OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

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Advice for installing and choosing fonts in OpenOffice.org.

The selection of fonts is central to document design. Knowing how to choose fonts not only affects legibility, but it also reinforces a document's tone and content. Yet, until recently, few Linux users gave font selection much thought. Font installation was esoteric, and the user-base consisted mainly of developers, who generally preferred the markup language approach of delivering content that leaves layout to style sheets and XSLTs.

In the last few years, the push to prepare Linux for the desktop has changed all of that. On both KDE and GNOME, font installation now is as easy to accomplish as it is on any other operating system. In addition, the introduction of office suites such as OpenOffice.org has introduced Linux to software that encourage users to think about format as much as content.

Even if you are not a content-purist, these changes sometimes seem to be a mixed blessing. They not only threaten new users with option anxiety, they also are a major cause of design atrocities. The trouble is, design in general and font selection in particular in an office suite require a rare mixture of skills. On the one hand, successful font selection requires a technical knowledge of both how fonts work and the tools available in the office suite for selecting and manipulating them. On the other hand, it also requires a knowledge of design and of what choices are likely to work in a given set of circumstances. What's more, neither body of knowledge is much good without the other.

What follows is an introduction to some of the basic issues as they apply to Linux and OpenOffice.org: What fonts are available? How are they installed? What tools in OpenOffice.org allow you to make use of them? Most important of all, what do you need to consider when selecting and customizing fonts? A complete answer to even one of these questions could fill a book. However, the brief answers that follow should help you make more informed choices about using fonts. Whether you are using manual overrides or paragraph and character styles, once you can work with fonts effectively, you are one step closer to using the full power of OpenOffice.org.

Understanding Font Formats

Linux supports several different font formats. However, despite attempts over the years to introduce new formats, the majority of fonts still are either PostScript (aka Type1 or Adobe) or TrueType.

Postscript, of course, is the printer language created by Adobe Systems. PostScript fonts can be used by a PostScript printer without conversion. Each PostScript font has several files associated with it. The files have the same name, but a different extension:

  • .afm (Adobe Font Metrics): contains the proportions for each character in the font. Necessary for displaying or printing the font.

  • .pfb (Printer Binary Font): contains instructions on how to print the font.

  • .inf and .pfm: Windows-only files. Not needed for use under Linux.

TrueType is a format first introduced on the Mac and later popularized by Windows. In some circles, TrueType fonts still have a bad reputation. This reputation is due partly to the fact that the PostScript printing language did not support TrueType when the format was introduced. Mainly, though, the bad rep is traceable to the fact that many of the first TrueType fonts were poor-quality conversions of PostScript font. Neither concern has much validity today, but the reputation lingers. TrueType fonts include all information about displaying and printing in a single file, with a .ttf extension.

Which format you use is relevant only for installation.The myth persists that TrueType fonts are superior for on-screen display; while that theoretically is true, in practice even the best screen resolutions are too low for any difference to be noticeable. On the other side, because PostScript fonts do not need to be converted when sent to a printer, they might be considered more likely to print exactly as you seem them on screen. And, in fact, PostScript fonts do seem to have fewer problems when you import from OpenOffice.org to .pdf format, PostScript's close cousin. Yet, for the most part, you can choose the font format based on availability and usefulness rather than technical merits.

Installing Fonts

Fonts used in OpenOffice.org can be installed in two main ways: in the X Window System in general or in OpenOffice.org in particular. In both cases, you should install only the fonts you need. Font files are relatively small in themselves, but collections of several thousand fonts are common, and installing this many fonts would deliver a serious blow to your machine's performance. Better in either case to load or unload fonts as you need them.

The advantage of installing in the X Window System is the fonts are available for all desktop applications, including GNOME, KDE and window managers. The old-fashioned way is to install a font server (for example, xfs and xfstt for TrueType fonts or type1inst for PostScript fonts) Installing any of these font servers may involve editing the XF86Config file. Full instructions for installing are available here.

More recently, the KDE Control Center has included a font installer, while GNOME offers a plug-in to Nautilus called Fontilus. Both offer a graphical installer for fonts comparable to the Adobe Type Manager on Windows or OS X.

The advantage of installing only to OpenOffice.org is the fonts don't drag down general system performance. The brute force method is to copy font files into the /user/fonts directory for your OpenOffice.org installation. Alternatively, you can run spadmin, a utility that runs outside of OpenOffice.org proper and includes the installation of fonts on a printer-by-printer basis.

None of these methods have significant advantages over the others. What matters is not which method you choose but that you use it consistently. Mixing the methods can cause duplicate entries and general confusion.

______________________

-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)

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Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

Great article, Bruce. As a Linux newbie, the up-to-date roundup of formats and their myths, combined with a great explanation of the different ways you can install them, was invaluable. Thanks!

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

In both cases, you should install only the fonts you need. Font files are relatively small in themselves, but collections of several thousand fonts are common, and installing this many fonts would deliver a serious blow to your machine's performance. Better in either case to load or unload fonts as you need them.

Has anyone yet considered having a more modular font system? One that unloads the LRU fonts and reloads them as required?
I'm sure that that's possible, given that the LRU algorithm is one taught quite widely in OS classes.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Guitarman's picture

Adobe Type Manager for the Mac does this, kind of. Say you open a document that has used Garamond, but you don't have that font activated in ATM. If you've configured ATM to know where you store "extra' fonts, it will simply find the font, activate it so that the document is seen like it should be, the de-activate it when you close the document. A nice little feature they forgot to add to the Windows version of the software. I would love to see something like this in Linux, though. It would help the appeal, IMHO.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

Probably because things like font dialogs (which list every font) tend to make LRU-type algorithms somewhat useless...

OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: why not in Writer?

Anonymous's picture

I hope I am not found rude by asking this ;)

Why can't we download a copy of the 'OpenOffice.org Off the Wall' articles as Writer documents, or as PDF?
It makes it easy for readers to understand styles and gives them the opportunity to apply custom styles...

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: why not in Writer?

Bruce_Byfield's picture

I'm still making arrangements, but I will be gradually releasing each column under the OpenOffice.org public documentation licence and making them available on the OpenOffice.org site.

The plan is to post each column thirty days after it was published, when the rights revert to me.

Tell you what: when I start to do that, I'll put a note at the top of the column. Okay?

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: why not in Writer?

Anonymous's picture

Great plan! Thanks for your time; I'll be looking forward to them.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

Interesting article but an important part is missing: fonts lisibility in OOo. Let me explain...

Since OOo 1.1 the Suite includes the Bitstream Vera family of truetype fonts. Ahhh, beautiful fonts on screen (and printed too) but they should be set by default (either by font relacement or in different options -- like in Writer).

Postscript or type1 fonts are not smoothed in X11 but ttf are, this behavior makes a huge difference on screen lisibility.

You did not mention the ugly fonts in OOo help (F1) that can be changed if you edit the file /usr/lib/openoffice/help/fr/default.css (adjust the path for your system and the language after /help) and add Bitstream Vera Sans before Albany in

font-family: Albany,...blabla

and don't forget to increase the font size from 9 to 10pt.

Finally, I always have at least 3 font replacements always waiting to be checked on just before exporting to pdf:

times new roman -> times
arial -> helvetica
courier new -> courier

You will get smaller pdf files as they will simply use one of the 14 base fonts of Adobe's reader.

Raymond

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

>Postscript or type1 fonts are not smoothed in X11 but ttf are
Wrong.
I'm using freetype with type1 fonts exclusively on my system.
They are anti-aliased and smoothed like ttf.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Guitarman's picture

I'm a professional Graphic Designer and Linux Junkie and I found the article to be pretty informative for non-designers, except for the font installation part. Most (if not all) of the fonts that are installed in fontilus are NOT available for OpenOffice.Org. This caused me large amounts of headaches until I found that the fonts have to be installed in /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/fonts/ before they are available for OpenOffice. This is something that should be fixed in the program (IMHO), but is something that I thought should have been stated. Don't know about the KDE font manager. Don't use KDE, ever.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

In KDE - or at least as far as it is done in Mandrake 9.2 - I've installed several large blocs of varying fonts from a wide variety of sources.
These included Arabic, Aramaic/Syriac, Hebrew, the Furthork (English Runes), Georgian and Armenian, Tolkien's Tengwar, and a whole heap of others.
And I can access them - they are filed away in the /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/fonts/ directory as you mentioned, and I can make use of them in OpenOffice.org, and I haven't got around to testing them in KWord or AbiWord yet.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

Character sets are a major hurdle in my experience. If you are in a cross platform environment you never can tell what is going to happen to your documents.

The Linux lang setting makes a difference, but very often the characters you set, especially in OOo with the auto-correcting for quotes and some other 'special' characters, are not the ones you will see when viewing a PDF or web page in another system.

I find some fonts, Futura/Typo 2 and some dingbats, for instance, work fine in Windows but do not even show up in Linux after install. (This appears to be a defect in the character rendering server that fails when missing something or other)

I find that OOo 1.x will convert some of my banner headlines to bullets, actually change the character codes so the text is lost, when going from Linux to Windows. I have to use StarOffice 5.2 to avoid this problem.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

I have given up using OO writer for a project where I had planned to do so. Reason: I'm generating MS Word 2000 files in a Windows program for which there is no Linux equal. The Word files contain line drawing characters from a special TT font set provided by the program vendor. I have had no luck trying to install that font set into Linux OO. Furthermore the Linux version of OO refuses to convert a one page test Word file to anything but 120 pages of gibberish no matter what choices I make on the OO menus. The Windows version of OO will do the conversion and give me one page of text but OO refuses to recognize the special font unless I do the conversion manually character by character, which is necessary as they are scattered thru the document. MS Word has no problem opening the test document properly for editing or whatever I need to do with it.

Since this is a font discusssion I won't mention the horrors of getting printing to work in OO on RH9 and GNOME. It all ads up to extreme frustration and the end of trying to use OO. It should not be this hard to get commodity type computing to work.

What about ghostscript and printing?

derekfountain's picture

I gave up using Linux for writing several years ago because it was virtually impossible to ensure that what you saw on screen was what would come out of the printer. My understanding at the time (IIRC) was that the printing subsystem - Ghostscript - had a completely separate idea of what fonts were installed than did the X screen subsystem. Unless you got the two perfectly in sync, substitutions would happen at print time.

What's the general position on this now? Can I open a file in Abiword, Koffice or Openoffice, hit the print button and expect a correctly printed version of exactly what I have on screen? Do I need to spend the whole afternoon tuning my fonts to make it happen?

Re: What about ghostscript and printing?

Anonymous's picture

> I gave up using Linux for writing several years ago because it was
> virtually impossible to ensure that what you saw on screen was
> what would come out of the printer.

That, in my view, is the wrong approach. You don't really want for your printer to printer exactly what you see on the screen - unless you have a super-duper screen and/or a very low quality printer. This is what is called WYSITMTYG (What You See Is The Most That You Get). For producing beautifully typeset documents nothing beats the TeX family.

Re: What about ghostscript and printing?

Anonymous's picture

Dunno about "vanilla" OpenOffice, but the one that comes with Ximian Desktop is great. They've taken the Xft2/Freetype font system and hooked it into everything -- not only X11 but also OpenOffice, CUPS, GhostScript, etc. It's truly WYSIWYG and there are no inconsistencies.

Re: What about ghostscript and printing?

Anonymous's picture

I find printing more than acceptible on Linux these days. Especially with CUPS :)

Oblique vs Italic

Anonymous's picture

IANAF (I am not a fontie) but IIRC from discussions with one, Italic properly only refers to serif fonts. For sans-serif fonts, the appropriate term is oblique. I suppose I shouldn't fault the article for failing to mention that, and software generally has only Italic (rather than oblique) as a font option, regardless of the serificity of the base font. However, the article used Italic as an example while oblique was given as an option in a list of options. The reader might well conclude that Italic and oblique were independent options.

I agree that Courier is ugly, but I have to say that it is surpassed Letter Gothic (often called the typewriter font).

parl

Re: Oblique vs Italic

Anonymous's picture

There's no reason a sans-serif font couldn't have an italic complement designed for it--it's just that it's not as easy as tilting the upright version and tweaking a few things to make an oblique. Technically an 'italic' face is supposed to be derived from the strokes of handwriting, and can look substantially different from the roman face of the same family. Since most sans-serif faces are rather 'modern' or severe in appearance, having been designed mostly in the 20th century for metal or digital type technologies, an italic face would look kind of odd with them unless it was carefully made to complement the 'normal' face. The very popular Officina Sans is a good example of a sans-serif face with an italic rather than oblique complement.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

Ahhh.... a few inaccuracies in this article:

(1) type1inst is not a font server
(2) there is no Adobe Type Manager necessary on OS X--it's built into the system.
(3) there was no mention of OpenType, despite its wide availability and support from Adobe and others
(4) the mention of install methods was so sketchy as to be useless (could we have an actual explanation, please?)
(5) there was no mention of the difference between X core fonts and the fontconfig/freetype system
(6) there was no mention of the standard bitmap fonts which users will still run into, thus generating large amounts of confusion
(7) TrueType fonts are generally superior for onscreen display (assuming you're using the normal set of TrueType fonts) because they're designed to be used onscreen, with hinting made specifically for this purpose. It's not a "myth".
(8) there is no mention of the fact that TrueType works just fine with modern printing system on Linux; most if not all PostScript printers will accept TrueType fonts as Type 42 and GhostScript uses them just fine too.

Overall, this article is pretty weak on actually getting fonts to work and heavy on not-quite-accurate general info about font types and rarely-used options that are pretty self-evident to begin with.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Bruce_Byfield's picture

1) You're right; in trying to be economical with words, I made a mis-statement.

2.) The line should have referred to OS X Classic - that is, the old, non-UNIX Mac operating system.

3.) OpenType may be the wave of the future. However, for now, many font foundries are not using it.

4-5) The emphasis is on OOo, not fonts in Linux in general. That would be a good article idea for the future, though, so thanks.

6) The bitmap fonts are mentioned because they're useless for any serious design work.

7) I'm not sure what you mean by the "normal set" of TrueType fonts. However, I am not talking about a specific set of fonts, but the TrueType standard in general.

8.) The article does mention that the file format is mostly unimportant these days. I have found some TrueType fonts that postscript printers choke on, but not enough to matter

As to whether options are "rarely-used" or not, that depends, surely, on whether you are interested in designing documents, or simply in writing them.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

[Luke Kendall here, speaking about item 7]

You basically said that hinting doesn't matter at low (i.e. screen) resolution.
In reality, the exact opposite of that is true: hinting is needed at screen resolution and lower, but becomes unimportant as resolution increases.

Hinting does things like balance stem widths, "sensibly" snap character outlines to pixel grid positions, and more.

I have to admit that the hinting mechanism of Truetype fonts is also superior to that of Postscript fonts, since it's vastly more flexible. That's not to say an individual font might not be badly hinted (in either system), of course.

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

OS X Classic? Mean you not MacOS <=9?

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

(11) there should be a note about the file VCL.xcu which defines the internal font replacement

Re: OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom

Anonymous's picture

(9) there should be a description about a XLFD and what it means for configuring Postscript fonts for OpenOffice.org (look at fonts.dir)
(10) nobody mentioned the possibility to configure bitmap fonts (if they are available within the fonts section of a PPD - the printer driver...)

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