What Font Is This?
It's a common problem: You open an old file and QuarkXPress reports that a font is missing. Or you need to make a small change on an existing letterhead but haven't a clue what typeface was used for the original. Or your client is in love with the look of the ads for the latest genre movie and wants you to use the same font for his Web site. Or maybe you just need to identify a font to keep yourself sane because its charming "g" keeps dancing around in your brain.
You might think it would be easy if you know the name, but font names can fool you. The name "Garamond" is probably the most confusing. This 16th-century type designer's name has been applied to dozens of typeface families - including Garamond 3, Simoncini Garamond, Stempel Garamond, Monotype Garamond, Berthold Garamond, ITC Garamond, and Adobe Garamond. These designs do not look alike (some are not even based on Claude Garamond's original type designs), and even more important, they won't fit the same way, so you can't substitute one for the other. To make matters more confusing, there can be differences in spacing and letterfit between, say, a set of ITC Garamond fonts from Adobe and another set from Bitstream or URW, so you also need to know what foundry produced the font you're looking for.
If you know the font's exact name and manufacturer, the most efficient solution is to call some of the larger font retailers (or visit their Web sites), and order it. Look for a company that sells fonts from many makers: Agfa/Monotype, EyeWire, FontHaus/DsgnHaus, FontShop, Phil's Fonts, or Precision Type are usually good sources. Most of the time, though, you don't know the name. If you have some idea, you may be able to home in on the font at one of the font-selling Web sites -- most have some sort of search function and, if you're lucky, won't restrict their results to fonts they sell. A Bitstream spinoff called MyFonts goes further -- upload a specimen as a GIF or JPEG file (very easy to do through a standard Web browser), and it will try to identify the font. Most of these Web sites, however, only 'know' currently available digital fonts. If your sample is an older font, badly printed, or heavily modified, the automated Web searches won't offer much help. On the other hand, a font retailer may be willing to try to make an identification from a fax (call first to ask - some don't have the facilities to do this).
But if all else fails -- or if you appreciate type and are willing to make a modest investment in the tools of a font detective, and don't mind doing a little work -- you can tackle this problem yourself. Look at it this way: Although there are tens of thousands of typefaces (and thousands of thousands of fonts by name), most of them are not what you're looking for, so can be quickly eliminated.
It's surprising, but it's usually easier to identify or locate a text face or family than a highly distinctive script or display font. This is mainly because the text faces are better documented, so even though their distinguishing characteristics are subtle, we have more and better sources. The discussion below is really mostly about text fonts, not ornamental or display type.
Tools of the Trade
Font detection doesn't require a college degree in the graphic arts or years of experience in the type business. What you do need, though - in addition to some interest in type and typography - is access to type books that document typefaces, including those that existed before desktop publishing began. Many of the text fonts used today were designed and released in proprietary formats between World War I and the dawn of DTP, and the books will help you determine the traditional trade name for your mystery typeface, a necessity when you go shopping for a font.
Five basic font detection bibles are listed below. They're all out of print, but only fairly recently, and used paperback copies can be found with a little trouble. Check Powells Books Web site (www.powellsbooks.com), as it stocks both new and used books, as well as the Advanced Book Exchange on the Web (www.abebooks.com), which incorporates the active lists of dozens of used book dealers.
- "Enclyclopedia of Typefaces," by Jaspert, Berry, and Johnson. This is the most comprehensive source for typefaces released before 1960, but includes many up to 1970.
- "Modern Encyclopedia of Typefaces 1960–1990," by Lawrence W. Wallis. This takes up where the Jaspert book leaves off.
- "Rookledge's International Type Finder," by Christopher Perfect and Gordon Rookledge. Includes a useful section of "earmarks" -- the most distinctive features of characters in typefaces.
- "The Concise Guide to Type Identification," by Apicella, Pomeranz, and Wiatt. Fairly comprehensive, laid out with typefaces in rows, their characters aligned in columns for easy comparison.
- "Alphabet Thesaurus" or "One Line Manual of Styles" from Photo-Lettering, Inc. Out of print, but very useful reference to advertising display typefaces of the 1970s and 80s.
The other useful reference is a collection of font specimens (catalogs from font manufacturers and retailers), which is the only source for researching many recent type designs. Most type companies offer online previews of their fonts on their Web sites. (The Microsoft Typography Web site offers the most up-to-date list of type foundries, independent designers, and retail sellers.)
Looking at Web previews is the hard way to ID a font, though. Most of the sites make it difficult to select a bunch of similar typefaces or to compare one to another, and coarse computer images are necessarily crude. Printed catalogs, when they're available, are easier to use, but often out of date (how not, with dozens of new designs being released every quarter), and incomplete (because no retailer sells all fonts, and few show all the faces they sell in every catalog).
For large collections, the catalog that accompanies Agfa/Monotype's Creative Alliance 9.0 CD (list price for the set is $25) is a bargain. Even better, though much more expensive ($90), is the large hardcover FontBook from FontShop. PrecisionType's $40 catalog is a bit old now, but still useful. Some companies are more likely to release new typefaces than others, so it's helpful to collect catalogs from such companies as Emigre (actually a free quarterly magazine), the Hoefler Type Foundry, and Font Bureau (among many of those you'll find in the lists on the Microsoft typography site). Some of the most interesting sources of new designs, including the Dutch Type Library, may not publish any catalog -- you're pretty much stuck with the Web.
Follow the Clues
The process of identifying fonts is easy to describe, and basically breaks down into four steps:
- Eliminate the irrelevant-- faces with (or without) serifs (the cross-strokes at the top and bottom of most strokes) or italics (slanted type), for example. If the type is slanted, are the characters basically the same as the roman, just sloped? Or do the "a" and some of the other letters have different designs (true italics). You don't really need to know much about type classification schemes to identify fonts, but if you do, you can narrow the field further by eliminating whole categories, such as oldstyle faces or slab serifs. [link to font basics anywhere?]
- Compare distinctive characters -- ones with obvious details, often the "a," "g," "Q," or "W" - against named examples in "Rookledge's International Type Finder" or "The Concise Guide to Type Identification." At this stage, you might hit an exact match. If not, write down the names of typefaces that come close.
- Look up the names on your list. Use the index in Jaspert's "Enclyclopedia of Typefaces," Wallis's "Modern Encyclopedia of Typefaces 1960–1990," or font catalogs to see if you can find an exact match.
- Reassess. If you still don't have a match, your sample text may not be a font at all - it could be hand lettering, or a custom-modified font that you won't be able to find. Or it could be a really new release, in which case you might be able to locate the font by calling a retailer and describing the differences between the font you want and the ones you found in the books.
Tips from a Font Detective
In an old joke, a man carrying a violin runs up to a New York City taxi, asking, "How do I get to Carnegie hall?" and the driver replies "Practice, practice!" That's good advice for becoming a crack font detective as well. Identifying type is another one of those skills that improves with experience. As you develop skills, keep them honed. Try to identify the fonts you see in ads or magazines. Browse through type catalogs for no good reason. Read up on type history.
- Don't let font names confuse you - names are often deceptive. Many of the fonts we use today were inspired by type designed centuries ago by such pioneers as Garamond, Aldus, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, and so on. This doesn't mean the fonts are interchangeable (or even that they look all that much like their namesake's type designs). There are as many differences between Bauer Bodoni and Berthold Bodoni as between many typefaces bearing completely different names. If you're getting a Missing Fonts warning from your software, be sure to write down the complete name, exactly as it's given, before ordering it from a shop.
- Sans serif fonts -- especially the growing collection of "neo-humanist" styles popular today -- can be especially difficult to tell apart. In many cases, you could easily swap the caps from one font with the lowercase from another (most of the distinctive details are in the lowercase). The difficulty is compounded because so many of these are still not shown in printed catalogs.
- Printed samples can be misleading. The art may have been reprinted from printed copies (rather than freshly set type), or might have been printed from metal type on a letterpress, either of which could make it seem bolder or rougher than the specimens you find in books.
Font identification isn't a sure thing. For most of us, it's unusual to encounter a process that is so open-ended and imprecise. But it is also an entertaining challenge. When you succeed you'll amaze your friends and clients (or the boss) and gain a great sense of achievement. And you might save a lot of time or money, or salvage a job.
Kathleen Tinkel practices font identification and writes about type and typography from Tinkel Design in Westport, Connecticut. She welcomes responses at email@example.com.
Read more of Kathleen Tinkel's work here .