Ten Type Tips: Part 1

By Gary David Bouton

Dateline: January 2, 2003
Volume 1, Number 1

What's So Special About "Computer Art Lessons"?

"Computer Art Lessons" is driven by two forces:
1.) Albert Einstein posited late in his life that the power of self-expression is great in Mankind, sometimes greater than the drive for food and shelter. And today, for some strange reason, "self-expression" tends to mean "desktop graphics". Computer graphics are sexy, compelling within their genre, and exceedingly elusive to some peoples' dismay. In light of the reality that it's darn hard to teach other forms of self expression on this forum, such as ballet and the piano, we will pursue art lessons on the computer as a means toward self-expression.

2.) Owning a wonderful computer and excellent art programs will not make one an excellent artist. This is true when applied to any milieu of application. I will never become a great accountant, although I own Excel XP.

"Computer Art Lessons" is a continuing column that is simply a collection of art lessons, as applied to the computer. I'll begin the lessons with a discussion on typography, how CorelDRAW (and similar vector-based applications) can be used to create typography, and some suggestions on how to make a type-intensive document look attractive and professional.

For as many lost arts as the personal computer is reviving (such as animation), traditional arts are also dying. Specifically, the art of typography is on the wane – type from the Greek typos, which means "spelling error" (I'm kidding here), and ography, which means "the study of". In all seriousness, the proper use, and even the best, stimulating use of type is on the downhill with the advent of tricky type features (such as enveloping and extruding text), mega graphics-capable programs that also handle type well, such as CorelDRAW and Adobe InDesign, and a general disinterest in the roots of type, because... hey, why learn about type when you own every font on earth, on the CorelDRAW CD-ROM #2 :) In two installments, I'm going to arm you with ten indispensable tips about the art of typography, not only to make you an ace designer, but also to help revive the art of typography by spreading some traditional guidelines for type use out to the internet and into the next magazine layout you create.

1.) A really good overview of making your own fonts in CorelDRAW. As you might know by now, CorelDRAW is one of the few existing applications in the world in which you can create your own typefaces. But it would take a boatload of documentation to assist you in making really good, commercial-quality typefaces. I recommend that you first of all read all the documentation you can on CorelDRAW's font-creation capability, and then read on, right here, for largely undocumented stuff. If you are still unsure of how to proceed, after reading the docs, I'll devoted a future column to the subject, in the very near future, so be sure to let me know.

One of the recommendations when you create a font is to set up a DRAW page to 1,000 points: 720 points (ten inches) for the character template and then some additional space for accented, extended characters. However, you can easily see with commercial fonts, such as Times New Roman, that the capital character is nowhere near 720 points, as shown in the first illustration.

Therefore, I'd set the page size to no more than 720 points and then drag a few guides out to remind you of where the cap height and x-height are for your new font (type a short word, specify its size as being 720 points in the Character dialog box, and then drag the word to the base of the page before dragging out guidelines). It would be useful to know what an x-height is, right? The x-height for a typeface is the height of its lowercase letters; typesetters use an 'x' to determine the height, for no particular reason of which I know.

Now, here's an excellent jump-start for creating a new typeface – although it's prohibited by copyright laws to rip off an existing typeface design, it's perfectly acceptable to modify an existing font. So, without further ado, check out the next illustration. I've typed a short word with lowercase characters onto a page at 720 points. Then I converted the word to curves and marquee selected the x-height nodes, then nudged them down to a new location (hint: lay down a guide so the new x-height for the font is consistent from one character to another).

Ready for two more type terms? Ascender and descender. As the terms sound, an ascender goes up within the measurement of a character and a descender goes down. Specifically, an ascender is measured from the x-height to the top of a character, such as a lowercase 'l' or 'd'. An ascender does not have to be, and frequently isn't, the same height as the character height (a typical capital character). Moving on down, the descender is measured from the base of a character to the lowermost point, such as you'd find in the characters 'g', 'j' and 'y'. The next figure shows an example of this. When designing your own font, add guides so you can better define ascenders and descenders. Typefaces such as Mona Lisa, Anna, and Rundfunk use atypical x-heights, ascenders and descenders. So if you want to create a retro font, here's where you start.

Moving ahead, there's a really important option you'll want to access when creating a font using CorelDRAW: the space key width, which defines the width of the space between words. It's used, as you might expect, when you press the Spacebar – and not many people know that it occupies scancode 0032 on an ASCI keyboard for default font encoding... that's one character prior to the exclamation symbol, 0033 (If you say so, Gary! - Ed.). Take a look at the next illustration. This is basically what you see when you've created a character and decide to export it to a new font, be it Type 1 or TrueType. What we see here are Options, thefirst in a string of dialog boxes. The font name is self-explanatory, but the Grid Size box should read 720 and nothing else, in case you want to follow my suggestions in order here. Additionally, and this is the whole point, the default Space Width is set to an amount that is generally larger than necessary – and around 300 units or less would be an optimal setting.

In the illustration below you can see the next dialog box after you set Options. The space scancode (number within the font) is set to 285 units, and if the font is opened in FontLab (the inset image highlighted in green), the program bears out what should have been expected; the font will indeed display a space of 285 units when you use it and hit the Spacebar.

Also, at any time during exports you can click Options in the TrueType Export dialog box to change the space key width and save it to the TTF (TrueType) file. Actually, I recommend this over exporting character 32 as the space key. It's best if you define the font space at the start, because CorelDRAW automatically forwards the exported character, and it's hard to remember at least 27 exports in sequence, right?

We need to back up here for a moment. Why? Because as you travel through the TTF export dialogs, you will have the chance to specify each character's width. This is not the same as kerning and in typographic terms character width consists of a left and a right sidebearing – which you need to define on the CorelDRAW printable area before you export a character.

Do this: once you have a character created, drag the zero origin box (the area where the rulers meet, upper-left of the workspace) to the left and bottom of the printable page. This sets the left sidebearing to flush left of the character – no room, nothing. Depending on the character, you might now want the left sidebearing to be flush to the character. The next illustration shows the export of an 'O', and as you can see, I've set the zero point for the page slightly to the left of the left-most extreme of the character. Use your own artistic taste, and here's a biggie: sidebearings denote the width of a character, however they do not specify kerning pairs (a much used and misunderstood phrase in type usage).

In fact, you cannot specify kerning pairs using CorelDRAW; I heartily recommend investing in Pyrus Software's FontLab if you want to become a type-creation kinda guy or gal in the future. This product compliments DRAW – it's a lot easier to use DRAW's drawing tools than FontLab's for character creation. But FontLab can manage the creation and tuning of the hundreds of kerning pairs, combinations of letters such as 'Va' for which the normal spacing values result in poorly set type.

The next illustration should throw some light on the character width/kerning schism. This is what the character 'A' looks like in my export of a font I created in DRAW. The spacing looks good around the character and I've even leaned the letter a little into the left sidebearing for tight typography, right? Right, but... what happens when you have a funky combination of letters ganged together?

For example, the word 'AWAY' has slopes like a ski resort and the existing character widths will not serve the cause of good kerning. This is where you need FontLab (sorry, but there are not a lot of font creation programs like there used to be...Macromedia Fontographer is the only other I can think of that's bi-platform). In the illustration below you can see that negative kerning has to be used to make the font produce eye-pleasing spacing when a word such as 'AWAY' is needed. Whew! Okay, tip #1 was a lonnnng one, unlike the rest of the tips here.

2.) TrueType is cool now. TrueType, for those of you who adopted a computer after 1995 or so, is a font format that is native to both Macintosh and Windows computers. You do not need a type manager, such as Adobe Type Manager) to use TrueType fonts in your applications – the idea being that Apple and Microsoft wanted a standard for fonts that did not require Adobe Systems' participation, cooperation, font pricing, or licensing fees in any way. Good, bad or indifferent, there are still two standards for fonts in popular use (Hewlett-Packard, BitStream, GeoWorks, and others tried in vain to introduce new font formats and type managers in the early 1990s with little success): Type 1 (PostScript) and TrueType fonts (With OpenType beginning to emerge as the synthesis of both of these. - Ed.).

For years I shunned TrueType, for a number of reasons. Here's a short list:

  • It was easy to make TrueType fonts yourself and equally easy to make fonts containing a printing error. To this day, I cannot believe that the Font Bureau released a font in Microsoft's Font Pack called Edda that contained at least 40 serious construction errors. If you'd like a corrected version of this font, I have it, called "Fredda". You can download Fredda for free from my web site.
  • TrueType fonts are 'verbose'. Type 1 fonts use math in their construction , called Bezier curves. Conversely, TrueType fonts use quadratic B-splines. What's the diff'? Type 1 fonts only need one node (control point) every 90 degrees, while TrueType needs a control point every 15 degrees of a curve. Inevitably, a TrueType version of a font has to be larger in file size than an equivalent Type 1 font. The illustration tells the tale.
  • TrueType and PostScript printing do not mix. This problem has now been largely fixed, due to Adobe Systems adding some commands in PostScript printing that either turn a TrueType font into a Type 1 equivalent at print time, or turn the font into a collection of (PostScript) curves to get around an incompatibility issue. Again, this is a non-issue today, but back a few years ago it influenced my selection of the fonts I had installed on my computer.
With fast processors, TrueType's profusion of nodes no longer hinders speed. There are also fewer construction errors in commercial TrueType fonts today, because professionals have had time to master the TrueType font specifications. And finally, many 3D applications 'like' the TrueType font format. So go ahead and use 'em!

3.) Create visual excitement using unique display and text font combinations. A good way to create a logo, letterhead stationary or a greeting on a Web page is to mix display fonts and text fonts. A display font is usually an ornamental font, or a super-bold typeface. A general rule of thumb for spotting a display font is that it would give you a headache if used for body text. Helvetica Black, Futura and Compacta are good, workable, display fonts that are easy to find on a CorelDRAW CD. Sure, there are more exotic display fonts. For example, Jokerman LET is used in the illustration below, but do you see what dynamics are going on here between display and text fonts – fonts that are good for body copy and not so terrific for headlines? I've used serif, Roman (has thick and thin stems) faces such as American Typewriter and Galliard, and the effect works nicely.

Here I've gone to extremes mixing display fonts with text fonts. I'll let you be the judge as to what works artistically on a case by case basis. But again, it's the use of opposites that makes the logos work – thick and thin, large and small – so add this to your bag of professional tricks.

4.) Don't sacrifice legibility for a page layout effect. I know, I know – I have a hard time myself resisting the urge to get "artsy" with a layout, but remember your audience. Who wants to cause a readers to get whiplash reading lines of text that have only five words in them? Let's leave this time with a visual example: at left is a good page layout---although it belongs to the "tombstone" layout family (which is somewhat of a cliché: it's around the first thing you're taught in commercial art), it's clean and legible. At right in figure 12 is a very adventurous layout that simply fails to work. Can you see how you'll lose your audience with short, and then progressively longer, and then shorter lines of text? Not only will your audience not read it, but unless the article is about roller-coasters, you are likely not to make a name for yourself as a DTP pro.

5.) Try to obey the Winding Path Rule. The Winding Path Rule states that the fill to a closed curve must go to the right of the outline. Take a look at my pathetic example at left. Now, a character that has a hole in it, like the letter "O", has to have that path going in the opposite direction as the outer path. When you draw characters, pay attention to the direction of the curve. Use the Node Selection tool in combination with the reverse curve direction feature if you have paths going in the wrong way (this can also be corrected in FontLab).

What happens if characters have paths going in the wrong direction? Most of the time, nothing, but 3D applications such as XARA 3D are very sensitive to path direction. In the final illustration, the paths to this typeface are going in the wrong direction, and the resulting line of text looks like an eggshell having a bad hair day. Keep those directions going the proper way in your fonts, and you will be able to sell them for more money!

Okay, class is out for now! Tips 6 to 10 will follow in the next installment.

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