What typographic features are part of the font itself vs part of the software?

There are many options in layout programs, and I’m not clear on which options are part of the font file and which are things the layout program does for me.

For example, I’m fairly sure that both bold and italics are additional fonts that are part of a font family, because when downloading fonts, I’ve seen separate files for italics and bold. I’ve also read that if a font family lacks an italics variant, many programs will “fudge” it by slanting all the characters.

There are many other things about typography that I don’t know who (the font or the layout software) is deciding. Here are a few examples:

  • letter spacing
  • word spacing
  • kerned pairs
  • small caps
  • lining and old style figures
  • tabular and proportional figures

There are probably more that I don’t know to ask about.

So what what typographic properties are determined by a font choice and what are strictly determined by the layout program?


As a rule of thumb, everything that cannot be automatized in a straightforward manner can be determined by the font. The main exception to this are aspects that depend on a continuous variable, such as the kerning when the letter spacing is increased. However, not all fonts specify everything they can, and the absence of such specifications is a hallmark of low-quality fonts, if they make sense for the font in question.

More specifically:

  • The default letter and word spacing is defined by the font, however, for they can be adjusted by the typesetting program usually on basis of the default value, e.g., for justified text. The same goes for line spacing.
  • Kerned pairs are defined in the font.
  • Italic, boldface, small caps, super- and subscript characters can be individually defined by the font. In current font standards, italic and boldface are realised as separate fonts, while everything else is assessed through OpenType features (or similar). At times small caps are provided as a separate font as a fallback measure when OpenType is not supported.
  • Lining and old-style, tabular and proportional figures can be defined by the font and can be assessed via OpenType. Any number style can be chosen as a default by the type designer.
  • Hinting information from instructions to bitmap hints can be defined in the font, but not every rendering software honours these specifications.

For an exhaustive list (but not complete) list, take a look at a list of OpenType features.

Source : Link , Question Author : Scribblemacher , Answer Author : Wrzlprmft

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