Age of typographic plenty brings new problems, too

April 30, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

When I was writing headlines for my college newspaper back in the age of metal type, I frequently ran into a sticky problem. Our small-town printer had a limited selection of typefaces, and he set our headlines by hand, character-by-character, using metal slugs stored in dusty wooden cases.

Over the years, some of the letters were lost or broken, but they were horrendously expensive to replace. Since business wasn't booming and we couldn't afford to pay him much in the first place, our printer figured we could make do with what he had.

This wasn't a problem with Qs or Zs, but by the time my generation produced the paper, there were only three capital Rs left in our favorite headline font.

Since the letter R is the fifth-most-common consonant, the shortage was a considerable handicap, forcing us into creative headline wording and occasional bouts of swearing when - despite our best efforts - the number of Rs we needed exceeded the supply. When I graduated from college and found a job on a daily newspaper with a seemingly unlimited supply of Rs, I knew I'd hit the big time.

Three decades later, we've moved from an age of scarcity into an age of typographic overload. Metal type is a thing of the past. Thanks to powerful processors, sophisticated software and cheap but versatile printers, virtually every computer desktop is a potential publishing house.

Create a document in Microsoft Word or Wordpad, click on the arrow next to the font window at the top of the page, and a long list of typefaces appears. How far does it go? Keep scrolling and you'll be amazed - Microsoft Windows installs 34 different fonts when you load the operating system on your computer. You'll find a lot more if you use desktop publishing or graphics programs.

These software-makers feel compelled to install a hundred or more typefaces on your system without so much as a by-your-leave, the better to produce fancy newsletters, party invitations, buttons, advertisements, coupons, menus and bogus $20 bills.

Many of these fonts are virtually identical versions of classic typefaces under different names (such as Arial, Swiss and Helvetica). Others are purely decorative - ranging from Olde English diploma fonts to novelty typefaces that look like icicles, drip blood, or use an acrobatic Fred Flintstone to form the characters.

Some users get hooked on fonts. They prowl the Web, looking for free or low-cost typefaces. Thanks to computer power, almost anyone can be a typeface designer these days, too. Check out some of the free typefaces available at

Though all this desktop publishing power is generally a good thing, it has its downside. First, people actually use some of these awful typefaces in documents they expect others to read. Or they mix a dozen fonts in a single newsletter or brochure, which amuses them but confuses the heck out of the average reader.

But that's a matter for the style police. More ominously, too many fonts can bog down your system - and a poorly designed or corrupt typeface can actually crash it. On more than a few occasions when people have asked me why their PCs seem to be running slowly, I have asked them to display a font list. They're surprised to find literally hundreds of typefaces they've never used and never will.

How do you keep your font list manageable? It helps to understand how Windows deals with type. Each font is stored as one or more files on your hard drive, usually in the Fonts folder of your Windows directory. You can find them by opening the Fonts folder, or by clicking the Start Button, then choosing Settings, Control Panel and Fonts.

Windows fonts usually have one of two extensions. The extention TTF identifies a TrueType Font, which can be scaled to any size by your word processor or other programs. Files with the extension FON are bitmapped fonts - they're designed to be displayed in one size only. Some fonts require four separate files - for normal, italic, bold and bold italic faces.

Although there's no specific limit on the number of fonts you can install, the operating system generally chokes when it has to manage more than 1,000. The exact limit depends on the name of each font and its location on your hard drive, which sounds weird but is true. Unfortunately, system performance can degrade before you reach half the theoretical limit.

The simplest way to figure out which fonts you want is to browse the Fonts directory and double-click file names you don't recognize. A window will pop up with the typeface in various sizes.

Getting rid of a font can be as simple as hitting the delete key in the Fonts directory - but BE CAREFUL! Deleting a font that Windows requires can be dangerous. Never delete a bitmapped font (the system requires them). And before you delete any TrueType fonts, create a backup directory and copy all the files from the Font directory into it.

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