Fonts on the Mac

Some thoughts, after experimenting with the system fonts in Mac OSX 10.13, trying to achieve an effect as close as possible to the typography of the late 19th century as I can with just the stock system fonts:

  • Most of the fonts are not really suited for (or even designed for) body text at all. I find a lot to like about the Didot font, but I struggled to get it to look right when formatting paragraphs with it. Turns out the Didot shipped with the Mac is a variant which was never intended for use as a text body font at all.
  • Fonts that support ligatures (a basic element of well-set text) are the exception rather than the rule.
  • Both Times New Roman and Times are big disappointments. The former comes to the Mac via Windows (and originally Monotype) and does not support ligatures at all. The latter is derived from the Linotype Times Roman font but is missing the “ffi” and “ffl” ligatures (which are present in the version of the font sold by Linotype). So the former looks tacky and unprofessional and the latter possibly even more so; the rendering of an “f” followed by an intra-letter space and an “fl” or “fi” ligature looks quite awful indeed.
  • The only quality serif fonts I’ve found that seem really appropriate for body text are Baskerville and Hoefler Text.
  • I find so-called “old style” numbers the best for text. Those are the numerals that vary in height and spacing, instead of all being the size of capital letters and monospaced like they are in most computer fonts.
  • Of the two fonts I just mentioned, only Hoefler Text has old style numerals.
  • One of the things I like about old books is how sharp and crisp their characters tend to appear. Until fairly recently, modern offset printing just couldn’t approach the look that only actual physical raised type pressing into paper could achieve.
  • Unfortunately Hoefler Text has a very modern-press un-sharp look to it, despite having old style numbers and elegant ligatures.
  • That said, Hoefler Text is still one of the better system fonts to use for body text, particularly given that it’s apparently the only system font that supports both ligatures and old style numerals.
  • Baskerville has more of the classic crisp sharp look I like. I wish the version on the Mac had old style numbers.
  • Another useful system font is Optima. It’s a sans-serif font that’s more readable when used as a text body font than Helvetica. It’s sometimes useful in a document to have some alternate, contrasting font to set off certain text passages from the main document body. (Just using italics is awkward, because what if you want to italicize something in the passage?)

Ultimately, I’ve sort of given up on getting that “19th century look” for now. For one thing, money is tight and I don’t want to blow it on third-party fonts (and I’m sure it would be plural; as I’d need to evaluate a bunch before choosing a few winners). For another, I don’t create printed documents all that much.

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