General comments about numerals

dumpling's picture

I am not a professional typeface designer. Still, in our modern world, one simply cannot avoid typefaces, and I have some observations about what I commonly see about the numerals in typefaces.

Briefly, it seems to me that numerals are generally designed as though they were just ten more characters to take care of, like thorn and eth to non-Icelanders, rather than numerals.

The main reason I feel this way is the width and spacing of numerals. To me, it should be immediately apparent which is the units, tens, hundreds, etc., digit of a number. This is why I strongly prefer monospaced numerals in almost all contexts. I am guessing that commas for large numbers are useful mainly because proportional digits make it hard to see at once exactly how many digits a number has, and which place each digit occupies.

Another reason has to do with lowercase numerals and the "flow of text". First of all, one's eye probably should slow down when reading numerals: after all, they are more information-dense than words. So what reason is there to be concerned that the numerals are too distracting? Sure, I can see why some people do not like European numerals in Devanagari text, but that is not what I mean. Devanagari numerals do not try to camouflage themselves as letters: the lack of the upper bar makes them stand out. But European numerals in Latin text do not have some automatic "I'm not a word" feature, unless you give them one.

Third, numerals are often not designed to look distinct. For example, the "6" and "9" in many typefaces can look too much like an "8". An example of apparent awareness of, and solution to, this problem can be found in Futura. Perhaps the hardest digit to design is "3", because it looks too much like three other digits: "5", "8", and "9".

I will end with a link to something beautiful. (Would it be nearly as beautiful with proportional digits?)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsCx8wUF3bg&feature=related

hrant's picture

{To Read}

Joshua Langman's picture

You also objected vehemently to proportionally spaced as well as "oldstyle" (lowercase) figures when designing a calendar in another thread. (Note that proportional spacing and lowercase appearance are two different things, and numerals can be neither, either, or both.)

I don't see anything particularly beautiful in your YouTube link, but I do notice that every example you've given of lining numerals is from video game typography, which is hugely different from print typography. You may be right that in video games, monospaced lining figures are best, for a variety of reasons including comparison of different scores, as well as users' expectations of a certain figure style. However, how often do numbers with four or more digits appear in, say, a novel? In situations where it is imperative to quickly read many places of digits, such as math texts, you'll notice that monospaced lining figures are, in fact, the norm. (Whether this is actually beneficial, though, I'm not sure.)

I don't agree that in the context of running text numbers should be clearly different from words. In this context, numbers are words. They are just a shorthand form for writing, for instance, "seventeen seventy-six" with only four characters.

Your other point about making similar figures clearly distinct is actually helped by using oldstyle figures. You can't confuse a 9 and a 6 when one drops below the line and the other doesn't. Same with with a 3 and an 8. Oldstyle figures, I would conclude, are much easier to scan, and I've always thought it would be worth reviving them even in very math-heavy texts, if only as an experiment.

russellm's picture

I will end with a link to something beautiful.

You're joking.

dumpling's picture

However, how often do numbers with four or more digits appear in, say, a novel?

I don't agree that in the context of running text numbers should be clearly different from words. In this context, numbers are words. They are just a shorthand form for writing, for instance, "seventeen seventy-six" with only four characters.

I believe that in novels, numbers generally do appear as words.

And anyway, I generally do not like numbers as words. But then again, I am the kind of person who gets confused if you say "quarter to six" rather than "five forty-five". Personally, I feel that English number words, especially for large numbers, sound overly formal and long-winded, and the digits are often recited out of order. (For something better on both counts, see Turkish number words, or Hungarian.) And I don't think any of these languages can handle, for example, "4,000,750" without tripping up the listener.

JamesM's picture

In a scoreboard-type situation (like the score in a video game) it makes sense to use lining numerals. Makes it quick and easy to read the number and compare scores.

But numbers appearing in a sentence are a different situation and the rules can vary depending on which style guide the writer is using. The often-used Chicago Manual of Style, for example, says that in non-technical writing any number smaller than one hundred should be spelled out, such as "My daughter is two years old.". Larger numbers are written as numerals, such as "It's 237 miles to New York.".

There are a number of exceptions for special circumstances.

dumpling's picture

Even a date and time look ludicrous with proportional digits.

2012-02-13 02:30

For example, a bus schedule with proportional digits would look laughable.

I have a feeling that the root of the problem is this: Most, if not all, of these typefaces were designed for print, and for contexts in which numerals would be used only sparingly. For contexts which use a great many numerals, monospaced digits might be more preferable. Contexts in which numerals are animated, such as a digital clock, or a real-time display of a stock market index, practically cry out for monospaced digits.

Just as I can easily select "bold" or "italic" for a font, I would like to be able to select "monospace" for digits. For fonts with proportional digits, the last-resort implementation of this could be simply to expand the space around thinner digits to make all digits the same width as the widest digit.

agisaak's picture

Dates and times look perfectly fine to me set in proportional figures.

Your example of a bus-schedule is one where the dates and times occur in a table . Of course you will want tabular figures in this context (after all, that's what they're designed for), but that certainly doesn't imply that tabular figures are preferable in non-tabular contexts.

In running text tabular figures are awkward because they don't space well -- the digit one is inevitably going to create problems.

This is precisely why many faces include both proportional and tabular figures. The proportional figures generally look better except in those contexts where a tabular arrangement is needed.

André

dumpling's picture

Decimal fractions in a proportional font look particularly horrible. Once I read a book on calendars which contained many decimal fractions, each and every one in proportional figures, and these were oldstyle figures at that. This was just about the worst choice of type imaginable. Even when not in tables, reading decimal fractions in this type was like trying to use a funhouse mirror to aid in grooming oneself.

Sure, if you show the digit 1 as a simple vertical stroke, then you get spacing problems. Another way you end up with problems is with a small, oldstyle digit 1 that looks like a scared child trying to hide.

To me, the space around the digit 1 is almost part of the character. Maybe I just have different ideas about kerning. Once I saw the sequence "r." kerned so that the arm of the "r" was directly above the full stop, as though trying to conceal it. I thought that was just plain wrong, like going swirnrning in the surnrner.

agisaak's picture

The following example compares proportional and tabular figures in Eurostile.

With the tabular figures the juxtaposition of 1 and 7 creates enough white space that it would be possible to mistake this for two separate numbers. This doesn't arise with proportional figures. Unless you are creating tabular material where it is crucial that digits align vertically, I can't fathom how anyone could prefer the tabular figures over the proportional ones.

André

Joshua Langman's picture

"For example, a bus schedule with proportional digits would look laughable"

Or, y'know, readable.

"Just as I can easily select "bold" or "italic" for a font, I would like to be able to select "monospace" for digits."

You can!

(Screenshot from InDesign showing four options for numerals in the font Minion.)

dumpling's picture

agisaak: Oh, I see. Those pairs "71" and "14" are troublemakers, like the letter pair "LA". Just as the solution to "LA" might involve shortening the horizontal stroke of the "L", so might the solution to "714" lie in lengthening the serif on the "1". (Well, it is Eurostile, after all, and how do the Europeans write the digit 1?)

I think it's maybe the order in which the designer does things: probably first design the digits, then worry about how much or how little space they use up. Hence, proportional digits. Not: decide how much space you want each digit to gobble up, then design accordingly.

Joshua Langman's picture

It's not a kerning problem with "7 and 1." It's a spacing problem with 1 and everything. It's like deciding the letter l should take up as much space as the letter w:

… which is, of course, how monospaced faces work. Imagine how ugly that would be in running text.

dumpling's picture

So... horses for courses.

I should complain to OpenOffice.Org that they won't allow me to select tabular figures in Writer. They have many options for typographical adjustments, but "select monospaced digits" is apparently not one of them. Foolish.

I admit, I kern digits as a sort of last resort. See these hours on a clock I made.
(Perhaps the "11 pm" hour would look better with a bit more space between the "1"s, though.)

dumpling's picture

The hours:

Luma Vine's picture

It sounds a bit like you are expecting the font to compensate for the limited design options available with word processors. If you are designing text you should probably use design software. It will be a much better tool to achieve your goals. Asking typefaces to default to your favorite settings is not really a viable solution, since it is quite possible that you are in the minority in terms of your needs and preferences.

agisaak's picture

Lengthening the 'serif' (I assume you mean top stroke - not sure I'd call this a serif) on the one wouldn't solve the problem. It would make the problem worse since it would require the stem to move rightward thereby increasing the amount of space between the seven and the one.

André

Si_Daniels's picture

I DO NOT LIKE TURNIPS!

quadibloc's picture

@Luma Vine:
Asking typefaces to default to your favorite settings is not really a viable solution,

Actually, the correct solution is for all software that prepares formatted text (i.e. it lets you use proportionally-spaced fonts, and choose bold and italic) to also allow access to all the special options that any font might have.

This might be achieved, for example, by changing how the standard text box controls in Windows operate, so that all these options are available, say, with a right click, without the writer of the application having to write code to handle them.

Otherwise, people should be making the variations in their fonts accessible on all software, for example by including multiple fonts in the package, so that people can select the font with small capitals or old-style numerals from software that does not have OpenType support yet.

Fonts that are only usable on very fancy and expensive software are less useful.

HVB's picture

@John (quadibloc): The user interface to those functions has to be via the application (or operating system api's or third party add-ons). The fonts themselves, no matter how intelligent can't and shouldn't provide the means of telling them what to do.

Why should font creators, create 17 different fonts (as they used to be forced to do) where ONE now suffices?

- Herb

quadibloc's picture

@HVB:
Why should font creators, create 17 different fonts (as they used to be forced to do) where ONE now suffices?
Oh, I agree; Microsoft should make that unnecessary.
But they still create all the glyphs, and so this is not a lot of extra work; they're just packaging the pieces of the same font in a different way to make them more accessible.

PabloImpallari's picture

"packaging the pieces" can be a hell of a complication if there are a lots of OT programming, Classes, etc involved...

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