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Space, time, and bandwidth are too limiting to provide a complete introduction to typography in this space. I'd be very willing to make one available for anonymous ftp, if you want to write one, but I'm not going to write it--I have neither the time nor the expertise. However, the following description of Times, Helvetica, and Courier will suffice for a start. For more information, several books on typography are listed in the bibliography.
Laurence Penney offers the following description of Times, Helvetica, and Courier:
Times is a typeface designed in the 1930s for the Times newspaper in London and is now used widely in books, magazines and DTP. Its design is based on the typographical principles evolved since Roman times (upper case) and the 16th century (lower case). It is called a TRANSITIONAL typeface, after the typefaces of the 17th century which it resembles. Like all typefaces designed for typesetting large quantities of text, it is proportionally spaced: the i takes about a third the width of an M. Personally I don't like Times too much and prefer the more elegant Garamond and Baskerville, but these will probably cost you money... Note: The Transitionals came after the Old Styles (like Garamond) and before the Moderns (like Bodoni).
Helvetica is an example of a SANS-SERIF typeface. These first appeared in the late 19th century in Germany and flourished in the 1920s and 30s, when they were regarded as the future of typography. It's more a geometric design than the humanist design of Gill Sans, but less geometric than Avant Garde and Futura. To my mind it lacks elegance, and Adrian Frutiger's Univers shows how this kind of typeface should be done. (Just compare the B, R, Q, a, g of Univers and Helvetica to see what I mean -- and don't you just love Univers's superbly interpreted ampersand ?!) Helvetica is one of the few fonts that is improved by its BOLD version.
Another interesting approach to sans-serif is Optima, by Hermann Zapf, which keeps the stroke-weight variations which sans-serifs usually reject. Use sans-serif fonts for the same applications as Times, above, but where you're less concerned with elegance, and more with a functional appearance - they're generally reckoned to be slightly less legible than good serifed fonts. They're also very suitable for display work.
Courier is a typeface derived from typewriter styles. It should ONLY be used when you want to simulate this effect (e.g. when writing letters Courier usually appears ``friendlier'' than Times). Like all typewriter fonts, it is MONOSPACED (characters all have the same width) and is thus suitable for typesetting computer programs. However there are nicer looking monospace fonts than Courier (which has oversize serifs), that still remain distinct from the text fonts like Times and Helvetica. A good one is OCR-B, designed by Frutiger. Note that monospaced fonts are less economical on space than proportional fonts.
[ed: Following the original posting of this message, Laurence Penny and Jason Kim discussed the issue privately. The following summary of their discussion may serve to clarify some of the more subtle points. My thanks to Laurence and Jason for allowing me to include this in the FAQ.]
LP-1> The Transitionals came after the Old Styles (like Garamond) and before the Moderns (like Bodoni).
JK> Not necessarily true! Ideologically, yes, but not chronologically. I believe, for example, that Bodoni predates New Century Schoolbook or some such typeface.
LP-2> What I meant by ``X came after Y'' was ``the first examples of X appeared after the first examples of Y'' -- it's called precis. Some people still make steam trains, but you can still say ``Steam engines came before diesels.'' This is chronological, not ideological in my book.
LP-1> Another interesting approach to sans-serif is Optima, by Hermann Zapf, which keeps the stroke-weight variations which sans-serifs usually reject. Use sans-serif fonts for the same applications as Times, above, but where you're less concerned with elegance, and more with a functional appearance - they're generally reckoned to be slightly less legible than good seriffed fonts. They're also very suitable for display work.
JK> Slightly? I have several textbooks typeset by utter fools and they are a pain in the ass (and eyes) to read! Please don't encourage anyone to use Optima (or any sans serif fonts for that matter) ``for the same applications as Times,'' which, need I remind you, was designed for *newspaper* work!!
LP-2> OK, maybe I was a little over-generous to Univers, Helvetica, etc., but I think variation is extremely important in typography. Have you ever read the British magazine ``CAR'' ? That uses Helvetica light (I think) in a very legible and attractive way, IMO. I agree, though, Optima is crappy for text, but it's a very valuable experiment and looks beautiful when printed in high quality for titling, etc. And yes, *books* in Helvetica are generally awful.
JK> Serifs have been scientifically shown to be a *lot* easier on the reader, as they guide the eyes along the lines.
LP-2> In all tests I've seen the serifs have always won the day, but only with certain seriffed fonts, and fonts like Univers aren't far behind. The ``tracking'' advantage for serif fonts is reduced when you're talking about narrow newspaper/magazine columns.
JK> You wrote a pretty short and partial history of type. Why ignore the roots of type (blackletter) as well as the climax (moderns--give an explanation) and subsequent 'post-modern' revivals?
LP-2> I was just talking about the place the 3 most common DTP types hold in the history of typography, and a few associated pitfalls. It wasn't meant as a ``history of typography'' at all. Please feel free to provide such a history yourself.
JK> I think any short list of specific faces is incomplete without mention of Palatino, the most popular Old Style revival in existence.
LP-2> Do you? To my mind Palatino is grossly over used. You must agree it looks bad for dense text. It isn't a proper ``oldstyle revival'' at all, more of a ``calligraphic interpretation'' of it. Zapf designed it as a display face, and wasn't too concerned about lining up the serifs (check out the ``t''). And it just *has* to be printed on 1200dpi devices (at least) to look good in small sizes. OK then, maybe a short list is incomplete without a caution NOT to use Palatino...
JK> Also, if this is meant to be a ``quick history/user guide for those fairly new to using fonts on desktop publishing systems,'' then I would recommend more directions about the proper uses of certain faces (e.g., Goudy for shaped text, Peignot for display *only*) and styles (e.g., italics for editorial comments, all-caps for basically nothing).
LP-2> Okay, okay. I was only sharing a few ideas, not trying to write a book. Surely you agree that the 3 typefaces I chose are by far the most commonly used and abused these days? I don't think a discussion of Goudy or Peignot fits in very well here, unless we're hoping to make a very wide-ranging FAQL. Regarding styles: first, italics are used principally for *emphasis* (rather than bold in running text); second, all good books have a few small caps here and there, don't they? - all mine do...
JK> Sorry if I come across as critical. I think the idea of making a FAQL is a good one, as is your effort. We just have to make sure it doesn't give any newbies the wrong impressions and further perpetuate the typographical morass we're facing today.
LP-2> Sorry if I come across as defensive, but I stand by what I said and object to the suggestion that I am ``perpetuating the typographical morass''. (I don't know if you really intended this - apologies if you didn't.)
Don Hosek offers the following additional notes:
The ``Times'' in most printers is actually a newer version of the font than Monotype's ``Times New Roman'' which it is originally based on. Walter Tracy's _Letters of Credit_ gives an excellent history of the face which was based on Plantin and in the original cutting has metrics matching the original face almost exactly. Another interesting note about the face is that it is almost a completely different design in the bold: this is due to the fact that old-styles are difficult to design as a bold. Incidentally, the classification of Times as a transitional is not firm. It likely is placed there by some type taxonomists (most notably Alexander Lawson) because of the bold and a few minor features. Others, myself included, think of it as a old style. The typeface listed in the Adobe catalog as Times Europa was a new face commissioned in 1974 to replace the old Times (whose 50th birthday was this past October 3rd).
Hermann Zapf is not particularly pleased with any of the phototypesetting versions of Optima. As a lead face, Optima is very beautiful. His typeface ``World'', used in the World Book Encyclopedia is one recutting for photocomp which improves the font somewhat. He is on record as saying that if he had been asked, he would have designed a new font for the technology.