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  • Writer's pictureRaphaël Freeman

1. Text Figures (old-style numbes)

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

the four sets of numbers

This is the first of a 10-part series of the Ten Keys to Seamless Typesetting.

When I started typesetting professionally, it was in the days of DOS, Gem and Windows 3.11. Black and white monitors were preferred over colour because the resolution was far better.

However, Desktop Publishing or DTP as it became known allowed for a WYSIWYG experience unknown before. No longer did you have to spend £5 (and this was in 1992) to see the output of one page.

I used Ventura on GEM, PageMaker on Windows and Quark on the Mac. Scripting was a case of using the Windows recorder to record your actions, and I would greek the page to speed up the “script” three-fold.

There was one huge drawback with DTP in those days: Fonts could only contain 256 characters due to memory limitations. A huge problem for professional typesetting. Small caps would have to be faked, as would superscripts. Numbers? Well, forget about that. One variation only. That’s all you got. There wasn’t room in the font for nine variations of the number 1. Ligatures also suffered. If you were on the Mac, you would get the fi and the fl ligatures; Windows users got nada.

I remember a year or so later getting my first “expert font.” This second font contained a complete set of ligatures and a full set of numbers of the base font. However, there were many problems using expert fonts in those days. The main one is that it would take the RIP forever to process the postscript file.

However, the problem eventually was solved, and the OpenType format was created. Now there was no limit to the number of characters or “glyphs” in a font, and we could have real small caps, superscripts and… numbers!

There are essentially four sets of numbers (ignoring superscripts etc.) that we need to deal with. Just like the letters of the alphabet, we have uppercase numbers and lowercase numbers. The former are more properly known as “titling figures,” or “lining figures,” and the latter are known as “text figures” or “old-style figures” (OSF for short). We will use Adobe InDesign’s naming convention of lining and old-style figures for clarity, although I prefer “text figures”.

However, numbers are often put in tables, and thus a professional typeface will contain tabular versions of lining and old-style figures as well as the standard proportional figures required for setting regular text.

However, it is curious that although the least-used set would be tabular lining numbers – used for setting with capitals in a table – it was chosen for most of the fonts of DTP systems of 30 years ago.

So for many years, we became used to seeing the number 11 with a large space between the numbers and of course, they were in all caps.

Looking at the table on the right, you can see in column A; the numbers align nicely because tabular figures have been used. However, in column B, proportional figures have been used, which makes for a messy table.

In the below example, the first line has been set with classic typographically correct old-style numbers. The second line has been set with the figures that were common in the DTP systems of the end of the last century. Note the exaggerated space in the number 11 and the 3 and 11 are set in full caps.

Clearly, for tables, tabular figures can be more desirable, but for regular text, proportional ranging figures as in the first line are more harmonious and less jarring.

Although OpenType has been around since 1996, unfortunately, many books are still typeset with the technology of 30 years ago, and the web has yet to catch up – this blog post was written using inappropriate tabular lining figures.


If you have a manuscript that you wish to be typeset seamlessly with classic ranging figures, then contact us for a no-obligation discussion by clicking here.

I am looking forward to your comments below!

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I agree that proportional spacing is nicer in running text, but having a little extra space around '1' makes it stand out cleanly from 'l' or 'I', so I've never found it "jarring" or "inharmonious" to have uniform spacing for all digits.

On the other hand, having numbers that are different heights and shifted up and down is absolutely terrible. If the digits have inconsistent sizes and shifts, how can the reader tell which ones are supposed to be subscripts or superscripts? Having to stop and think about that every time I see digits with descender, or that are half-sized, those are terribly jarring to read, and I hate them with a passion.

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