How in the World Do I Choose a Font Format?

By LaurenMarie

TrueType or PostScript?

When it comes to choosing a font for a project, it’s difficult to find the right style, not to mention worrying about whether or not it will print properly!

Open Type is the bestYou’ve probably heard terms like PostScript Type 1, TrueType and Open Type, but what do they all mean for you?

If you don’t want to read why, I’ll just tell you up front: OpenType is your very best friend. There really is no reason to use any other kind of font.

Wanna know why?

First we need to establish the foundation. The interesting (and complicated) stuff is really at the end.

PostScript Type 1

TrueType, System and Open Type font file iconsPostScript is a language that printers (as in the machine, not the people) “speak.”

PostScript Type 1 (the font format) is the first generation of digital fonts and has been the preferred format for printing because no conversions between the digital files and the files sent to the printer have to take place. Historically, these have been difficult for a designer to work with, though, because without a “translator” like Adobe Type Manager (turns the vectors into pixels so the monitor can show them to you) there was no way to accurately and smoothly display the font on screen.

Since Windows 2000 and Mac OSX, a RIP (Rastor Image Processor) has been natively installed to translated these PostScript fonts (PC Mag).

TrueType

TrueType is another commonly discussed format. It has come a long way since it was first introduced by Apple in response to Adobe’s proprietary PostScript format. Many of the first TrueType fonts were shoddy conversions of PostScript fonts, but today most large type foundries offer their products in TrueType format (where as before it was PostScript or nothing).

TrueType vs. PostScript

TrueType has better hinting capabilities, IF they are defined. That’s the catch. There has to be someone willing to program these features.

Hinting is a technology that allows for the smooth display of digital fonts. It works with the vector data and how it is converted to pixels to make accurate displays of the font at small sizes; think of hinting as a kind of anti-aliasing. That’s the other catch: hinting is only important if you’re displaying at smaller sizes on screen.

TrueType is Not the Best for Print

But it can still work. The reason TrueType doesn’t work well with high end printing is because the printer has to convert the TrueType vectors to the PostScript language. And apparently

PostScript does not allow as many “curves” in a letter as TrueType (Apple Docs).

Eh? What does that mean?

I couldn’t accept that PostScript just doesn’t support as many details as TrueType.

Why not? What is it? A limitation of the language the font is stored in? Both TrueType and PostScript are vectors! Why don’t they play nice?

I had to do a bit of digging, but this is what I found.

This may get a little complicated

TrueType uses quadratic curves. These are not the curves you’re used to drawing in Illustrator and Photoshop. Quadratic curves require four points to make a curve.

PostScript uses cubic curves. These are our friendly curves that were a pain to understand when first learning the pen tool (Illustrator or Photoshop). We like these ones; we’re used to them now. Cubic curves only require three points to make a curve. Right? Because if something is cubed, it is multiplied by itself three times (a cube is 3D).

Quadratic vs. Cubic Curves

When converting from TrueType to PostScript, not all of these quadratic curves can be transformed into smooth cubic curves.

Think about Vector Magic: if you were tracing the image yourself in Illustrator, you could get every detail exactly perfect, the way you wanted it to be. But to let VM do it, some things come out a little messed up because it is a program doing the conversion, not a human who can make adjustments and decisions about where colors end and others begin and how best to represent that transition.

TrueType vs PostScript Vectors

This image is courtesy of Alec Julien (thanks Alec!). It’s a screenshot of TrueType and PostScript vectors in FontLab. As you can see, it takes 20 points to make a circle with quadratic curves (TTF) but only four points with cubic curves (PS).

Conclusion?

Use Open Type fonts because they have both TrueType and PostScript files embedded, and they’re cross-platform compatible. Best of all worlds! Go Adobe and Microsoft!! I had to do all the above explaining so you would understand why I say to use the Open Type format over the other common ones.

Just in case you’re wondering what it is that makes Open Type so wonderful, take this quote from Thomas Phinney’s writing on TrueType vs. PostScript Type 1:

OpenType puts either a PostScript or TrueType outline in a TrueType-style wrapper. Applications and most operating system functions outside of the font subsystem will no longer care which type of font is in this ‘wrapper.’

Further Reading: