I got a very positive comment on Monday from a reader about my last post on fonts. As a result, I’d like to talk about fonts with more depth. Maybe this will be the first in a series – you never know! Also, if you’re one of those persnickety types who care about proper terminology, I’m going to be using “font” and “typeface” interchangeably – Microsoft won the battle of blending those two terms long ago.
As an experiment, I’m going to discuss a font that my production teacher raves about in almost every class: Caslon. In this case, I have access to the Adobe Caslon Pro version available through Adobe CS4. Below you can see the font in all its glory, with both upper and lower case alphabets, and a few pangram sentences thrown in for good measure:
Now, although this may be so obvious that it should go without saying, Caslon is a serif font. See the little strokes at the ends of the letters like the lower case x and w? Those are serifs – and the presence or absence of serifs in a font is (probably) the most important aesthetic identifier in typography. Serifs came into place as early typesetters tried to imitate the strokes and flourishes that accompanied earlier hand-written texts. Now, the majority of printed material we read uses serif fonts because we’re so historically used to them, and also because the serifs themselves help our eyes track the baseline of the text as we read.
But I digress.
So, Caslon is a serif font. What’s really interesting is how this font slants certain serifs: take a look at E, F, T, Z, and to a lesser extent C and G. The slants there are quite visible and extreme – for comparison, open up whatever word processor is on your computer and type the same capital letters in other (more easily accessible) serif fonts like Times New Roman, Garamond, Book Antiqua or Georgia. You’ll notice that in some fonts, like Garamond, the serifs can be both vertical and slanted in the same letter; in contrast, Book Antiqua’s vertical serifs stay vertical.
Another thing to notice is that all the serifs in Caslon flow smoothly into the main strokes of their respective letters. If you zoom in close enough, you can see that there’s a slight curve connecting the serif to the letter’s body. This tends to make the font gentler on the eye. This is also what’s known as “bracketing” – compare this to a font like Courier, where the serifs all join the letters at strict ninety-degree angles.
So far, this font is pretty normal – it shares a lot of characteristics with other fonts that are built into office software suites. The thing that really got me puzzling about this font – at lower point sizes, at least – is how the ascenders and descenders looked, and especially how the lower case w looked. It’s not as visible in this image because the letters are so large, but at smaller font sizes the middle point in the w doesn’t align horizontally with the two endpoints. I haven’t quite convinced myself that the little depression in the middle isn’t just a trick of the eye. Other than that, at smaller sizes the ascenders and descenders (the extended strokes that occur in such letters as b, d, q, and p, for example) appear to taper towards the ends. Again, this quirk appears to disappear when the text gets larger. Overall, at smaller sizes this font appears slightly off-kilter – like it’s just waiting to adorn the opening credits sequence of a Tim Burton movie.
Before we go, I want to talk about a new rule I’ve decided upon for fonts: all fonts must have at least one extravagant or distinguishing feature or stroke. As I mentioned previously, I love the little curled-up tail at the end of the R in Clarendon. Here, I love the tail at the end of the capital Q. Look at that thing! It stretches out and goes sideways like nothing else in the font, yet it still looks dignified and in keeping with the rest of the alphabet. Capital Q, you are the brave peacock of the Caslon typeface, and for that, we salute you!