MTE Explains: What is a Monospace Font?

Uniformity is essential for some purposes. Universities have formatting requirements right down to line spacing and font choice. The stereotypical image of military documents features a very specific look, all with the end goal of maintaining a degree of consistency.

It should come as no surprise that fonts play a major role in giving this sense of uniformity. In general, fonts can be grouped into two different types of characters: fixed width (or monospace), and variable width.

Mono-Courier-Preview

At the most basic level a monospace font is one where all characters are the same width and height. This relates to the ‘mono’ part of the name and is primarily responsible for their highly consistent appearance.

Mono-Word-CourierNew

Consider the above snapshot of the word “Hello” in Courier New. Notice how the letters are spaced next to each other, their shape and their size.

Mono-Calibri-Preview

Compare the word ‘Hello’ when displayed in Courier New with Calibri at the same point size. The picture is the same size as it was when Courier New was used, but there’s more room towards the right of the screen.

Mono-Word-Calibri

In Calibri, the lower-case “L” is smaller than the lower-case “E.” In Courier, both are the same size, with the ‘L’ having a very distinct shape to maintain a consistent size. This is, in a nutshell, how monospace fonts differ from those with variable widths.

Certain fonts have a monopoly on certain purposes. We’ve already drawn attention to the importance of font choice in academia, where Times New Roman rules the roost. The typical image of a film or television script bears similarities with that of military documents, and in both cases, the Courier fonts are critical.

Mono-Page-CourierNew

Tradition is as much a part of the reasoning as utility. Fonts like Courier, for example, are the de facto choice for screenwriters. While it may be a holdover from the era of typewritten scripts, Courier also has a neat trick up its sleeve: formatted correctly, an A4 page roughly equals a minute of on-screen time.

Mono-Script-OliverStoneJFK

While it’s never going to be a perfect 1:1 ratio (description may take up lines while it could take a second or two of screen time, as seen in this extract from Oliver Stone’s “JFK” script), it is a notable bonus that could potentially be applied to other monospace fonts as well.

Mono-PrimeSans-Preview

There are numerous monospace fonts included as standard on computers, and the Courier family is probably the most famous, appearing in both Windows and Mac OS X systems. We previously shared a few fonts that deviate from the standard Courier appearance, but there are many, many more, including a ‘sans’ variant of Courier Prime that remains monospaced. One particularly interesting take on monospace fonts is Lekton, a font designed in just eight hours that mimics the typeface found on old Olivetti typewriters.

While typewriter-esque fonts are a prominent part of the monospace landscape, there are others as well, including fonts designed for niches. Inconsolata is freely distributed and is considered a pleasant variation to Microsoft’s Consolas, while those of you who used Android prior to 4.0 will likely recognise Droid Sans and its monospaced derivative, Droid Sans Mono. The Proggy family of fonts, meanwhile, is intended for programmers and coders who wish to use small font sizes while maintaining legibility.