The answer is “Yes” and “No.” It depends upon where you get them. The fonts on your computer are really digital “outline fonts” that began to be used on professional (PostScript®) image-setters in the late 1980s. All digital fonts are like little applications or programs that your computer reads. I have been personally involved in the fonts that you see on your computer since 1991. The first sets for personal computing were TrueType® fonts produced between 1990 and 1991. They were released with the Windows 3.1 operating system and Apple’s System 7.0. A lot of time and energy went into their development.
Prior to 1991, fonts were not specifically used with personal computers. Type was “set” (or output) using dedicated image-setting devices, usually referred to as typesetters. Each typesetting device required a font designed and manufactured for that particular model of typesetter. The type images (alphabets) up to the 1980s were produced on film or glass negatives through which a beam of light was shot to expose the image onto photo sensitive paper. Some devices used impact technology, similar to typewriters. And there were some early printers that used used ink and dot matrix output, which was a digital format that was actually more crude than a modern cell phone. It’s still used today on cash register receipts.
The fonts that came with your computer are technically free. The development cost is part of what you paid for the operating system. These fonts should be a pretty good quality--probably the best you can get since it makes your system look good if the type behaves properly.
What happens if the type doesn’t behave? Well, lots of things. Outline integrity is the first thing you’ll probably notice. I’ve had a few fonts around since the 1990s and they still work. Pretty robust, huh? How many software programs do you own that are still running after even 5 or 6 years? One reason they’ve lasted is their design integrity. Bad outlines mean that your software will not be able to “read” them properly. Sometimes the font will not print. They can be a real challenge in PDFs. Are there ways avoid this? Maybe not (except for common sense) but most printing problems have a workaround.
[As an aside, my wife and I used to work on a quarterly church magazine. This was not your typical newsletter printed using an office copier. It was actually a full color production on glossy paper produced by a local printing company. The managing editor was the pastor's wife, who was enamored with free fonts. Every issue we'd have to deal with the eccentricities of the free font-of-the-month. Examples of these problems include bad spacing (letters that crash into each other) and words that didn't show up in the final document file. If we found the error first, that was OK because we would take the time to fix it as best we could. It was worse, and more embarrassing if the printing company found something, and then we'd have to drop everything and try to find a solution ASAP. The problem there is the layout is pretty much finalized at that point. If you make the wrong changes, everything gets thrown out of alignment and the page layout no longer makes any sense--and this can throw off the alignment of all the other pages that follow it. And there's always a lot of pressure to get it done quickly. So, welcome to the world of professional printing. Mr. Printer can stop the job for a few minutes but any longer will tie up the production schedule for the rest of the plant. Moral of the story: Beware of free fonts.]
Typography is the visual portion of language. Type itself—the individual symbols—are used as the building blocks to communicate a message. If the type is constructed in an aesthetically pleasing and legible fashion we refer to it as “fine typography.”
Having said that, let’s face it. Once you click on your type menu, things can get pretty confusing. Where did all those font choices come from? Why are they even there. And who uses all those non-English fonts, anyway? It’s time to dig in and clear up some things.
That’s one reason I began my online courses, which are called “Typography for Everyone: Demystifying Type.” Most people use computers and encounter type all the time. Many of them have no specialized training and their font menu is a mystifying hodgepodge to them. It’s kind of like giving a full mechanic’s tool box too a 15-year old and saying “replace this doorknob.” The array of tools is seemingly vast and very confusing. Telling him to just grab a screwdriver and get started may not be comprehended in the same way it would to, even, a novice mechanic. Type basics is a step that is usually skipped or glossed over when the average user begins the personal computer journey. “Learn-as-you-go” can be frustrating and usually inefficient, which is why most Driver Ed programs start in the classroom.
Ever see one of those “Read Me First” documents with the instructions for a new appliance, or tool? A “Read Me First” file, containing a few simple rules and guidelines, ought to be inserted with your desktop publishing/layout program. As with the film we saw in the Driver Ed class, following these rules might help to prevent typographic accidents.
This may sound like a lot of work just to type out a memo or something equally mundane, but like it or not:
If you use words “professionally,” you are already a typographer. You may be a reluctant typographer. You may be an unskilled typographer. But every time you put words on a page, you’ve made typography happen. —Matthew Butterick in Butterick’s Practical Typography
Your goal is not necessarily to create something award-winning every time, but to make you feel confident that any time you sit in front of a keyboard, you will be able to create both legible and readable documents that are attractive and communicate your information clearly.
At some point, I will post some rules (also known as “guidelines,” for people who don’t like rules) Briefly stated, they are: