Proportional vs. Tabular Figures
Figures, be they lining or oldstyle, can have two different spacing formats: proportional and tabular. Generally speaking, proportional figures are appropriate when numerals are going to be read in text, and tabular figures are preferable when numerals will be read in columns.
Proportional figures have variable spacing, comparable to that of upper and lowercase characters. This spacing maintains the even, balanced color of the rest of the alphabet, allowing the figures to blend in nicely with horizontal text. To achieve this, the character widths of proportional figures will most likely vary from one another (as do most upper and lowercase characters). Thus an 8 will likely have a greater width than a 1.
In contrast, tabular figures each have the same width. This uniform spacing allows them to align vertically in tables, price lists, financial statements and other columns of figures. Thus the 1 will have the same width as as every other figure, including the 8.
When selecting a typeface for a project, consider the numbers as well as the letters. If numerals will appear as part of the text such as address information in a corporate identity, or quantities and measurements in marketing collateral you will need proportional figures. For a financial report or other columns of statistics, tabular figures will be needed. Certain projects, such as a brochure or exhibition graphics, may well require both formats. Keep these numerical needs in mind during your typeface exploration. It is adviseable to avoid using tabular figures when proportional figures are what’s called for. Attempting to kern tabular figures on a case-by-case basis is laborious. Similarly, it’s close to impossible to kern proportional figures to create the appearance of tabular spacing necessary for vertical alignment in a financial statement. Tabular figures accomplish this in a consistent and clear manner.
Many typefaces especially those intended for text usage offer both proportional and tabular figures. To achieve typographically professional results, choose your figure styles carefully and with purpose.
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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.