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Font, That Four-Letter Word

The greatest cause of printing-file disasters.

Font is probably the single greatest cause of four-letter-word tantrums in print production. Fonts are certainly the greatest cause of printing-file disasters.

At my shop, we have threatened to ban every font except Helvetica. But then we realized we have several hundred versions of Helvetica, and we couldn't figure out which one to keep. Not that it was a terribly practical idea of course. After all, even printproduction operators who get burned by bad fonts on a daily basis don't really want to live in a single type-style world.

The font-management challenge

Why can't such a simple thing as a set of code for the characters of the alphabet be made to work on some of the world's most sophisticated computers? One reason is that there are tens of thousands of fonts available, a number that's growing daily. Plus, not everyone who creates fonts is completely conversant with how they should be made"?and many are not all that concerned about whether they can actually be output on a PostScript printer.

There are other reasons, too. Designers simply love to play with and manipulate type in programs like Fontographer. Software manufacturers feed font-junkie's habits by allowing them to create increasingly sophisticated special effects. In addition, there are fonts written for special needs (like dingbats and braille fonts), special languages (like Japanese and Farsi), and even special applications (like scientific and musical notations).

More insidious than font designers, however, are operating system designers who continually upgrade the products we use daily. The rules of the game are constantly changing. Imagine, if you will, 10 players on a basketball court, all playing with a different set of rules: The center is playing by New York State High School rules, the guards and forwards are playing by NBA rules, but anyone who comes in off the bench must play by WBA rules. Of course, at halftime everyone must switch to a different set of rules"?and when you are playing on the left side of the court you use the rules adopted in 1975, and when you play on the right side of the court, you play by 2005 rules. How would you like to referee that game?

This is not unlike the situation that the poor developers of font management utilities have to face. All of the players use different rules, and the referee"?in our case, that poor font-management utility"?needs to make everything make sense and keep the game flowing. And, don't forget, in print production, there are literally thousands of players, not just two teams of five.

Over the years, we have witnessed the creation of TrueType, PostScript (and the various PS versions), and OpenType fonts"? and we're not done yet. Apple, for instance, introduced dfonts when it released OS X; these are essentially TrueType fonts that have the binary code built in. If you recall Apple's System 9, when you loaded a PostScript font you actually needed two pieces"?one for the screen rendering and one for the printer. In OS X, you don't need two pieces.

The great thing about the dfonts is that they are completely cross-platform compatible, as are OpenType fonts. PostScript fonts, however"?which are what most people in print production actually use"?still utilize the old architecture. While OS X can handle that problem seamlessly, there are still problems when you try to use PC fonts (Mac PostScript and PC PostScript fonts have a different file structure) and when you operate in Classic mode. And when Quark 6.0 came out, there were some important details of Apple's new font-handling scheme that Quark didn't completely write into its code. After several false starts, Quark 6.5 and Mac OS X 10.3.7 now combine to solve most of those problems.

Easing your pain

A few utilities make handling fonts less painful: Extensis Suitcase, Font Reserve, and FontAgent Pro, to name three. Font Reserve and Suitcase have been mainstays in the prepress front-end arsenal for Macs and PCs; for my money, the current version of FontAgent Pro has the fewest problems, although this is a Mac-only application. Adobe Type Manager is also a popular type-management tool on the PC side, but Adobe chose not to port the program to OS X"?possibly because Apple released its own font-management utility called Font Book, even though this isn't considered an industrial-strength solution.

For Mac users, another solution is a $10 shareware product called Font Cache Cleaner, recently renamed Font Finagler (available from http://homepage.mac.com/mdouma46/fontfinagler). You may also want to consider an overall system cleaner such as OnyX, a freeware that's available from www.tita nium.free.fr (not related to Onyx Graphics).

A warning here to PC users: A multitude of cheap font collections are available for PCs, as are some very inexpensive fontmanagement utilities. While some of these may be fine, a good rule of thumb is to avoid them like the plague. Stick with known products and reputable font designers and studios. If you want to spend time researching the companies you can trust, more power to you"?but consider if you can really afford to risk all the pain that a bad font can cause. And now that Macs can use PC fonts, this warning also applies to Mac users.

Mac OS X users need to be aware of some other considerations as well. For instance, when you open and close fonts, there are little bits of data that may not follow instructions"?particularly if you are jumping back and forth in Classic mode, or dealing with a very large number of fonts in a variety of programs. Think of the poor ref in the aforementioned imaginary basketball game; it's a wonder that things work as smoothly as they do! Mac OS X users also should get rid of the large number of excess fonts that OS X automatically seeks to install on your system. There are actually six locations for fonts in OS X, so the process can be a bit involved.

A rowdy bunch

PC users should keep in mind that much of the final output is still done from Macs, and some Mac and PC fonts are not as cross-platform as you might think. For true cross-platform interoperability, OpenType is a good choice. Whether you are upgrading your font collection on either Mac or PC platforms, give careful consideration to going with the OpenType solution.

For OS X users, a good combination would be Apple's font management in OS X 10.3.7, a robust font-management utility like FontAgent Pro, and a cache-cleaning utility such as Font Finagler, and the freeware OnyX. With that package, you have a pretty good chance of controlling what could be a very rowdy bunch of four letter words.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

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