Tips for self-publishers: Typography 102 – OpenType

Special Effects with OpenType

If you look up the fonts on your computer you will see nearly all are defined as Truetype or OpenType (in Windows you do this from the Fonts section of the Control Panel app). For our purposes the difference between the two formats is that OpenType allows font designers standard ways to define fancy variations such as ligatures, Stylistic sets, and number styles. Because they are defined in a standard way, Word 2010 and later can let you use them directly from the Ribbon.

Other than that, the differences between Truetype and OpenType are unimportant for us with one possible exception: older versions of Windows may crash when using certain OpenType fonts in Word (those that use something called ‘Postscript outlines’). Certainly I found OpenType fonts unstable when I was briefly running Word 2010 on Windows XP. I am typing these words in Word 2013 on Windows 8 where OpenType and Truetype both work equally well.

To access these OpenType features you need Word 2010 or later. From the font dialog you’re familiar with, move to the Advanced tab. Word 2013 makes these easier to get to. From the Ribbon click the text effects button from the Font section of the Home menu. Underneath the text effects such as shadow and outline, you get access to the OpenType features.

Accessing OpenType features


Ligatures are combinations of characters that are bound together into a single glyph, such as combining ‘f’ and ‘l’ into a single glyph fl. They can add a little flash if you want old-fashioned ornate titles, but are rarely used. If you want them on, pick a Ligature option other than ‘none’ and Word will automatically substitute a ligature for predefined character combinations.

The ligature that got away.

There is one ligature that is so popular, we no longer know that’s what it is. The Latin word ‘et’ means ‘and’ in English. The et ligature was in common everyday use in Roman times and never went away. Today we call it the ampersand.

Number forms

Number forms are more important because they can cause problems if you don’t realize what they are.

Take these example chapter titles. I’m using Constantia font with default settings.


The weight of the ‘7’ and ‘6’ is centered consistently and by design, but some people will look at that and think the ‘7’ is in the wrong place. I’ve had plenty of beta readers complain that the ‘7’ is somehow in a subscript setting and that this is an error. It’s not. It’s how the ‘old-style’ number form is defined for this and several other fonts. In the case of Constantia, old-style is the default number form.

If change the number form from ‘default’ to ‘lining’, I get this:


Now the numbers are vertically aligned at their tops but arguably look less elegant.



The lining number form is easier to read if you’re using tabulated data. Elsewhere it’s a matter of taste. I’d use old-style for my steampunk, historical adventure, romance novel and lining for my science fiction, non-fiction, or modern-day spy thriller.

Stylistic sets

Font designers can design variations of their fonts that have alternate versions of some or all glyphs. There aren’t many fonts that use this feature. Gabriola from Microsoft is one that does.

Recent versions of the Impact font provided by Microsoft as part of Windows also have stylistic sets, as you can see in this postcard I produced to advertise my Greyhart Press business locally.

Advanced OpenType features in practice

The special way the letters ‘E’ and ‘R’ combine and ‘T’ and ‘H’ are also contextual alternatives. Or at least I think they are. In actual fact, in Word, the contextual alternative box makes no difference for the Impact font; you get the fancy alternatives by picking stylistic sets instead. And yet how each word is styled depends on the letters contain within it.

I think it’s best to consider the distinction loose, dependent on the font designer’s interpretation, and just have fun and play. While playing, though, remember that a little ‘flash’ goes a long way in typography. In my postcard example, I wanted to get across the message that a local publisher from a small town in England, had topped the bestseller charts across the Atlantic in America. That’s why I only used the fancy stylistic sets in the three places that most got that message across, while keeping the other text plain.

Contextual Alternatives

If you tick this box, then the font design can override certain combinations of characters. It is very font-specific and not very common, but an example would be a cursive script (one that looks like handwriting) that replaces certain common words (‘of’ ‘and’ ‘the’) with contextual alternative glyphs designed specifically for use with those words. Put another way, instead of having the glyph for the letters ‘a’, ‘n’, and ‘d’ there might be three special glyphs that put together makes a neater version of ‘and’.

Next time we’ll see kerning and spacing examples.

Follow this link to my other writing and publishing tips

This article was adapted from ‘Format Your Print Book for Createspace: 2nd Edition‘ available now as a Kindle eBook, and as a 296 page paperback:

eBook: |

Paperback |



About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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