One of the features of modern, high-quality Open Type fonts is the availability of different styles of figures, as shown here.

proportional and tabular ining and oldstyle figures

In designing a book, it’s typical to select which figures to use for different purposes based on the nature of the book. It would be typical in an engineering text, for example, to use lining figures, just as it would be typical in a history book—especially one with dates scattered about every page—to use oldstyle figures.

Tabular figures line up in columns, which is important when presenting numerical data in tables (including the table of contents, by the way). Tabular figures are also typically used for folios (page numbers). Proportional figures help maintain the even color within a block of running text.

A word about superscripts, subscripts, and fractions: These features are set with their own special sets of glyphs, and the design is almost always of the tabular lining variety. It’s generally a mistake, though, to use the full-size tabular lining figures and just scale them down and fiddle with the baseline. It’s always better to use the glyphs designed for the purpose, as they’ll be much more legible.

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[Brian Jud invited me to contribute short articles on book interior design to his Book Book Marketing Matters newsletter, a biweekly e-zine. This page is adapted from one of those articles.]