A single font might contain 100 characters or it might contain tens of thousands of characters. As you can imagine, this influences how the font can be used. It’s not always a case of “more is always better”, but when choosing a font you do need to make sure that it contains the necessary characters for your specific needs.
Base character sets
The encoding of Latin fonts has its roots in the ASCII standard with 128 code points (7 bit). It originally only supported English characters. Later, another 128 code points were added to form 8 bit encodings and the additional slots were filled with other languages and punctuation marks based on regions of the world, e.g. “Western Europe”, “Central Europe” and so on. Technically, the Unicode fonts of today can contain tens of thousands of characters but the 8 bit character sets remain a foundation until today. A quality font with a Latin character set should include at least one complete 8 bit character set, if not multiple. Before you purchase a font license, check the character map or the type specimen PDFs available for most fonts. Are all the necessary languages covered, both in regards to the letters as well as the punctuation marks? What about currency symbols or special symbols like §, © and so on?
The focus of this online course is on Latin fonts, but of course you might also need to use fonts supporting multiple scripts, e.g. Cyrillic, Greek and so on. The number of fonts supporting various scripts at once is much smaller, but if you pick a font for larger companies that are active in different parts of the world, the script support will become a crucial consideration.
A basic 8 bit character set serves basic typography tasks, but today’s OpenType fonts can contain lots of alternate characters—variations which can be turned on and off through OpenType features. Unfortunately, these feature are often overlooked, since font users might not know the features are there or how to activate them. Check the type foundry’s website and the type specimen PDFs for more information about the included OpenType features. Here are some of the most typical features to look out for:
Multiple Figure sets
Old-style figures have ascenders and descenders like lowercase letters and work well in body copy. Lining figures align with capital letters. Both types might be available in a proportional width and/or a tabular width. As the name suggests, the latter works best for tables. Commercial OpenType fonts will often contain all four sets, plus figures for subscript, superscript and fractions. For complex designs tasks like corporate designs, having all these choices is a great benefit.
Swash characters give a text a more decorative and calligraphic appearance. It is a typical feature of italic and script fonts.
Ligatures and contextual alternates
OpenType ligatures and contextual alternates can improve the way specific letter pairs work together or connect. This can increase the legibility or make script fonts appear more like actual handwriting. Activating those standard ligatures and alternates is usually recommended, while discretionary and historical ligatures and alternates might only be useful in certain circumstances.
Small caps are capital letters regarding their design, but they are drawn smaller than the actual capital letters in the same font. Small caps usually stand in for lowercase characters and are used in combination with the capital letters. No use specifically requires small caps, but it’s still a nice option to have. For example: in addition to italics, it gives you another option to emphasize certain parts.
OpenType fonts can contain up to 20 stylistic sets. The effect of these OpenType features is not standardized, so if they exist in a font, you have to check for each font what they do. A typical use is to provide letter variations. For example: a font might contain variations like a one-story “a” and a two-story “a” and a stylistic set would be the way to switch to the other option.
Related Terms in our Glossary: