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What is a Font?

The most important constituents of a font are the character outlines themselves. The entire collection of characters in a font is called its character set. For most alphanumeric fonts (that is, the ones used for text containing letters and numerals), character sets are standardized to a degree. Nearly all of these fonts share a basic set of characters, although they may contain optional extra characters as well. Fonts based on Unicode may contain additional characters beyond these basic collections.

The character outlines in a font are size independent. Inside each font a width table lists the horizontal space allotted to each character, as measured in fractions of an em. Computer programs use these widths to calculate how to fill lines with type, adding up the cumulative widths of the characters on a line until the line is filled.

A font may also contain tables for the widths of other members in its family. This is typically the case for the "regular", or roman text-weight, member of a family. These tables enable a computer program to compose type for all four members of a family—regular, italic, bold, and bold italic—using only the regular font. The computer's operating system, using the widths of the other family members, can synthesize false italics, bolds, and bold italics for onscreen display, relying on width tables in the regular font for getting the spacing and positioning right.

Extended Characters Set

Most typefaces contain several hundred characters, although a single typeface can contain thousands. A number of TrueType and OpenType fonts containing huge numbers of characters—Monotype’s Arial Unicode MS, for example, contains over 50,000 glyphs—have been created to allow a single font to be used for settings in many languages. More commonly, even typefaces with extended character sets are intended for use within a single linguistic region— for example, Western Europe. Non-Latin typefaces typically include a selection of Latin characters as well, and Latin-based typefaces often include Greek and Cyrillic characters.

But fonts with very large character sets will probably never become the norm. If you consider the amount of work involved in creating a thousand character font and then look at the low prices that fonts command, it’s hard to envision large character sets becoming standard. At least, not if users are expected to maintain large type libraries.

It is likely, however, that many common symbols that already exist in other fonts and have Unicode numbers assigned to them —those from Symbol or itc Zapf Dingbats, for example— will routinely be rolled into new OpenType fonts. Typefaces for which expert sets and alternate sorts already exist will have those characters rolled into a new all-in-one font.

In the competitive, low-margin world of font sales, adding value through larger character sets may be a way for some vendors to raise prices and squeeze out additional profit. In any case, it’s likely that fonts will continue to acquire more characters —if not vastly more— and you'll be called on to use them.