dot-font: Numbers Don’t Lie

The way we write numbers depends on who we are and where we learned to write. Anyone who has traveled knows this; the hand-scrawled prices on a vegetable stand in Paris, for instance, look very different from prices on an equivalent stand in New York. But we don’t stop and think about how different the numbers are in the different fonts we use. In fact, there are a lot of ways to treat numerals, and most are in one font or another — sometimes all in the same font.

The numbers we’re used to reading in print — each one the same width, and all of them the same height (usually the height of capital letters) — are a relatively recent development. Typographers call them “modern” figures because they were the hottest thing in type at the end of the 18th century, when revolution was in the air, in printing as in everything else. Before then, numbers (when they weren’t spelled out, or occasionally in roman numerals) were more like lowercase letters: different widths for different numerals, most of them the same height as lowercase letters, though some had ascenders or descenders that rose above the x-height or fell below the baseline. Those are known to typographers as “old-style” figures.

Old-style figures in an old-style text typeface (MVB Verdigris, above) and modern (lining) figures in a heavy sans serif display typeface (Champion, below).


Numbers in Text
Old-style figures are most appropriate in running text, where they blend in with the letters. Most typefaces up to the 19th century were text faces; even the largest sizes were often clearly related to text faces in form and style. The Industrial Revolution, and the commercial society it engendered, brought an explosion of display type, used in advertising and publicity of all kinds. These big, bold typefaces, often used in all-caps setting, needed big, bold numerals to go with them. Even the text types in the 19th century had modern figures, which stood out prominently from the surrounding text. It was a statement.

But today, when so much of our text is full of numbers, those cap-high modern figures are distracting. We may be used to seeing every date set in Times Roman with its lining figures sticking up to cap height, but it looks a little like every number is being shouted. That’s why the revival of old-style figures has swept in, and why so many new text faces have old-style figures as an alternate form or as the default form for numbers. (They generally include modern figures, too, since you do need them when you’re setting a line all in caps.)

The lining figures in Times New Roman (top), and both old-style and lining figures in ITC Stone Serif (middle, bottom).


Stepping Outside the Bounds
Some of today’s type designers have gone a step farther and are experimenting with other ways of treating those familiar ten figures. One of those ways is to create “semi-lining” figures, which almost line up but don’t quite. (Modern figures are also called “lining” figures, because they all line up, top and bottom, just like capital letters.) Matthew Carter has played with semi-lining figures in several of his typefaces, especially text faces intended for use in such high-traffic formats as newspapers and magazines. Carter’s popular typeface Miller has figures like this; they are very slightly shorter than the caps (though not enough so they look odd in combination with caps), and some of the numerals extend slightly above or below that height. The top of the 6 loops up above the other letters — but only slightly! — while the 7 and 9 extend just a tad below the baseline.

Special newspaper versions of Matthew Carter’s Miller type family, with lining numerals that go just slightly out of bounds.


This restrained exuberance serves a functional purpose: it differentiates the numerals from each other, making them easier to distinguish and harder to misread. This is essential. Numbers are specific and precise; they have to be clearly readable. Numerals that look alike aren’t functional; that’s what makes Helvetica such a terrible choice for typesetting a business card or a list of phone numbers. The opposite of Helvetica might be a typeface like Michael Gills’s Elysium, where the old-style figures express exuberance with almost no restraint. They’re legible, and beautiful, but no one would ever call them quiet.

The unrestrained old-style figures in the typeface Elysium, by Michael Gills.


Numerals For Every Purpose
Old-style figures generally work very well with small caps — true small caps, not just full-size capital letters that have been shrunk to a fraction of their original size. In postal codes, for instance, small caps and old-style figures mix well. But some type designers prefer to create special small-cap figures: lining figures that align with the tops and bottoms of the small caps, not the full caps. (This may be particularly useful if the small caps are noticeably taller than the lowercase x-height.) Three of the new text typefaces that Microsoft will release as part of Longhorn, the next version of the Windows operating system, include small-cap figures: Constantia (John Hudson), Corbel (Jeremy Tankard), and Calibri (Lucas de Groot).

Lining figures designed to match the height of the small caps in the typeface Constantia, by John Hudson: small-cap figures (left) and old-style figures (right) shown with small caps.


Variations like this can be built into OpenType fonts. The advantage to building variations such as small caps into the font are that any program that can access OpenType’s typographic features can use them. For example, if you work in InDesign and you use an OpenType Pro font such as Adobe Jenson Pro, you simply select some text and apply a numeral style like “tabular old-style figures.” (Not all Pro fonts have every kind of numeral; it’s up to the type designer. But the possibility is there.) In a font like Constantia, the small-cap numerals are accessed by applying the “OpenType All Small Caps” command.

Line ‘Em Up!
There are still more variations. Traditionally, old-style figures have had varying widths, while modern figures have all had the same width. That’s one reason modern figures are popular in our number-intensive society; if you type them in columns (think annual report), the numerals all line up. But there’s no reason why old-style figures can’t do this too; and modern figures, for that matter, don’t necessarily have to be all the same width. (It’s always a challenge to make the numeral 1 look the same width as the other numbers.) So some type designers now create “tabular old-style figures,” which vary in height and shape but all have the same width, and “proportional lining figures,” which are full-height but may vary a bit in width.

Four kinds of numerals in Kingfisher, by Jeremy Tankard. Top to bottom: proportional old-style, tabular old-style, tabular lining, and proportional lining figures.


These are not obscure and finicky details; they can be quite useful. In an annual report, for instance, you might like the elegant look of old-style figures (they convey the company’s sobriety and solid history), but you might use two different kinds: in the text, proportional old-style figures; in the tables and charts, tabular old-style figures. Nobody will notice this on a conscious level, but unconsciously it will make the whole thing feel well built.

Ones and Zeroes
The most troublesome numerals are the simplest: ones and zeroes. A one, at its most basic, is just a single stroke; a zero, at its most basic, is just a circle. But a single stroke can easily look like a one or a capital I or a lowercase l, unless the typeface distinguishes them in some way. European handwriting treats the one as two strokes: an initial up-stroke leading in, and then the definitive down-stroke. That’s why Monotype created an alternate version of Gill Sans for the German market, where there was a persistent demand; the only difference is in the numeral 1, which has a slanted top-stroke that the regular version of the typeface doesn’t have.

A variety of ones and zeroes in several typefaces, plus a comparison of letters and numbers from Erik Spiekermann’s ITC Officina Sans, which differentiates them carefully from each other.


And how do you tell a zero from the letter o? Lining figures tend to have a narrow, elliptical zero, because a perfect circle would look huge when it’s as tall as the cap height. But some old-style typefaces, with old-style figures, do use perfectly circular zeroes, to distinguish them from lowercase o’s. I’ve always found it disconcerting — the circle is too perfect, and slightly distracting — but it’s a very old tradition. Some type designers find ways to design an old-style zero that is in keeping with the rest of the typeface, yet can’t be confused with an o. (Elysium, which I mentioned above, is a good example.) One way around this problem is to make the old-style figures, even the small lines like 1 and 2, noticeably taller than the x-height.

Ultimately, the style of numbers that you use ought to be appropriate to the project. Choose a typeface that has the kind of numerals you need; and if the face has different options, use them! Don’t settle for the default. We work with numbers all the time; let’s make them easy to read.

Posted on: September 23, 2005

3 Comments on dot-font: Numbers Don’t Lie

  1. rubbish. didnt help atall.

  2. Exactly what I needed! Thanks! :o)

  3. Exactly what I was looking for too!!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.