Numerals are Visualizations, too

I like looking at annual reports as a good source of data visualizations. Much of the typical report is just feel-good decoration, and the graphs usually fall into that category with lots of shine but little content. However, what caught by eye in the Public Citizen 2008 annual report [PDF], was a table of numbers (the graphs aren’t too great either).

Misaligned figures

See anything odd about the numbers? The columns are not aligned vertically because of different digit widths; in particular, the “1” digit is very narrow. As a result, the Publications and Subscriptions value seems smaller than the Grants value at first glance, since the latter number is wider.

I thought it was a cardinal rule of font design that all digits were the same width. Unicode even has a “Figure Dash” character, which is a dash with the same width as the digit characters.

I set out to find the font in question. First I sampled what I had on my Mac. I didn’t find the font, but I did find several fonts with digits of unequal width. Most of them were artful fonts like Comic Sans, but Georgia was also in that category.

Next I tried Indentifont, a clever idea for identifying a font by asking a series of questions about the characters, such as what kind of bar the “G” has. It returned a few fonts that matched by answers, but none that looked like the report text. The “1” and the “t” are particularly distinctive.

Finally I realized that with the PDF available I could just examine the file in a text editor. After searching for the word “Font” a few times, I kept seeing the word “Knockout” nearby. Checking the characters on the foundry site the Knockout font family, shows a perfect match for the font called “No. 32 Junior Cruiserweight”.

So my theory about fonts was wrong, but I still hold that tables of numbers should never contains variable-width digits.

3 thoughts on “Numerals are Visualizations, too

  1. Clever trick for finding fonts in PDFs. I knew they were text-viewable, but I hadn’t thought to use that info to find fonts. I’ve always used it to find errors, which are notoriously hard to debug.

  2. Ugh, they should have caught that in typesetting or proof and switched font. Saving money, by not employing professional layout/type design staff and proofreaders, results in embarrassments such as this.

    In the old days, many text (body) fonts have (or had) two or more sets of numerals, one set for inline text with thin 1 and thick 0, often with hanging 7,9 and short 1, and another equal width, equal height for tabular matter. A shop would buy one or both styles in metal in each size needed, as their use dictated.

    Professional tools and fonts have usually had access to both all along.
    Typesetting pros have known to set tables in monospace numerals (or ‘figs’, short for figures) all along.

    Cheap common computer fonts originally had equal width digits only for exactly the reason you give, in combination with most pedestrian tools make it hard to get the alt figs even if they’re in the font. Iirc, Helvetica (aka Arial since Mac) and Times Roman had monospace figs as the primary figs to make linotype setting of tabular matter easier, and it carried over to the 1984 classic Mac.

  3. Thanks for the background, Bill. I checked to see if Unicode has separate inline figures and tabular figures but no luck. There is a “fullwidth” version of the ASCII characters, but they’re too wide for any use I can think of.

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