts in Illustrator (Creative Suite 3), I do my covers with Illustrator as well (with the photo editing in photoshop). I do the pattern in Microsoft Word. I print my covers, charts, and pattern with the best quality paper I can get on a good quality color laser printer.

If I were to send these out to a professional printer, I can easily convert all to pdf files and assemble the files into one pdf within Creative Suite. I would check first about the fonts (since one is a true type that is not an open type font, and I am working on a Windows based environment and not mac). If there was an issue I would get Delphin (which is the same font and can be had in Open Type) and switch the font.

Yes, I will have to backtrack a little. But a completely different font would change the look of my patterns and the style would look completely different. Which means there is the possibility of having to change the layout of the whole blasted page because the balance is different. Aackkkkk, I don’t even want to think about it.

There are times, as we grow in skills, where we need to overhaul things as we do things better the more we do them. The better known you get as a designer, the more “branded” you become. You will want consistency in your publications and your web presence, so set yourself up for that from the get go so that you look polished from the beginning. Your overhauls will be less obvious and painful.

I know, it can be a little confusing.

On another day, I may talk about page layout which is something those new to it can have trouble with. Hey, I was there myself once and thought I did a great job. As I have learned, my layout has improved. There are things that look pretty decent when we wing it, but on more study of what makes it look really professional we can see where we need to improve.

There is a whole industry of design professionals out there that deal with layout and print. Don’t be so overconfident in your knitting design skills that you think you can look professional at graphic design without studying what makes it look that way (there are after all degrees in graphic design and computer technology, not to mention hundreds of books related to page layout, typography and so on). Hey, it would be like a graphic designer who has never knit anything before thinking they are going to do a sweater design for Vogue, Interweave, or XRX. Without doing any research first. After all, they are designers and creative people. They can do it themselves because of that. See where that line of reasoning gets you? I don’t know about you, but I would have to tell them they need to get a little educated, wouldn’t you? And it works right back in our direction.

Peace and Knitting, JoLene Treace


5 Responses to “Fonts 101: The Basics and What They Mean”

  1. Connie Says:

    Wow, a wealth of information. Thanks, JoLene! I’ll have to read it more carefully again.

  2. jolenetreace Says:

    Yeah, I got a little wordy. I am working on that value added content thing, and one thing I do that is a little different is try and have value added content for people wanting to learn design. A niche I don’t see getting filled in a lot of places. In fact, when I was getting started I found that a litle aggravating because I have taught myself many things, and when you look for information to study and cannot find it, it is frustrating. Anyway…thanks for stopping by again.

    Cheers, JoLene

  3. МТС Says:

    Well, it was really useful, thank you! By the way, do you know how to publish text on the web with customized font? Not the standart one)

  4. Mada Says:

    Excellent information and sound advice. MTC asked about publishing text with a custom font. You can embed fonts using javascript.

  5. Bookmarks about Ttf Says:

    […] – bookmarked by 5 members originally found by skemsley on 2008-12-31 Fonts 101: The Basics and What They Mean – bookmarked […]

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