About ASCII Art
The collection
How to Display ASCII Art Properly

The issue:

Fixed width fonts versus proportionally spaced fonts. If you're going to view, create, or share ASCII art you need to know the difference.

Table of Contents:

  • Definitions
  • Why are there proportionally spaced fonts?
  • Why are there fixed width fonts?
  • Show me another example of the difference.
  • What does this have to do with ASCII art?
  • Great! So what's the problem?
  • Okay, so what about these AOL users?
  • So where does Christopher Johnson stand on this issue?

  • Definitions:

    Fixed width font:

    Every character, symbol, and space occupies the exact same width.

    Proportionally spaced font:

    A character's width is defined by the amount of width needed to display that particular character.

    Why are there proportionally spaced fonts?

    Proportional vs Fixed ExampleThe letter 'i' is, by its very nature, a narrow letter. It doesn't require much width. The letter 'm', on the other hand, is rather wide. One could write three 'i's' in the room it takes to display only one letter 'm'. When you create a font that is proportionally spaced, it has a tendency to be much more pleasing to the eye. (See the example.)

    Why are there fixed width fonts? There are two reasons.

    1. The typewriter. When the typewriter was invented it was, at the time, a fairly advanced piece of mechanical engineering. By pressing keys, a metal arm with an embossed letter would stamp an ink ribbon and produce the image of that letter on a piece of paper. Then the roller assembly that held that piece of paper would move to the left just a bit so the next letter that was typed wouldn't go over top of the last. Instead it would be positioned just to the right of the previous letter. Since there was no way for it to know which letter was last typed, they had to decide on one fixed amount of space each letter would have. As a result, they had to design the letters in sucFonts with gridlinesh a way that they wouldn't look silly all having the same amount of width. The letter 'm' gets squished and the letter 'i' has elongated serifs to make it appear wider.
    2. What turned out to be a limitation of the typewriter actually turned out to be a useful tool in the computer age. Early computers did not display graphics. The screen was a grid of characters. The evenly spaced grid also employed a fixed width font. Programmers found this useful because they could plot the exact point on the screen where they wanted their character to appear. Fixed width fonts were employed for this scenario. You can still see this today; just open a DOS window on a Windows PC. A fixed width font will still be displayed. You can change the font used in a DOS window, but it only allows you select from fonts that are fixed width. When the Macintosh introduced the world to the graphical user interface, or GUI, it was no longer necessary to use fixed width fonts. And so was born the explosion of desktop publishing and WYSIWYG.


    Show me another Example of the difference between fixed width and proportional width fonts.

    Showing the width differences

    In the fixed width font, notice how each letter, regardless of how wide or narrow it should be, is allotted the same amount of width.

    In the proportional font, notice how the letter 'i' is given a very narrow space and the letter 'm' is given a very wide space.

    So What does this have to do with ASCII Art?

    ASCII Art is generally something people like to share with others. Most often it's included in an e-mail or someone's .plan file. To make sure that the ASCII art can be viewed by the person you're sending it to, it needs to be created in a format that is viewable by the maximum number of people. That format is the fixed width font. Virtually any device capable of displaying characters can display a fixed width font, from a typewriter all the up to a state-of-the-art personal computer. When you create ASCII art in a fixed width font you guarantee that virtually anyone will be able to view it. It doesn't matter which fixed-width font you use, you'll still be able to view the picture. It may look somewhat different, but everything will line up properly and the picture will be displayed properly no matter what.

    Great! So what's the problem?

    Some folks create ASCII art in a proportional width font. America Online users are the most common perpetrators. (The next paragraph explains why.) All this does is limit the number of people who can view that artwork. It wouldn't be so bad if any proportional font would work the same as any other, but they don't. If you create ASCII art in Arial, you must view it in Arial. If you create it in Times, you must view it in Times. If the person you send that picture to doesn't have that font, they won't be able to view that picture properly. Why go to all the work only to have your picture be useless to the majority of computer users? The fact is, there just isn't a good argument that can be made in favor of using anything other than a fixed width font.

    Okay, so what about these AOL users?

    When it comes to ASCII Art, America Online users are at a disadvantage. This is due in part to an unfortunate preferences setting in America Online software's default configuration. The other part of this disadvantage can be attributed to the fact that most America Online users simply aren't aware that they can and should view ascii art in a fixed width font. America Online software for Windows uses Arial as the default font for viewing E-mail. AOL users could very easily change their preferences so that a fixed-width font is used to display their e-mail. Many don't realize this, and they spend countless hours creating ASCII art that can only be viewed with Arial. That's fine for sending ASCII art to another Windows AOL user, but it's useless to the rest of the world. If you're an AOL user and you already know this stuff, I apologize for my broad characterization but I assure you, if the e-mail I receive about this issue is any indication, it's not without some validity.

    So where does Christopher Johnson stand on this issue?

    Those who wish to create ASCII art in a proportional width font certainly have the right to do so. However, this web site will not support, display, acknowledge, or recognize any ASCII artwork that is created using anything other than a fixed-width font. This web site will not acknowledge or endorse any software program dealing with the creation of ASCII artwork which allows any file to be created with a font that is not fixed-width. I maintain this site so that people all over the world can enjoy ASCII art. This enjoyment will not be dependent on what kind of computer or font each user has. This is a "fixed-width only" site because it is absolutely essential to the cross-compatibility of ASCII art. I would urge anyone who is creating ASCII art with non fixed-width fonts to start using fixed width fonts! There's a whole world full of people who would love to look at your creations and share them with others. Don't limit your potential audience just because you can't figure out how to change a preference in your software!