Numbers are a common element in text. They are used to indicate dates, times, addresses, measurements quantities, prices and other data. In typography, the symbols used to represent numbers are commonly referred to as figures or numerals. Oldstyle figures are one of two styles of numerals, the other being lining figures. [link to Lining Figures article]
Oldstyle figures (also known as non-lining, lowercase, hanging, or text figures) have varying heights and alignments, as opposed to lining figures, which are of uniform height and alignment. Oldstyle figures are similar to lowercase characters in that they share the same x-height and have ascenders (the 6 and 8) and descenders (the 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9). In some typefaces, the design of some of the oldstyle figures varies from the lining figures. Some variations are purely aesthetic (such as a ball terminal added to a figure); others are functional as well (such as serifs added to a tabular sans serif ‘1’ to increase its width and create a look of more even spacing).
Despite their name, oldstyle figures have many uses in modern typography. This elegant style of figure is pleasing and often preferred in running text. It is less intrusive than lining figures, allowing the numerals to blend with the surrounding lowercase characters. Oldstyle figures also pair up nicely with small caps.
Oldstyle figures can be designed with two different spacing formats: proportional and tabular. [link to Proportional vs. Tabular Figures article] Proportional oldstyle figures are recommended for running text, including dates, times, measurements, and pagination. Tabular oldstyle figures are best reserved for columns of numbers where vertical alignment is desired, such as tables, financial data, and similar listings.
Prior to the OpenType font format, oldstyle figures were not widely available. Earlier font formats (Type1 and TrueType) only had “room” for one set of numerals, most commonly tabular lining figures. OpenType’s capacity to accommodate thousands of characters in a given font, has made oldstyle figures sometimes with both tabular and proportional spacing formats much more common.
Decide on your preferred figure style(s) at the onset of a design project, and conduct your typeface exploration with these requirements in mind. This will ensure that the typefaces you choose will meet your “numerical” needs. Fortunately, an expanding number of OpenType fonts provide more than one figure style. To take advantage of all that a font offers, it’s essential to know how to determine which figure styles it contains, as well as how to select them from within your software.
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- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.