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Hot on the Web

Font usage varies from print to Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 9, 2005
(Issue 2349, Acronyms and Protocols)

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at a few sites were you could download free TrueType fonts taken from popular products, TV shows and movies – allowing you to make logos of your name dressed up like Star Wars, Star Trek or Budweiser, if that's what you wanted.

In searching for those logo fonts online, I came across hundreds of sites with free fonts of all types available for the downloading.

A quick history

Modern PC operating systems have done such an incredible job of integrating typefaces into the OS environment that most of us don't even think about them. Starting with the Apple Lisa in 1982, just about all desktop graphical user interfaces (GUIs) have featured some way of changing font size, typeface, etc. Today, Windows, Mac and Linux users all have font management built seamlessly into their environments.

But when I was born, in 1961, most newspapers still used hot lead – when a newspaper changed its design, or a new newspaper was started up, and new typefaces had to be bought, that meant somebody had to design the font, and someone else had to carve it into actual lead type. Heck, typewriters had actual bits of type – one for each key, plus the shift key for another row.

Electronic type first started making a serious dent in the markeplace in the 1970s with the Linotronic machines. With this new technology, typefaces were stores digitally on a computer – and the printed page was now created by a laser tracing the shape of the font on photosensitive paper.

Sure, somebody still had to design each typeface – a serif for body type, a sans serif for headlines, and some fancier ones for the advertisements – but nobody had to carve the masters. Nor did molds have to be made from the masters. Instead, the typeface was created on a computer and saved as a file.

Suddenly, typefaces which had cost tens of thousands of dollars were available for about a tenth that by the early 1980s.

When the Apple Lisa came out, followed by the original Macintosh in 1983, they were both quickly accompanied by the first generation of commercially available laser printers. Laser printers were yet another innovation from the venerable XEROX Palo Alto Research Center – which also led to the PARC spinoff, Adobe Systems, which created the Postscript printer language, including font management.

Now, in addition to the dozen or so typefaces included in the Mac OS, you could purchase additional fonts for your Postscript printer.

Postscript fonts were/are vector fonts, meaning they could be resized endlessly – even to half-point sizes. They could also be stretched vertically and horizontally.

The era of desktop publishing was born – and with Adobe PS fonts available for just a few hundred dollars each, the price of publishing was slashed by another 90 percent from the already slashed late 1970s prices.

Enter the Web

The beauty of Postscript fonts was the fact that they could be resized with no loss of quality – meaning one font could be used for the body text at 12 point, and then used at 48 point for the headline. And Postscript fonts were just as sharp as the far more expensive Linotype typefaces. For the printing world, the 1980s were the golden age.

But with electronic publishing, you don't necessarily need fonts of a high quality. Where most newspapers publish at about 270-300 dots per inch resolution, and magazines up to about 1,200 dpi or even more for a high-quality glossy mag, computer monitors top out, even today, at about 100 dpi. 72 dpi is more the norm.

In the early 1990s, a new electronic type standard was introduced – TrueType. Smaller than Postscript font files, TrueType fonts were also easier to design.

By the late 1990s, free fonts created by hobbyists or purchased from their creators by publishers looking to sell low-cost collections were flooding the market. CD-ROMs labeled "1,000 fonts" or "10,000" fonts could be had in the discount bin for $5.

But they were all TrueType fonts – fine for Web design, not too useful for commercial printing applications.

TrueType vs. Postscript

Today, TrueType and Postscript exist side by side. For anyone doing high quality printing, PostScript fonts are a prerequisite – and they remain pricey compared to TrueType fonts, with some PS fonts still running into the hundreds of dollars.

But for those who only publish online, and whose use of fonts for publishing is limited to using them in graphics (as Web pages generally stick to the built-in fonts in the end-user's computer), TrueType fonts are more than good enough.

For instance, on my sites – and – I will create menus and section heads as images – .jpgs or .gifs. This allows me to use typefaces that aren't included with Windows or MacOS, which is what browsers are limited to. (There have been several attempts at downloadable fonts embedded in Web pages, but no standard has arisen – and licensing restrictions and security issues seem insurmountable for now.)

So if you have a page dedicated to your favorite bands, you could create a 500-pixel wide by 125 pixel high gif that read "Music" in a fancy, music-related font.

And with TrueType fonts, you can likely find one for free or purchase one for less than $50.

All the popular graphics programs support TrueType fonts – PhotoShop, PhotoImpact, Illustrator, Freehand. Again, the TrueType fonts don't have the graphical quality for print work – but for online publishing, they're perfectly presentable – and even more perfectly priced.

Next week: Finding those free TrueType fonts.