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Secrets of using fonts in Windows' display schemes
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
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Secrets of using fonts in Windows' display schemes 


Technofile for Feb. 15, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Windows uses fonts to control how your menus and title bars look. For many users, these fonts are a mystery. It doesn't have to be that way.

Some fonts are actual images of characters, and others are just instructions that tell the computer how to make the shapes. Before you can understand how fonts work, you need to know the difference between the two kinds.

The first kind are bitmapped fonts. They can look great on your screen, but only at certain sizes. On its own, Windows 95 uses bitmapped fonts for the labels you see on the desktop and in windows. The sizes are set in advance, and everything looks great, as long as you stick to those sizes. (But you can change those fonts, as we'll see shortly.)

The second kind are vector fonts, also called scalable fonts. If you use Microsoft Word, Windows WordPad or another modern word processor, the fonts you see listed in the menus are vector fonts. They can be made any size (even sizes in between the ones listed in the menu), and they can look stunning or terrible, depending on how well they are designed. The three main scalable fonts that come with Windows—Arial, Times New Roman and Courier New—are very well designed.

By right clicking on the Desktop and choosing Properties, you can get at the Appearance tab in Windows 95. You'll see a fake window that shows the fonts currently in use. Normally, you click on any line of text to change the font, but you'll find right away that the font for Window text can't be changed this way. That's because there is no such thing as a Window text font. (Typical books on Windows 95 never seem to get this right.) It's there mostly to keep you from seeing a blank window.

If there could be a default Window text font, it would be the font used by icons. Click the drop-down list under "Item:" and choose "Icon." Then choose a font from the list below it and see what happens to your Desktop icons. That's the obvious part. What's not obvious is that Windows also uses the "Icon" font for all the type in file and folder windows. Try it and you'll see what I mean.

The Active Window font is easily changed. You'll also see Inactive Window, and its font can be changed, too. But save yourself the trouble: Windows uses the same font (and size) for both. You can't change one without changing the other to the same settings. Normal and Selected use the same font; the word Selected is there just to let you change the color of the font and background for selected menu items.

Even the three gadgets at the upper right of the fake window are made from a font. (It's the Marlett font, which you normally never see in a list because Microsoft doesn't want you to delete it accidentally.) Click on one of them and Windows will let you change the size, although not the font. Marlett supplies all the shapes for other window parts, too, and they are all made larger or smaller when you change the size of the gadgets.

But let me caution you about an oddity in Windows 95. Some window elements are more important than others in the way Windows figures the sizes of all other objects it displays. Be careful when changing the sizes of any items in this fake window. Be sure to save any settings that seem to work OK (click the drop-down list under "Scheme:" and choose a new name) so that you can return to them if you mess things up.

If, for example, you notice that the little icons in the System Tray (at the right of the Taskbar) seem jagged, you've inadvertently told Windows to change their size to something it can't handle right. Choose a scheme that comes with Windows to out them back to normal (you may need to restart Windows first) and then carefully play with various settings to see if you can avoid the jaggies next time.


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