Of Fonts and Fractions

Until I started formatting the interior file for my first print book, I pretty much took fonts for granted. After all, choosing a font was simply a matter of going to a drop-down menu and clicking on the one I liked. What could be easier than that? What I didn’t realize was that a font set must be built, one character at a time: letters, numerals, symbols, in regular, italic, bold; they are each designed and crafted to become beautiful tools to enhance our writing.

Some fonts are designed for easy reading on a computer screen. Others are designed to read better in print. All of them come with a license for use, and many of them are copyrighted, which means it’s possible that a royalty must be paid to use them. The fonts that come pre-installed on our computers are included in the license we receive with our operating system. That license covers computer and internet use of the fonts, but not necessarily use in print.

I set about trying to find open source fonts for my books from the beginning. The license for these allow their free use in all media. I found beautiful fonts that mirrored the classic fonts used in print and have been using them happily until recently. What happened recently? Fractions.

My current project is a print version of How To Bake Without Baking Powder. The “problem” is that it contains 54 recipes, and that all of those recipes contain fractions.

There are several ways to deal with fractions. They may be written as decimals, for example, 1½ may be written as 1.5. That one’s easy enough to figure out in a recipe, but what about 1⅔? Would you be quick to use a recipe that used 1.66 instead? While most font sets contain the standard quarter, half, and three-quarter fractions, many of them do not allow for thirds and eights which are not uncommon measurements in recipes. I learned that when my fonts formatted like this in my desktop publisher:fraction font blank boxThe little blank box ought to be a ⅓.

Now apparently, both InDesign CS4 and QuarkXPress 8 can make OpenType fractions, but alas, Scribus cannot. That sent me scrambling for a font set which contained those much desired fractions. In addition, it had to look good with EB Garamond, my primary font.

After a little experimentation, I chose Linux Biolinum. It’s a rather classic looking sans-serif font, which seems to pair well with EB Garamond, my rather classic looking serif font. The only downside is that each fraction must be manually updated in Scribus, one by one, to the new font. It’s making some rather tedious going, but I’ve learned some important things about fonts and book design. Hopefully that’s worth the effort.

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4 Responses to Of Fonts and Fractions

  1. Garrett says:

    We faced a very similar issue when we looked to change fonts at a company I worked at a few years ago. We had a lot of math functions and we wanted a single font set that contained the various math symbols and also looked good in print and online. Ultimately, we ended up finding some kind of compromise solution where we used a different setup for web viewing of the documentation.

    • Leigh says:

      That sounds like it was a lot of work, but your solution sounds like a good one. I tried to find a math font, thinking it would cover it all, but there really wasn’t anything that worked well.

      I confess I am not a font connoisseur. I just take people’s word for it that Garamond is good for print and Times New Roman isn’t. I know I couldn’t tell them apart if I had to, but maybe I’m just not that observant. 🙂

  2. Garrett says:

    Ha! Yes, we had someone on the team who would argue life-and-death over the merits of various fonts. Wanted to spend over $20k for a font they really liked. Some people just really connect with fonts, I suppose.

    I do the same thing: trusting the wisdom of people who know that sort of thing. What I do NOT want to do is get so caught up in the presentation that it actually takes the readers’ attention away from the content. It should look great, but it should still just enable the transfer of information/knowledge.

    The formatting in your books is great, btw!

    • Leigh says:

      Thanks Garrett! I think the file design is my favorite part of the process. I reckon being an art major for awhile in college paid off. 🙂

      I can’t believe a font set could cost that much! Somebody must be really proud of their work.

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