Oldstyle tabular figures

I don't get the point of designing oldstyle tabular numbers. Oldstyle numbers are usually designed for running text, they work better with lowercase letters. And tabular numbers are created for good alignment in columns of stand-alone numbers, I would say lining figures work better in this case. Do type users actually use oldstyle tabular numbers? If so, what do they use it for? Do they have any particular function?


  • I have no idea, and I always ask, "Really?" and/or "What for?"
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,164
    Oldstyle figures (at least theoretically) are more legible and groups of them make more distinct "wordshapes." And the reason to make figures tabular (i.e. monowidth)--to insure they line up line-to-line, vertically--isn't urgent in the horizontal dimension. 

    It is for historical reasons that lining numbers strike us today as the default form and thus oldstyle figs are a special case. But one could argue the opposite, that is, that it is lining figures that only need to be brought out in particular cases. From that point of view the question might be what is the point of lining tabular figures?
  • As a book designer, I have some use for oldstyle tabular figures. If I’m using oldstyle figures in the text and I also have tables running in the with text, I’d prefer to have the figures in the tables match the figures in the text. But if all the tables are in the back matter, as in financial statements in an annual report, I probably wouldn’t bother with oldstyle tabular figs.
  • In recent years I have encountered numerous examples of old-style tabular figures used as default numbering in table of contents, particularly in books. I think it is stylistic solution/decision and I liked it - renders a nicely ordered TOC.
  • As stated above, tabular old style figures are often needed for the table of contents or tabular matter in a text that uses old style figures throughout.

    In metal type (including machine-set metal type), all figures were tabular, all cast on the same width. Exceptions were very rare, and then only in display sizes (sometimes only the 1 was narrower). Proportional figures are a recent innovation. For that reason, proportional figure designs that don't look good in tabular settings can look awkward or inappropriate with revival designs.

    What sometimes makes tabular figures hard to like is that they're often an accommodation, an afterthought. To make help them succeed, you need to take the tabular setting into consideration at the design level, making sure the figures have well-balanced sidebearings, so they don't make holes or clumps by being too close or too far from their neighbors. Remember, you can't add kerning to these.

    If you're making type that will never be used for text, there's no reason to bother with tabular figures of any kind and no sense in altering the figure design to make them work that way. 

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,744
    Log tables, 1942. This is from the book “Four-figure Mathematical Tables”, which my mother first used when she was an architectural student.
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,164
    Might also be argued that oldstyle forms of figures like one and zero fit a uniform width more happily, too. 
  • It is for historical reasons that lining numbers strike us today as the default form and thus oldstyle figs are a special case. But one could argue the opposite, that is, that it is lining figures that only need to be brought out in particular cases. From that point of view the question might be what is the point of lining tabular figures?
    I am using oldstyle figures as the default ones in a new sans serif typeface (which is not that common), so my issue is not with oldstyle figures in general but with designing those for monospaced purposes. 
    Thanks for your inputs, I guess it is a matter of style to use them of not.
  • Max PhillipsMax Phillips Posts: 474
    I started out in annual report design, way back when. I used tabular oldstyle figs for financial sections quite often.
  • I know about how bad they look, but that's not an answer. Just because people didn't have figures with both vertical and horizontal tabularity, doesn't mean we should pluck crappy looking junk from the past and wave it in front of a modern audience, or should we...

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,744
    It’s often an interesting, and sometimes useful discussion.
    I didn’t bother with tabular small-cap lining figures, until a thread here (or typophile) convinced me otherwise.

    If I’m doing a full-featured OpenType font, I put in all the variants that are options in the InDesign OpenType menu, on the principle that someone somewhere might want them, and feel short-changed if the menu offers the option, but not the font.

    And that prompted me down some novel paths, such as old-style figures in a didone typeface (though not the format in Maxim’s example).

    However, I don’t go so far as to offer old-style superiors and inferiors!
  • I agree with @David Berlow the examples of the past do not solve my doubts. As a graphic designer I think I would never use old-style tabular figures in a table. I know the alignment doesn't need to work horizontally, but it looks messy when you put a bunch of numbers in columns. I am not against historical models, but if we have something that works better like lining tabular figures we should use them. I like to know how users are going to use the characters I include in a typeface. And I am not designing a character just because everybody includes it in the "standard" character set or because there is an option in a particular application. 
    @Vassil Kateliev comment on the use of old-style tabular numbers for table of contents has convinced me. They probably look good in this context.
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  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,110
    RMX Tools can burp out wonderful tnums in seconds, complete with your suffix of choice.
  • After you've drawn the OS figures it takes about 45 seconds to put them all on a tabular width. What is the big f**kin deal?

    RMX Tools can burp out wonderful tnums in seconds, complete with your suffix of choice.
    It is not about the time you spend doing something, it is about being critical with what you do and understanding why you do something. Technology and typographic conventions change with time and type designers should be able to adapt their work. There are deprecated characters and some others that didn't exist decades ago. 
    Besides that, the concept for the typeface I am creating is "keeping things simple", having a small size typeface family, being efficient. So including characters that are not going to be used it is a big deal. 
  • When I look at Maxim's image, I understand why a graphic designer would want to use TOSF, although they make a table less readable. It gives a certain style.
    It's up to the type designer to decide if he wants to "promote" his stylistical/typographical vision, or give designers more rope.

    I don't think a typeface's sales will suffer from missing Tabular OSF.
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  • How long? Really James? 

    In this totally typical example, the top is the tabular lining figures. The bottom "needing" to go on tabular units for the purposes proposed here, and I don't mean to be argumentative but where did you learn to count to 45?;)

    I see that 1,2,3,5 and 7 here would need ruinous help, 8 alone might take 45 minutes.;)

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  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,176
    The question David's comment raises, which seems to me the really interesting question about tabular oldstyle figures, is whether their common width needs to be the same as that of the tabular lining figures? I did that in the Brill types — and also for smallcap aligning numerals —, but I'm not happy with what needs to be done to the numerals to achieve that, especially not when the tabular width also needs to accommodate bold lining tabular numerals. The spacing is going to be too wide or too narrow for something in the mix.

    So that suggests 'proportional tabular' numeral sets, i.e. sets with internally consistent common spacing, but proportionally different between the sets based on the typical proportions of the numerals involved. As David's illustration shows, this would imply oldstyle tabular numerals on a narrower width than lining tabular numerals.

    Practically, how problematic is this likely to be for typographers? Is it likely that different numeral styles will appear together in a single tabular setting?

    This approach, of course, introduces the potential need for oldstyle tabular currency symbols and other characters that might occur in a tabular setting with the numerals.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,744
    Although I am not really a “type user” any more, I developed a taste, as a typographer, for the niceties of small caps and old style figures—which do come in handy for complex hierarchical situations such as business cards.

    As I generally feature my latest typeface for Shinntype material, when I made new business cards in 2009, I used Figgins Sans, so, of course, the OSF and SC were put into play.

    Hence, María, this is a “proper” use of tabular OSF, because proportional figures for the phone numbers look very wrong in this layout, which it’s not necessary to demonstrate.


  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,371
    I always draw oldstyle figures but tabular oldstyle seems dubious to me.  You can still make a table of contents with non-tabular oldstyle figures.  Paul Rand used oldstyle figures for the Westinghouse annual report as I recall, Garamond.
  • Max PhillipsMax Phillips Posts: 474
    You can still make a table of contents with non-tabular oldstyle figures. 
    But it doesn't align vertically. And that's wrong, both aesthetically and, more important, functionally. I don't think you'd find many accountants that would agree that this doesn't matter.

  • In metal type (including machine-set metal type), all figures were tabular, all cast on the same width. Exceptions were very rare, and then only in display sizes (sometimes only the 1 was narrower).

    In the inventory of the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp one can find the records of the type cast for Christoffel Plantin, cataloged as Volume 153. These records date from Plantin’s life. The page above shows a tabular listing of numbers of cast type. However, the foundry type of the Moyen Canon Romain (Claude Garamont /Hendrik van den Keere) from the inventory of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, which I measured a couple of years ago using a digital caliper, reveals the following values for the widths of the figures:

    1: 3,37 mm
    2: 4,1 mm
    3: 3,67 mm
    4: 4,37 mm
    5: 3,58 mm
    6: 4,62 mm
    7: 5,53 mm
    8: 4,32 mm
    9: 4,22 mm
    0: 5,03 mm

    This foundry type was most probably cast in the 16th or 17th century –unfortunately the alloy does not contain enough carbon for radiocarbon dating. The x-height of the Gros Canon Romain (for which Van den Keere adapted the length of the ascenders and descenders, which resulted in the Moyen Canon) is roughly 5 mm, so one could consider this a display type.

    The set of matrices of Granjon’s Gros Parangon, that may have been justified for fixed registers by Conrad Bernard in 1601, show different widths for the figures set. Gros Parangon type has half the body size of Gros Canon. Casting from these matrices using fixed registers will inevitably also result in different widths for the figures.

  • Lot of helpful comments thanks. Nick, does "LGW" stand for Lagwardia?;)

    As opposed to designing "oldstyle" tabular numbers, Realigning Figures are often a good plan for sans, slab and geometric faces, if one doesn't like the forms of oldstyle numbers. However, when Tabular Realigned Figures are included, to be good for setting contents, addresses and other near-useful things, their workings in forms and tables with their newstyle descenders and widths, tend to look uneven to me, and when these newstyle descenders are not colliding with rules or boxes, it's likely that padding, or linespacing has been manually added to avoid such collisions.

    So, what, it takes 4.5 seconds to add space to a user's forms because the glyphs are not vertically efficient for that purpose. But I thought we were talking about designing oldstyle tabular numbers, which I don't like, even on 3/4 of the Tab fig space, not just because of the monetary symbolic struggle that can then ensue, (especially all the way to the 86 monetary symbols, if so required),  

    but because oldstyle numbers are non-tabular in form, in both dimensions, to work in mixed text and not disturb the use of lowercase. Neither the lack of user ability to make general use for this purpose, or the bastardizations based on the economics of metal glyphs, (thanks for more research and examples Frank), is helped today by making forms that are bad at the original purpose of old style figures, and then made worse for that purpose by tabularity.

    So, if you imagine this as a deep issue, from what it's called, to the plethora of uses Type Designers want to argue "oldstyle" tabular numbers are "good for", as opposed to from the point of view of an educator of professional users, "I always ask, "Really?" and/or "What for?".
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,744
    edited June 2016
    Nick, does "LGW" stand for Lagwardia?

    As you rightly observe, David, there are some problems with oldstyle figures, especially for Americans not familiar with foreign postal codes. But our posties can handle it.

    The difficulty, for grotesques, is providing consistency between lining and OSF, with lining calling the shots. In Figgins, I made the bowls of 6 and 9 quite large, which improves legibility in the default lining setting, to the detriment of the OSF. Perhaps I should have changed the proportions radically between the styles. The legibility issues of grot figures carry over from lining into OSF, so this is a bit off topic. 


    "What for?"

    As you say, consider the professional user. 
    Max and I have both mentioned situations where tabular OSF can be the preferred style; perhaps niche uses, but shouldn’t we cast a wide net? 

    And as James M says, most users don’t even access OT features, so it is indeed catering to the professionals to provide umpteen figure variants, because it’s up to those expert users to decide what to do with all the bells and whistles.

  • Exactly! It’s up to those expert users to decide what to do. I am only pulling on legs to get past what we know we know they know, to what they may not. 
  • Frank, the castings you show are clearly not for text composition—note the huge sidebearings and the absence of kerns on f and the long s. Do you have any idea what they might have been cast for? In any case, Gros Parangon (about 20 pt UK/US) is for very large text, for large folios, not the sort of type one would use for ordinary books.

  • Hi Scott, these are the matrices of the Gros Parangon. The animation on the front page of my research blog shows what happens if you set the mould’s registers.
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