Basic font information and terms

There are aspects of Type and Fonts that we overlook daily. In the following article, I hope to explain some of the terms we use on a daily basis. Hopefully, you will find this useful.

Setting the definition of font and typeface
We will start our look at what the defines Font and Typeface in modern-day design.

Font and Typeface
In the days of movable lead type, a Font referred to type blocks in a particular style and size. An example would be Helvetica Bold 12 point. A Typeface included multiple Fonts of Helvetica such as Helvetica Bold 12 point and Helvetica Bold 14 point.

Today, since all of the different sizes of Fonts that we use are all part of an electronic file, we refer to Fonts as being a particular Style in all sizes, multiple Fonts then make-up a Typeface or Font Family. Helvetica Bold is a Font. Helvetica, Helvetica Italic, Helvetica Bold and Helvetica Bold Italic make up the Typeface or Font Family.

However, even that definition is lost today. We just consider the Font to be the entire Font Family. (Not that it drives type geeks crazy, because it does. So stop it!)

There can be many styles in modern typography, but the standards are: Regular (sometimes called Roman), Bold, Italic, Bold Italic. We also sometimes see Oblique instead of Italic. An Italic font has unique characteristics. The serifs or stems, arms, bowls, etc. might be different to give the italic version a unique feel. An Oblique font is a Regular or Roman font that has been slanted to the right. All of its elements are exactly the same as the Regular or Roman font.

Serif and Sans-Serif
There are two main categories of typefaces, Sans Serif and Serif. There are also typefaces that exist in-between these like Semi-Sans, but for the most part a typeface is either one or the other. And there are others outside of these like ornamental, script and blackletter. (If you want to get into what proceeded these classifications, I suggest you read the 5-part series from “I Love Typography”.)

Sans Serif
The term “Sans Serif” is derived from the French and literally means “without serifs”. They can also be referred to as Grotesque (Grotesk, which is German) or Gothic. A Sans Serif Typeface would be Helvetica, Frutiger, Optima and Futura, just to name a few. Sans Serif typefaces are considered to be modern or clean. Even though Helvetica was designed in 1957, Futura was designed in 1927, Optima in 1950, and Fruitiger in 1971.

A Serif is a small line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol. A typeface with serifs is called a Serif Typeface (or Serifed Typeface). Serif fonts have been around for quite a while. They are attributed to the Romans who used them in type as they carved in stone. Serif typefaces can be classified into three subcategories: Old Style, Transitional and Modern (or Didone).

Old Style
Old Style typefaces are heavily influenced by early Italian lettering design.

Modern Serif fonts often exhibit a bracketed serif and a substantial difference in weight within the strokes. Modern fonts are characterized by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines.

Transitional Serif fonts lie somewhere between Old Style and Modern style typefaces. Transitional fonts exhibit a marked increase in the variation of stroke weight and a more horizontal serif compared to Old Style.

Slab Serif
Slab serif designs have particularly large serifs, and date to the early nineteenth century.

Ornamental fonts are made up of different glyphs. There are no letters or numbers associated with the font. There is a debate if fonts like Wingdings or Dingbat are Ornamental fonts or should be called symbol fonts.

Script and Brush
Script fonts look more like cursive handwriting or calligraphy than serif and sans serif fonts.

Blackletter or Old English
These are typically associated with mediaeval text. They are very formal and can be difficult to read.


The elements that make up a font
The diagram below illustrates the different aspects of a font. We will go through them in detail.

font diagram



The letters are divided up into four main areas: x-Height, Cap Height, Ascender, or Descender. The letters sit on the Baseline, and this is the line from which all of the other aspects of the font are measured.

Ascender – The portion of a letter that extends above the Cap Height of a font. That is, the part of a lower-case letter that is taller than the font’s x-height. In some fonts letters, such as a cap “A” will reach to the Ascender Line as well.

Baseline – The line upon which most letters “sit” and below which descenders extend. This is also the point from which leading is measured.

Cap Height – The height of the capital letters above the baseline for a particular typeface. Specifically, it is the height of capital letters that are flat on the top—such as H or I—as opposed to round letters such as O, or pointed letters like A, both of which may display overshoot (extending above the Cap Height).

Descender Line – Sits below the Baseline and is the line that descenders reach down to.

X-Height or X-Line – The distance between the baseline and the X-Line (mean line) of lower-case letters in a typeface. Generally, this is the height of the letter “x” in a font (hence the term), in most fonts the v, w, and z are also the same height as the x. (Curved letters such as a, c, e, m, n, o, r, s, and u tend to exceed the x-height slightly, due to overshoot.) One of the most important dimensions of a font, x-height is used to define how high lower-case letters are compared to upper-case letters.

Arm – Is a short horizontal or oblique stroke that is free at one or both ends. (Examples: E, F, K, L, T)

Ascender – The part of certain lowercase letters that extend above the x-height line. (Examples: b, d, f, h, k, l)

Ball Terminal – The round shape occurring at the end of a stroke. (Example: a, c, f, r)

Beak / Spur (Serif) – Spurs are the finish mark at the top or bottom of the S or C, after the spine and before the arm. Beaks are similar to Spurs, but are found on letters like: L, T, and E.

Bowl – Is the round or elliptical element of uppercase letters such as C, G, O and lowercase letters like b, c, e, o, p. The bowl is also referred to as the “eye”.

Crossbar – Is the horizontal or diagonal stroke of a letterform that usually connects two stems. (Example: A and H)

Descender – The part of lowercase letters that extend below the baseline. (Example: g, j, y)

Ear – The stroke attached to the bowl of the lowercase g. Some typographers use the same term for the top of the stem of the lowercase r, and any other similar stroke.

Finial – The bottom right finish on the c and e at the end of the loop.

Serif – A small stroke projecting from the main strokes of a character. Serifs can have many different shapes: bracketed (e.g. Times Roman), slab (e.g. Stymie), and hairline serifs (e.g. Bodoni) are some examples.

Stem – The main vertical stoke of letters such as H, L, T, P, etc. The stem is generally more or less straight and is not part of a bowl. Letters can contain more than one stem, such as an H.


Point sizes
A Point is a unit of measure from the days of moveable type. The size of a point has varied throughout history, but in the digital age it was settled that a point is 1/72 of an inch (0.353mm). We refer to fonts in point sizes to show the size of the font on the page. That being stated, there is no uniform measure for fonts. The point size in no way measures any part of the actual letter.

Originally back in the days of moveable type, a font size (10 point) was the measurement of the lead block the individual letter was on for that size of font. But it had no correlation to the size of the letter on the block. As we moved into the digital era, point sizes for fonts were switched for the size of the block over to an “EM” which is virtual and somewhat arbitrary.

It is also true that between different Typefaces the height of letters can vary for the same point size. Times Roman 10pt can be a different height than Helvetica 10pt.


Typographic Design

Leading refers to the distance between the baselines of successive lines of type. The term originated in the days of moveable type, when thin strips of lead were inserted into the forms to increase the vertical distance between lines of type. It is also referred to as “line spacing” or “interline spacing”. Leading is measured in Points.

Kerning is the space inbetween each letter of a word. Typefaces all have default spacing, but sometimes it is necessary to adjust that spacing depending on your application. When done correctly, the reader should not be aware a change was made.

Tracking is the overall spacing of a group of letters or word. Generally, it is best to do tracking before you apply kerning.

In typography, a ligature is where two or more letters are joined as a single glyph. An example is the character “æ” as used in English, in which the letters a and e are joined. The common ampersand (&) developed from a ligature in which the handwritten Latin letters e and t (spelling et, from the Latin for “and”) were combined.

The origin of ligatures comes from the invention of writing with a stylus. Businessmen and scribes needed a way to speed up the process of written communication and found that conjoining letters and abbreviating words was more convenient.

When printing with movable type was invented around 1450, typefaces included many ligatures and additional letters, as they were based on handwriting. Ligatures made printing with movable type easier because one block would replace frequent combinations of letters and also allowed more complex and interesting character designs which would otherwise collide with one another.

Ligatures began to fall out of use due to their complexity in the 20th century. Sans serif typefaces, increasingly used for body text, generally avoid ligatures, though notable exceptions include Gill Sans and Futura.

The trend was further strengthened by the desktop publishing revolution. Early computer software in particular had no way to allow for ligature substitution (the automatic use of ligatures where appropriate), while most new digital typefaces did not include ligatures.

Ligatures have grown in popularity over the last 20 years due to an increasing interest in creating typesetting systems that evoke arcane designs and classical scripts. Many new fonts feature extensive ligature sets; these include FF Scala, Seria and others by Martin Majoor and Hoefler Text by Jonathan Hoefler. Mrs Eaves by Zuzana Licko contains a particularly large set to allow designers to create dramatic display text with a feel of antiquity. This trend is caused in part by the increased support for other languages and alphabets in modern computing, many of which use ligatures somewhat extensively. This has caused the development of new digital typesetting techniques such as OpenType, and the incorporation of ligature support into the text display systems.

Today, modern font programming divides ligatures into three groups, which can be activated separately: standard, contextual and historical. Standard ligatures are needed to allow the font to display without errors such as character collision. Designers sometimes find contextual and historic ligatures desirable for creating effects or to evoke an old-fashioned print look.


Diacritical Marks
A diacritic – also diacritical mark, diacritical point, or diacritical sign – is a glyph added to a letter, or basic glyph.

Some diacritical marks, such as the acute ( ´ ) and grave ( ` ), are often called accents. Diacritical marks may appear above or below a letter, or in some other position such as within the letter or between two letters.


I hope this explains some of the aspects of type. There is much more about type and typefaces out on the internet in much greater detail, but hopefully this answers your general questions. If you want a more in-depth look, please follow the links in the Bibliography.




History of Typography: Humanist

History of Typography: Old Style

History of Typography: Transitional

History of Typography: A Brief History of Type

History of Typography: A Brief History of Type – Part 5

LinoType History

Point (Typography)


Phinney on Fonts

Leading, Kerning & Tracking

Typographic ligature


About Printing Partners

Commercial & digital printing, graphic design, direct mail, mailing services, promotional products all located under one name, Printing Partners - Indianapolis, Indiana. Printing Partners is FSC Certified and is a G7 Master Printer.
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