Figures (aka numbers or numerals) are a common element in text of all kinds. They appear anywhere from dates, measurements and quantities to addresses, phone numbers, and a lot more.
When typesetting numerals, it’s important to understand the different styles available in some fonts, and when to use which. Prior to current font formats, there was only ‘room’ for one style of numeral in a font, but due to OpenType’s capacity to include thousands of characters, many fonts now contain four ﬁgure styles.
Lining vs. Oldstyle Figures
The four kinds of figures consist of two design styles and two spacing styles: Lining and oldstyle are the design styles, while tabular and proportional relate to the spacing.
Lining ﬁgures, also called aligning or cap figures, are of uniform height and align on the baseline and the cap height (thus the term aligning). These are a good choice when you want the numerals to really stand out.
Oldstyle ﬁgures, on the other hand, are numerals that approximate the shape and form of lowercase letters in that they have an x-height, as well as ascenders and descenders in a set pattern. These ﬁgures can be quite beautiful, and look best in running text where you don’t necessarily want the ﬁgures to stand out from the surrounding text. They can be very elegant, and occasionally have slight design variations from the companion lining ﬁgures.
Tabular vs. Proportional Spacing
Tabular figures all have the same total width, which consists of the actual glyph plus the spaces added to the right and left, called sidebearings in the type design world. Tabular spacing is necessary to align vertical columns of numbers, such as those found in tables, thus the turn tabular. They’re also used for prices, invoices, financial charts, and any instance where ﬁgures have to align vertically.
Proportional ﬁgures, on the other hand, are those that are individually spaced so that they blend in with the overall color, texture, and spacing of the upper and lowercase characters. Have you ever seen a numeral ‘1’ in running text with disproportionate large spaces around it? That is a tabular figure, which unfortunately is often used when proportionally spaced ﬁgures are the preferred figure style. This is a common occurrence because many type users are not aware of the available ﬁgure styles in a font, and thus ‘settle’ for a font’s default figures, which is frequently tabular lining ﬁgures.
How to access ﬁgure styles
The task of determining which ﬁgure styles are available in any given font is an important first step in selecting an appropriate font for projects that includes figures. (I will discuss the process in Adobe InDesign, so if you are using other design software, it will most likely be a something similar.)
The first step is to activate the font, making sure it is an OpenType font. This is indicated in the font menu with a black and turquoise ‘O’ symbol. Next, open the OpenType panel located off of the Character panel. You will notice, five figure settings on the very bottom of that panel:
Default Figure Style
If a font contains any of the top four styles, they will be unbracketed. Any figure style that is bracketed is not available in that particular font, even if it is OpenType. The problem with this method is that it is not always 100% reliable: some OpenType fonts have both lining and oldstyle figures, but do not have them in both tabular and proportional spacing, yet they might still all be unbracketed.
For this reason, the very best way to determine the available figure styles is to typeset the figures in each available style, and then check them carefully to determining if they are what they are supposed to be.
At the bottom of the list you will see Default Figure Style, which usually has a check mark unless it has been changed. The default style in most fonts is Tabular Lining. Therefore, unless you change the default or manually change the figure style in any given document, this is what you will get. This is unfortunate because Tabular Lining Figures are only appropriate for vertical lists of numerals, which is a small percentage of typeset numbers. So be sure to explore the available figures in any font you are considering, and check that it has the one(s) you need.
If you frequently use a figure style other than the typical Proportional Lining default, consider changing the default to the style you most frequently use (which in my case is Proportional Oldstyle).
In order to change this or any other default in most Adobe applications, open the app but with no documents open; then change the setting as desired, and quit the app. This will change the default for any new documents, but will not change anything in existing documents, which you would have to change manually.
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Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. Sign up for her free enewsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.