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Here's text rendered with Raleway, a font designed around 2012, according to Google Fonts:

            enter image description here

enter image description here

I'm far from a font expert, but the vertical zig-zag of numbers looks just jarring to me, and makes the text less legible.

What is the appeal of old style numbers?

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Why do you feel that the number look "zig-zag", while you don't feel that for letters j, g, p, q,...? –  Bart Gijssens Mar 27 at 8:24
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You might want to ask this in the graphic design SE. You might get different perspectives. –  Pdxd Mar 27 at 14:22
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@BartGijssens Tails sit below the baseline. Numbers don't really have tails. And there are fonts that put the tails above the baseline anyway. –  Izkata Mar 27 at 15:15
    
Personally I don't like those digits either, but I think it's just a matter of taste. I see no reason to wonder why digits like that are "still included" as if we should have progressed beyond that by now. –  Mr Lister Mar 27 at 19:34
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Those are some pretty ugly "old-style" numbers you've picked there for your example. I especially dislike the zero, which, in proper text figures, should IMO never extend above the median line. –  Ilmari Karonen Mar 28 at 1:13

5 Answers 5

Old style figures are used in titles and paragraph text. According to Fonts.com old style is suitable for title and paragraph text due to the fact that this gives the text uniform look. The 'modern' style numbers should be used for tables and graphs, since these modern numbers align better when used in these contexts.

There are fonts that support both old style and modern numbers. These fonts can easily be used for title, paragraph, table and graph text.

You can try the difference at clagnut CSS sandbox, try to select Museo Slab 500 and change the Number Case between Lining and Old-Style.

Examples of old-style numbering on the left and modern numbering right:

Old-style numbering left and modern numbering right

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I like to compare old-style numbers to lowercase, and new-style to capitals. Some typographers even talk about 'lowercase' and 'uppercase numbers'.

To my eyes, using UPPERCASE in the middle of a sentence seems odd, also when using numbers in the text. old-style numerals just 'flow' better with the rest of the lowercase letters in a sentence. When available, I see them as the 'default'.

Contrarily, uppercase numerals do serve their purpose when large amounts of numeric data are collected in e.g. a table.

The 'zig-zag' is no more than with regular lowercase letters, as Bart Gijssens comments. Take the sentence you just read: the words 'regular' and even 'zig-zag' (including the quotes) are all over the place as well.

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Ascenders and descenders of lowercase letters make them easier to differentiate than the blocky shapes of uppercase letters. The same is true when applied to groups of letters as they form words and blocks of text. And is also true when applied to numbers. The string of text you've shared looks especially awkward as it includes a mix of symbols '/', codes 'FM' '23.64' '24/7' and difficult to interpret wording (what does 'coverage' mean? oh I see, it's a radio station so they mean...). It's hard to fully understand the impact of lowercase numbers (or old style) on legibility of this particular typeface and the message as-shown are really hard to differentiate as we're mixing so many variables. It could be that the square block-shape of 24/7 vs the lowercase style shown is more familiar and a faster read for your audience. Generally good type families include these lowercase letters as they round out the options for good typography, and in content often provide the more legible flow/differentiation I mentioned earlier. The larger question of 'appeal' I don't know how to answer. I like the lowercase numbers, especially in a well design typeface, but in some cases they don't fit.

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Some fonts just emphasize style and uniqueness over practicality. What you call "jarring", others might call "different" and "attention-grabbing". Many fonts are far less practical than this one.

Obviously, the vast majority fonts don't use this feature, and it is not a good choice for displaying large volumes of text. But it may be useful as a stylistic device to add a certain look and feel to a site or document.

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Thanks. I personally find that jumpiness silly - Raleway is classified as a "Serious" font if one looks at the bottom of impallari.com –  Dan Dascalescu Mar 27 at 7:40
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I'm not really a fan of the font either. Whether it is "serious" is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. –  dan1111 Mar 27 at 7:52
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I would suggest the exact opposite - old-style/lowercase numbers are more suitable for large volumes of text because they fit the natural flow created by the letters and are less jarring. As Bakabaka points out, you'd want to use modern-style/uppercase numbers in the same situations as you'd want to use uppercase letters - to draw attention to something - and has a much bigger impact if it's dropped in the middle of a paragraph. The eye is naturally drawn to the number in a way that it otherwise wouldn't. –  dhmholley Mar 27 at 14:07

The generalized typography rule being applied is to avoid attracting visual attention to specific words or letters in a sentence because that slows down reading and comprehension by distracting the readers limited attention from the entire piece of writing. Anytime SOMETHING is larger or darker in a paragraph it encourages the eye to skip ahead to the bolder darker, taller letters or words and then after interpreting the capitalized numbers the reader has to visually scan backwards to the beginning to get the whole meaning. The process of skipping ahead visually and then re-reading the entire sentence is quite common. If you want to use the capital letters in a paragraph, typography rules say you should decrease the font size slightly (about 10-20%) so that when you look at the entire paragraph and blur your eyes it should not stand out as different.

the rule and the old style numbers are intended to apply mostly to large written blocks such as in a newspaper column or a book full of text. If you have an advertising piece or it's a headline or the numbers stand alone separated from a paragraph, then typography rules for reading don't apply and it's a typographical style decision you can base on whatever creative or messaging impression you want to create.

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