Do You Need OpenType?

Making the jump to the current standard is expensive, and Type 1 fonts work fine. Is it worth it?

It’s been six years since Adobe released its first OpenType font collection. Since then it has retooled its entire font library to take better advantage of the features of this “new” format. But, maybe because the format only became an ISO standard in 2007, it’s only been in the last year or so that many of the boutique foundries such as FontFont or Hoefler & Frere-Jones have begun to offer versions in OpenType.

A typical design studio or publisher may have 20 to 50 thousand dollars in Postscript Type 1 fonts. From a practical point of view, these older fonts work just fine in almost any publishing workflow. None of the foundries offer any kind of “upgrade” program to exchange them for the newer format. So, why buy OpenType versions of fonts you already own and does it make sense to convert your entire font collection?

Because OpenType can support up to 65,536 characters (or glyphs) in a single font, most of the special typographic features that make up alternate fonts in Type 1 “expert” sets — true small caps, oldstyle numerals or alternate letterforms and ligatures — are easy to accommodate in a single OT font. Calligraphic fonts can contain many alternate versions of every letter and achieve a nearly handwritten quality.

The fact is, though, that many fonts are merely imported Type 1 letterforms with no additional features (although Adobe has made the effort to combine expert and oldstyle alternates into the main font set.) In these cases, there is no additional functionality in an OT font compared to a Type 1 font — just more convenience. Some foundries have made a more concerted effort to create new versions of their classic type families that have been remade to use more OpenType capabilities. Linotype’s Sabon Next, for example, contains advanced typographic features ade possible through the use of OpenType:

• Case forms: parentheses, brackets and some punctuation marks change their vertical position when appearing with only capital letters

• Ligatures (fb, ffb, ff, fh, ffh, fi, ffi, fj, ffj, fk, fl, ffl, ft, and fft, plus long-s ligatures)

• Discretionary ligatures (Th, sp, st,&ct)

• Ordinals

• Superior and Inferior Figures, including parentheses and some punctuation marks

• Diagonal Fractions

• Tabular and Proportional Oldstyle Figures, including currency symbols

• Tabular and Proportional

• Lining Figures

• Small Caps, including currency symbols, parentheses, brackets and some punctuation marks

• Stylistic Sets

• Alternates: different versions of certain glyphs for use at the end of a line, e.g. a, c, d, e, h, i, k, l, m, n, r, t, u, z, &, Q; each of these also contains an alternate for the respective glyph’s accented versions

• More Alternates: additional versions of capitals, alternate forms for the ligatures, a historical long-s, a wider euro currency symbol and a slashed-zero

• Ornaments and Fleurons

All of these advancements in the font might make typophiles’ mouths water, but it is doubtful that most magazine readers would appreciate the subtle alterations that these fonts make in a text block. The complete family costs $900, and that’s a tough sell if you already own Sabon.

So, what are good reasons to upgrade to OpenType versions of fonts?

1. You don’t have the font. Any fonts you buy should be in OpenType versions, if they are available. All current programs support the full standard now, and it’s worth buying for the basic set, most of which contain true small caps and oldstyle numerals.

2. Your publication uses the font for its basic text face. It’s worth the upgrade to acquire additional weights, or size-optimized variations. Sabon Next has five weights and a display font, unlike the original Sabon which only has a Roman and a Bold weight. (See [FPO] Font Fount Winter 08).

3. You NEED expert typography. Book designers, typophiles and the anal-retentive will enjoy the level of control and alteration available in advanced font families.

4. The OpenType font offers way more than the PS1 font ever did. Zapfino Extra contains many contextual alternatives that automatically create the hand-drawn variations that are the hallmark of real calligraphy. With over 1600 glyphs, Zapfino Extra contains enough variations to truly customize nearly every word in a text block.

If your type needs don’t fall into these four categories, stick with your Type 1 fonts — at least for now, they’ll work just fine. But — hey, type foundries — let’s see some movement on upgrade pricing. After all, if you want to treat your product like “software,” you should offer inexpensive upgrades when your product is released in a new version.


This article originally ran in Issue 5 of FPO.