Font Families

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May 5, 2014 at 4:42 AM #9021


By the late 1860s, most type producers in the US and abroad organized the job fonts in their catalogs by styles instead of by sizes. During the next 30 years, the term series, long applied to book fonts available in a range of sizes, gradually extended to unification of display types with variations in width, weight, slant and ornamentation as well as size.

While the letterpress series concept persists today, it is not synonymous with the digital font family. There are fundamental, platform-dependent differences in font family organization and function.

  • Screenshots illustrate FontLab 4.6 (Windows)
  • Topics for further discussion (*) are suggested below the footnotes.

Font “Weights”

For win fonts, weight literally means weight, as in “heaviness” or “lightness.” Weights are optional style names for members of a Windows font family:

FontLab 4.6 (Windows)

My clueless understanding of the mac definition of font weight is that it applies to styles NOT strictly related to lightness or heaviness.*

Macintosh Font Families and Menus

Mac font families most closely resemble the letterpress series. They are a bit like “clans” headed by a patriarch and populated by all relatives with the same “surname”:

  • Helvetica, H. Italic, H. Condensed Thin, H. Outline, H. Extended Ultra-Black Shadow, etc., etc.
  • Only the base font, Helvetica, is displayed in the main font menu.
  • Variations are selected from nested sub-menus listing available members of the Helvetica clan.
  • Mac “extended families” are organized as “suitcases”—meaningless/useless to Win users.
  • Since the mac user interface is primarily mouse-driven, the ergonomic and creative-flow downside is that font edits must be executed by multiple mouse clicks.

Windows Font Families and Menus

As explained by Adobe, win font families are style-linked [mapped] to function as units of two to (a maximum of) four fonts. As for text faces, family members must be identified as Fontname, Fontname Italic, Fontname Bold or Fontname Bold-Italic:

  • Helvetica, H. Italic, H. Bold and H. Bold-Italic.
  • Only the base font, Helvetica, is displayed in the font menu; there are no nested sub-menus.
  • Variations are executed by Formatting Shortcut commands (more below).
  • Win power-users expect the convenience of style-linked font families and may be confused (perhaps alienated!) by unfamiliar menus that list the members individually.

Series are built from any number of families:

  • Helvetica Medium-Heavy: H. Medium [regular], H. Medium Italic [italic], H. Heavy [bold], H. Heavy Italic [bold-italic].
  • Helvetica Shaded-Outline: H. Shaded [regular], H. Outline [italic], H. Outline Shaded [bold], H. Outline Shaded [bold-italic].
  • Even fonts from different digital producers may be style-linked. For example, revivals of Rudolph Koch’s gorgeous Roman, Klingspor Eve#, and Willard Sniffin’s equally gorgeous derivative, ATF Rivoli Italic#¹:

Imagine how cool it is to select (once and only once) a base font entitled Eve-Rivoli from the font menu, assign it to a text block (once and only once) and never need to interrupt your “train of thought” by reaching for the mouse as you consider (and repeatedly reconsider) which words to set in which font using only intuitive keystrokes!

Formatting Shortcuts and Printability

Professional layout programs for both platforms support keyboard shortcuts* for formatting family members as regular, italic, bold and bold-italic; word-processors typically substitute mouse-click buttons.

  • Mac users* report that when they use these shortcuts, installed/active fonts display correctly.
  • Oops! They may not print correctly. Italic variants may appear as skewed “oblique” versions of the base font; bold ones, as offset over-strikes.
  • Why? Because mac fonts are not coded with instructions to substitute mapped family members for the base font, so the system “fudges” a facsimile.
  • For win users, installed/active style-linked fonts formatted with shortcuts always print perfectly, regardless of the output device: desktop ink-jet, high-end image setter, PDF (a “virtual” postscript printer), etc.

How to Set Up Windows Font Families

Any two, three or four fonts may be style-linked as a family. The steps and screenshots below explain the process for a fictitious font, Tuscan, with three derivatives.²

  1. Name the Font Family.
  2. Select the weight from the drop-down menu—the numeric values change automatically.
  3. Check the italic and/or bold family-function option/s (circled below) as appropriate.
  4. Click the Build Style Name button.
  5. Click the Build Names button.
  6. Enter other settings handled by other dialog boxes.
  7. Generate the font in the desired file format.
  • The weight “bold” in the drop-down menu is not to be confused with the family-function check-box labeled “Font is bold.”
  • For four fonts to function correctly as a family, two must be set as Regular weight; the other two, as Bold. The bold-weight fonts (drop-down menu) must set as bold family members (check-boxes).
  • In the following example, the bold and italic family members are VISUALLY neither heavy nor slanted because the outlines themselves are not. The circled settings merely identify and map the four fonts’ functions.
  • Note that only the Style Name changes; the Family Name and Menu Name remain the same for all four family members.

Tuscan (fill font), the primary family member:
 Tuscan Outline, the italic family member.
Tuscan Shaded, the bold family member.
Tuscan Ornamented, the bold-italic family member.

Voila! Now these fonts can be assigned (and repeatedly re-assigned) to selected text as effortlessly as with Eve-Rivoli (at least for Windows users*)!

¹McGrew, M. (1993): American Metal Types of the Twentieth Century (Second, Revised Edition), pages 271 and 347. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.
²Many thanks to Alan J. Prescott for his definitive revivals of Zebra# and Van Horn#, historic tuscans originated by Figgins (1847) that served as ideal examples for family linking. The metrics of these fonts assure perfect registration supporting multi-color effects.

*Please Discuss

  • Does the mac term weight describe such non-weight variations as outlined, shaded, striped, etc.?
  • If so, how does “weight” affect family style-linking?
  • Do mac layout programs support reliable printing when font-formatting shortcuts are used?
  • If so, does support differ between pre-OSX and OSX+?
  • Can a mac font developer organize style-linked families?
  • If so, how?
  • Does a mac combination of OSX and Adobe Creative Suite support style-linked font families produced by Windows developers?


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