Font-scaling programs make typesetting easy



When I was in high school, about a hundred years ago, teachers used to assign term papers by page count -- a three-page paper, a five-page paper and so on -- typewritten and double-spaced, of course.

In those days, "typewritten" meant produced with a typewriter, and since typewriters were pretty much alike, one five-page paper represented about the same amount of hunt-and-peck effort as another.

Not so today. Kids are smart, and it doesn't take them long to discover that their Windows or Macintosh word processors give them a lot more flexibility than Mom's old Underwood, particularly when they're trying to stretch four pages' worth of ideas and research into a five-page report.

For example, by switching from the 12-point Times Roman typeface that most word processors use by default to the old-fashioned, typewriter style Courier font, you can stretch this column from 3 1/2 "typewritten" pages to 4 1/2 pages. Nudge the point size from 12 to 13 -- hardly noticeable -- and you've made your five pages. (Whew!)

Don't worry, parents. I'm not giving away any secrets your kids don't already know. And teachers have figured it out, too. A lot of them are now asking for 1,200 words instead of five pages. It's pretty hard to fudge that.

The point is that sophisticated typesetting technology that was once confined to professional print shops is now available to everyone -- for better or worse.

Every IBM-compatible computer running Microsoft Windows and every Apple Macintosh come with built-in font-scaling software. This makes it possible for word processing and desktop publishing programs to produce a mind-boggling variety of typefaces and sizes, on virtually any printer.

The impact of typography on the eye and the mind is well-documented. The way we present information can be as important as the content. Even the least expensive personal computer now gives us unimaginable freedom to be persuasive in print -- or to spend useless hours twiddling with fonts and formatting instead of getting on with the business at hand.

Before computers got into the act, typefaces were drawn by skilled artists and craftsmen in a process that remained essentially unchanged for centuries. They cast their designs into molds that were used to make metal type. They measured their typefaces in points, with 72 points to the inch. If they wanted 10 point type, they had to make a 10-point master mold; for 24-point-type, they created a 24-point mold. They made separate molds for bold and italic faces, too.

This was a time-consuming and tedious process. It also required considerable talent, as the artists who ran the type foundries discovered early on that a typeface that was pleasing to the eye at 10 points would have to be redesigned slightly to make it pleasing at 36 points.

As a result, metal type was always expensive. It took a substantial investment to set up a print shop with enough typefaces in enough sizes to satisfy customers' demands.

Even the Linotype machine, which revolutionized the printing business at the turn of the century by casting its own type from molten lead, required a major investment in master typeface molds.

In the 1970s, technology caught up with the printing trades, in the form of computerized typesetting equipment that "digitized" the old, hand-drawn typefaces into electronic patterns of ones and zeros. Electronic typesetters sent their output directly to photographic paper instead of hot metal. But the process was still expensive, and digitized fonts required outlandish amounts of storage and memory.

The same technology moved to the desktop in the early 1980s with the invention of the first laser printers -- and with the same limitations. Since font information was no more than a digital "picture" of one typeface in a particular size and style, a full collection of typefaces in a variety of sizes could easily eat up the better part of a hard disk. Furthermore, each typeface would work only with a specific printer.

Adobe Systems broke that barrier with a new technology called PostScript. This graphic programming language described fonts in an entirely new way. Instead of storing typefaces as digital images, a PostScript font was actually a set of instructions for drawing the lines and curves that made up each letter.

By making only minor changes in those instructions, it became possible to scale fonts to virtually any size. More importantly, Adobe figured out a way to encode "hints" for producing the subtle design changes needed to maintain the beauty of the face at different sizes.

PostScript technology at first was available only in laser printers whose manufacturers licensed it from Adobe. The cost was still prohibitive to the average user. But competition and advances elsewhere changed that.

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