/ log / 22nd Aug, 2008 /

Typeface != Font

Typeface and font.

A typeface is not a font. A font is not a typeface. It’s been said before, but confusion still resigns supreme; even the Online Etymology Dictionary and the holders of the rights to Georgia get it wrong. So, at the risk of stating the obvious, but in the hope that someone might find this useful, I’m going to attempt a little disambiguation.

Define: Typeface

A typeface is designed by a type designer. I think of a typeface as the design of a type family. Like every family, type families have names. An example of a type family name is Georgia. Georgia is a type family — a typeface — not a font.

Typeface = a type family’s design

In many non-European cultures like the Chinese, the family name comes before the personal name. For example, my Chinese name is Tan Tek Whah. “Tan” is my family name. “Tek” is my generation name. “Whah” is my first name. The last two are identify me personally. The same is true for fonts. They have a family name (typeface) and personal names (style, variant, size) that identify them uniquely within that family.

Define: Font

To understand why a font is not a typeface, it’s useful to know where the term came from. Here’s a (very abridged) bit of history drawn from various sources:

Font (or previously, fount) is derived from a Middle French word, fonte, meaning something that has been melted. In type founding, metal was melted then poured into a hand mould with a matrix, to cast each individual piece of movable type, known as a sort. Font, fount and fonte have a common ancestor in the Latin word, fons, meaning spring or source (of water). They are all related to the word, fountain. So, now you might be able to see why “font” is a word that describes a variant of a typeface, and a container for casting water on Christian babies’ heads.

Everytime a specific variant of a typeface was cast at a specific weight, a font was created. Therefore, a font is a particular casting of a typeface belonging to that type family. In electronic publishing nothing is cast, but fonts are still digitised from the design created by a type designer.

Font = one member of a type family

In my mind I think of a font as a variant of a typeface.

Spot the heading error in the Georgia page by Ascender Corp, licensees of the Georgia typeface.

Using the Georgia typeface example, the “Georgia Regular”, “Georgia Italic”, “Georgia Bold”, and “Georgia Bold Italic” in my library are all fonts of the Georgia typeface.

Wait though, we’re not done! A font was more granular than just the variant of a typeface: Each size of those variants would, historically, have being cast individually. Therefore, a font is actually any variant in a typeface’s size and style. For example: “9pt Georgia Bold Italic” is a font as is “12pt Georgia Bold Italic”, and “9pt Georgia regular”.

Electronically evolved terms

These days, rather than casting specific sizes, we hit a button and the typeface variant changes size. Size has ceased to be so important because changing it has become so easy, and we don’t have to buy typefaces at different sizes. So these days, even people who understand clearly what the word “font” means have been known to use it to just describe a variant like Georgia Italic, or Helvetica Bold Condensed Oblique without reference to a particular size. That seems like a fairly logical evolution of the term to me.

Why is this stuff important?

Well, compared to world peace, it’s not. However, nomenclature is important because being understood is important. Struggling with my own ironic typos and awful spelling makes me doubly aware of this. There’s another reason too. I’ve been delving into the font module of CSS for a series of articles and reminded myself how confused the terminology was. The absence of the term, “typeface“ and certain uses of “font”, seemed strange to me; font-variant in particular makes no sense.

Hopefully this explanation makes a little more sense, or at the very least, gave you an insight into Chinese naming conventions.

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48 Comments

  1. 1. By Min Tran on 22nd Aug ’08 at 12:30pm

    Thanks for (another) great article, Jon! Long time ago I thought typeface = font. The article is very well-explained.

  2. 2. By Rustin Jessen on 22nd Aug ’08 at 13:21pm

    As always, a wonderfully thought-out and elegantly explained post. Can’t thank you enough for this.

    You really elevate this web craft to an art.

  3. 3. By Adam Polselli on 22nd Aug ’08 at 16:07pm

    Consider me schooled! Thanks for the lesson, Jon. Well written and easy to follow, as usual. Never again will I be able to type "font-variant" without cringing!

  4. 4. By Create Sean on 22nd Aug ’08 at 16:39pm

    Thank you – I actually had no idea that they were different (I’m just moving into design) and am in the process of learning more about typography and color theory.

    great article and links.

  5. 5. By A. Mignolo on 22nd Aug ’08 at 22:45pm

    Thanks for all of your clear, concise, and lovely writing about typography. You make the topic accessible and intriguing, and I always look forward to reading more. Truly inspiring.

  6. 6. By James on 22nd Aug ’08 at 23:54pm

    I love your website, it is so simple! And thank you for this post, it was interesting! :)

  7. 7. By captain on 23rd Aug ’08 at 06:01am

    I have read elsewhere that typeface != type family. In the typography workbook by Thimothy Samara I can read that the complete character set of an alphabet is called a Typeface, and that a group of Typefaces, that are drawn the same way, but are different from each other in overall thickness, is called a Type Family.

  8. 8. By captain on 23rd Aug ’08 at 07:07am

    Also now that I think about it again (am I a type nerd?) a Fonte is only the physical manifestation of a Typeface, when a printer did order a Font he had the casting of a Typeface in a given size. So digitally a font is a file where you have the Typeface’s character set. I believe that "Georgia Regular”, “Georgia Italic”, “Georgia Bold” are all Typefaces of the Georgia Family… hmm ?

  9. 9. By SirPavlova on 23rd Aug ’08 at 09:23am

    I always thought the distinction was that a typeface is the shape & design of the glyphs, while a font is the tool by which we render that design onto paper or screen. So, Georgia would be a typeface family, Georgia Italic would be a typeface, & georgiai.ttf would be a font. Had Georgia been around in the days of metal type, the set of metal bits used in the press would be a font; as captain also suggests, the usable manifestation of the typeface.

  10. Jon 陳’s profile 10. By Jon 陳 on 23rd Aug ’08 at 12:49pm

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Thanks to captain and SirPalova for interesting comments and questions. In reply I’ve tried to refine the typeface definition a touch in the article, and I’m trying to resist the urge to geek out to the point of illegibility, but would also add this: In my humble opinion, typefaces are designed by type designers. Variants or styles of that design may make up a type family. A foundry would of produced fonts (founts) for printers to use which would have beeen of a specific style and size, and contain a specific assortment (with different numbers of characters depending on the frequency of use). You might equate that to the modern act of digitising fonts from the design of a typeface in a particular format for use in digital typesetting. The defining characteristics of a font was that of variant (style) and size. In electronic publishing, size seems no longer relevant to the term.

    The comments of the AIGA article I mentioned take this discussion to a whole new level, for anyone interested.

  11. 11. By captain on 24th Aug ’08 at 02:02am

    Well I now understand your point of view, it makes sense, I think that’s an acceptable usage, when we talk about a Typeface we commonly reffer to the design.

    But on the linotype site I just checked, you can see 32 Typefaces in the Cronos Family for instance:

    http://www.linotype.com/44572/cronos-family.html

    That corroborate what SirPavlova and I said. I tried to do some historical research on google books, but no luck…

  12. Jon 陳’s profile 12. By Jon 陳 on 24th Aug ’08 at 03:36am

    I guess what this serves to show is just how confused the terms can get as technology develops. As an example, this is a quote from Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typorgaphic Style:

    “Font: A set of sorts of glyphs. In the world of metal type, this means a given alphabet, with all its accessory characters, in a given size. In relation to phototype, it usually means the assortment of standard patterns forming the glyph palette, without regard to size, or the actual filmstip or wheel on which these patterns are stored. In the world of digital type, the font is the glyph palette itself or the digital information encoding it.”

    Note the “or” in the last sentence. Adam Twardock, commenting on an earlier article seems to define a font as a file format of a typeface. I think that someone as knowledgable as he would assume the glyph palettes to be the same for the purposes of that comment. However, couldn’t same typeface in different formats like .otf and .ttf have different glyph palettes?

    To re-use your Linotype example, which seems to confuse rather than corroborate or clarify, there are currently 27 Bodoni “font families”, with 222 “typefaces”, but then what is “Bodoni”? Is it a typeface; a design; a style? Linotype also has sections for new font releases, and browsing fonts by category. They also have IdentiFont. Does that mean it can identify the file format of a font? So, in one instance Linotype refers to typefaces, and in another, fonts. Another example might be Meta and Meta Serif. Are they distinct typeface designs within a super family? Interesting and/or confusing isn’t it? :) The point of the article was to try and disambiguate a little, I still hope it does that.

  13. 13. By Leon P on 24th Aug ’08 at 04:40am

    As with any terminology, it’s important to be precise so as to avoid confusion. Knowing the correct terminology also shows that you know what you’re talking about (of course, this can exclude people as well).

  14. Jon 陳’s profile 14. By Jon 陳 on 24th Aug ’08 at 05:50am

    I agree Leon, with both of your views! I’m becoming very aware of the possibility of excluding people in this instance.

  15. 15. By Jason Santa Maria on 24th Aug ’08 at 14:39pm

    Great article, Jon. I see where you’re coming from, and I am just as big of curmudgeon for people calling things by the appropriate name, but I think this argument has run its course.

    Even if we know what a font is, the term itself has evolved. It now refers to "software", not metal type, a change made to not only evolve but to give type designers some small nugget of protection over their work through copyright. Some foundries have moved on as well, evidenced by Linotype FontExplorer X.

    Because metal type is really in the minority now, the important thing is really helping people to discuss design and what the hell we’re talking about. If people casually refer to typefaces as "fonts", I’m OK with that, because they are trying to meet me halfway. I will continue to call a typeface a typeface, because I am still a curmudgeon, but terms evolve—and type is one of the only arts so heavily connected with industry, it, its terminology, tools, and practice, have never stopped evolving.

  16. Jon 陳’s profile 16. By Jon 陳 on 25th Aug ’08 at 08:19am

    Hi Jason. Thanks for the comment! I think we share the same views. I’m liberal about how people use the terms, too; I don’t think it matters a whole lot in the grand scheme, but I appreciated learning the difference. It was never my intention to start (or even restart) any argument. I hope it doesn’t come across that way.

    The post grew out of a harder look at the font and web font modules of CSS which leave perhaps too much in the hands of the agent around font selection which can lead to less-than-ideal rendering. I think others have observed this, too. Long story short, I was thinking about terms like typeface, type family, variant and font and wondering how they fitted with the CSS rules. It seemed that starting with a post about the main terms might be useful, and especially noting how they’ve evolved. Glad you liked it!

  17. 17. By Gareth on 26th Aug ’08 at 01:12am

    Really good article! I absolutely had no idea font and typeface were different! Thanks for a great read.

  18. 18. By Dan on 27th Aug ’08 at 07:34am

    Fantastic!

    I can see myself becoming an avid typography nerd so I found this article super-interesting!

    Keep it up :)

  19. 19. By Kevin on 29th Aug ’08 at 00:58am

    Thanks for that Jon. It is very easy to misunderstand the difference – Fonts and Typefaces arent my strong point so it’s nice to understand them a little more.

    Regards =)

  20. 20. By barry on 1st Sep ’08 at 00:18am

    The difference between typeface and font has been an unanswered question for me for a while now.

    Thanks for that.

  21. 21. By Tim on 1st Sep ’08 at 09:12am

    Great post, Jon, thanks – new on me. Funny you should refer to your own typos; there’s one in the first par is there not?

    :-)

    Tim

  22. Jon 陳’s profile 22. By Jon 陳 on 1st Sep ’08 at 09:52am

    Good catch, thanks Tim! See, I definitely need an editor. :)

  23. 23. By Fredrik on 2nd Sep ’08 at 15:33pm

    I would second captain’s view here that the term Font refers to the actual file containing the typeface, i.e. Georgia.ttf.

    As Jason points out, Linotype FontExplorer refers to "Fonts" which makes sense as there may reside more than one font of the same(-name) typeface in a user’s library. For instance a truetype and an opentype Georgia Regular, or versions of Georgia Regular from two different type foundries. These are then fonts of the Georgia Regular typeface which forms part of the Georgia type family.

    On Typophile a typeface is defined as so:

    Typeface is a collection of all typographic characters that share the same design characteristics such as weight, width, inclination, optical size, stroke modulation or treatment of serifs. Helvetica Bold is one typeface, Times Roman is another typeface, Times Bold is yet another typeface.

  24. 24. By Stephen Coles on 4th Sep ’08 at 01:07am

    I like Mark Simonson’s definition which is quoted at Typographica:

    “The physical embodiment of a collection of letters (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) is a font. When referring to the design of the collection (the way it looks) you call it a typeface.”

    Think of a typeface as a song and a font as an MP3. We wouldn’t say, "Paul Simon is a great MP3 writer." He’s a song writer. Just as type designers design type, not fonts. Font production is an entirely separate process.

  25. 25. By Edde on 5th Sep ’08 at 16:47pm

    All this talking about typefaces and fonts made me look at your style sheet. I was a bit surprised to see you use only one typeface. So, the whole magic of creating a very readable site, with enough differences in appearance to highlight or emphasize, is done using different fonts of one typeface. Amazing.

    I suspect one of the secrets of this site looking so serene, is sticking to one typeface? Or maybe it’s the use of a serif typeface? Something we see only on a few sites – most sites go for Arial of Verdana.

    Funny to see how well designed sites often do use serif typefaces. For example: A List Apart – although they don’t stick to the "one typeface" rule. They do use serif typefaces quite a bit.

    Thanks for explaining and the inspiration to make beautiful texts.

  26. 26. By Chris Garrett on 20th Sep ’08 at 11:07am

    $typeface->font();

  27. 27. By Lia Heydova on 7th Nov ’08 at 00:54am

    I googled this page out because I was struggling with terminology concerning a translation I have worked on. Thank you very much for your clear explanation.

  28. 28. By Bob Newsome on 16th Nov ’08 at 20:37pm

    Great stuff! This is the very same explanation I received 20 years ago as I attended a quickie design course. Since then I have heard a multitude of variants on this theme, all falling short of correct. It seems the most prevalent being a typeface is the appearance of a character and a font is the entire collection of the characters. Close but no cigar in my book. It’s sad that this misinformation is forwarded by Web sites attempting to teach design by purported "professionals".

  29. 29. By rachana on 23rd Dec ’08 at 04:16am

    i too like learning things and keeping the right knowlege.thanx!! and

    above all, i loved your last sentence…"at the very least, gave you an insight into Chinese naming conventions."

  30. 30. By Bruce Colthart on 3rd Jan ’09 at 07:05am

    I’ve read every word of this enlightening post and its comments, if for no other reason than to over-react in an articulate, educated manner when my marginal corporate sub-client, now elevated to a position of power in the marketing department, suggest that I "try some different fonts." Now I can snap back with some authority and and arrogance as i look down my nose. Thanks for helping with my client relations!

  31. 31. By interrobang on 15th Feb ’09 at 15:54pm

    writing as someone who uses both traditional metal type as well as digital, I’d like to put this to bed.

    A “font" is a variable quantity of physical type. American Typefounders sold “3 part" fonts that would comprise a “complete" font. Those three parts were a cap font, a lower case font, and a figure font. When I purchase physical type, I will typically order 2 cap fonts, 3 lower case fonts, and 2 figure fonts.

    Depending on the point size of the face you are buying, and that face can be Roman, or Italic, the font will be comprised of variable amounts of each character based on a study of the frequency of occurrence of any given character in relation to any other. ATF had a chart that listed the quantities of each character for any given font beginning typically with a “3A" font for faces over 24pt or so.

    So, long story short, a font is term tied to physical metal type denoting a quantity of any give type face, of a variable quantity based on point size.

    Font really has no place in the terminology of digital type. You are purchasing a “type face” whose design will be roman, or italic, script or display. Within those 4 broad categories are a myriad of subsets.

  32. 32. By Carina Marano on 5th Mar ’09 at 10:46am

    I have to agree that “typeface" refers to the design. And in the case of “Georgia" from two different foundries, if they had two different designers, I would consider them two different typefaces. I also agree that “font" has to do with the typeface’s specific style and weight. In addition, I believe a font can refer the the file itself (.otf, .ttf) as well, because usually that file contains a single style, weight.

  33. 33. By Jens on 9th Mar ’09 at 02:27am

    What a really good article! I absolutely enjoyed the reading and had no idea about the difference between font and typeface.

  34. 34. By Lee on 24th Mar ’09 at 10:08am

    Thanks for outlining the differences of these 2. A far too common missconception

  35. 35. By Alex Newell on 26th Mar ’09 at 09:55am

    Thanks Jon. I have the pleasure of a friendship with an old fashioned printer so we have occasional discussions around all this.

    I must look up your articles on CSS - I’ve promised myself that I have to learn it at last.

    All The Best

  36. 36. By Andreas on 4th May ’09 at 08:43am

    The example with the chinese family-name is a good one, so if someone knows the family (or face type), he has an basically information about which people/ Kind of font the topic is. Only to know the First Name / or the Font is another kind of information.

  37. 37. By Shane on 7th Jun ’10 at 03:43am

    Great post Jon, This has really cleared things up for me.

    So helpful, thanks.

  38. 38. By bdimter on 11th Aug ’10 at 04:19am

    Thank you for that interesting article. I didn´t even think that there is a real difference between font and typeface, before . But your example with the chinese family-name is great and really easy to understand and to keep in mind.

  39. 39. By Martin on 31st Mar ’11 at 22:11pm

    I also agree that “font" has to do with the typeface’s specific style and weight. In addition…

  40. 40. By Sam on 3rd May ’11 at 14:09pm

    Some very prominent designers quite often get this wrong, and it’s surprising how few people actually understand the difference.

  41. 41. By Martin on 16th May ’11 at 08:17am

    I didn’t even think that there is a real difference between font and typeface!

  42. 42. By Reynolds on 27th Jun ’11 at 12:33pm

    That’s really interesting, I’ve used font and typeface interchangeably not realising the difference, Im sure to point it out to people now, also to wind them up!

  43. 43. By Christina Ratcliffe on 27th Aug ’11 at 00:07am

    FONT MEMORIES: I think Roman Serif and Sans Serif must be the grandparents of the typeface family. Their children are Roman, Roman Italic (an early script style preferred to the German Black Letter or Old English), Roman Bold and Roman Numbers, Sans Serif, Sans Serif Italic (or slanted), Sans Serif Bold and Sans Serif Numbers, and Script.

    This is my biblical begattery: The grandchildren were Roman Upper Case, Roman Lower Case, Roman Italic Upper Case, Roman Italic Lower Case, Roman Bold Upper Case, Roman Bold Lower Case, Sans Serif Upper Case, Sans Serif Lower Case, Sans Serif Italic Upper Case, Sans Serif Italic Lower Case, Sans Serif Bold Upper Case, Sans Serif Bold Lower Case, Roman Numbers Bold, Roman Numbers Italic, Sans Serif Numbers Bold, Sans Serif Numbers Italic. There were even some Ultra Bolds.

    As children grow, they need larger clothes. Typefaces need differently sized fonts. Originally news typeface fonts (sizes) started at 4.75, 5pt, 6pt 'pearl' and 'agate' fonts for sports results) to 12pt, then 14pt and occasionally 18pt, and display sizes from 18pt rising by 6pts to 72pt (an inch high) and sometimes 84pt and 96pt, or as large as a printer could afford. Type 'slugs’ for each of these sizes for the one 'child' or typeface would be kept in a series of boxes, cases or drawers called a font. The capital letters would be kept in its top or upper case, lower case in the lower case, and there would be adjoining fonts for the variations of black, bold, ultra bold, italic, numbers, condensed (thinner letters) and extended (wider letters).

    You can see how the word 'font', which as Jon has said, was originally the name for the mould which would be filled with metal to form a type glyph to be inked and pressed onto the paper, became the name of the furniture that held the fonts, and how the word font later became almost interchangeable with the word 'typeface'.

    “Which font?”

    “Use 12pt Century Italic Bold.”

    The compositor or 'comp' would go to the Century typeface font, with its full set of point sizes and variants, and find the 12pt bold to set a subheading.

    The descendants of the typeface families have three distinctly different facial features: those with Roman Serif genes have serifs, e.g. Courier and Bodoni faces, those with Sans Serif genes, e.g. Helvetica, Arial faces, have no serifs, and those with Script genes, e.g. Copperplate and Bradley Hand, have neither.

    In weight (point size) and width (measured in picas; 1 pica = a 12pt em), each typeface has its own personality, appropriate to the message it has to convey. 'Setting out', with a working knowledge of the visual effect of particular typefaces, and the limitations of the typesetting machines and the compositors’ overstretched patience used to be the subeditor’s art and craft.

    Later, photolithography was able to change the shape, slant and size of a type character, sentence or block of text by the twist of a camera lens. While font size could be arbitrary, traditional type sizes prevailed, to suit the usual measurements of paper and columns. Now new typefaces are being born every week, but the three basic typeface 'genes’ of serif, sans serif and script are passed down the typeface generations, together with their various font features.

  44. 44. By K on 30th Sep ’11 at 21:02pm

    This is an in-depth as well as gorgeous explanation!

  45. 45. By C.I. on 30th Oct ’11 at 10:42am

    I will defenately be using the Georgia typeface example in my lessons, as a teacher in graphic software. Your article explenation is perfectly clear. I also really like Christina Ratcliffe’s font memories… Thank you both!

  46. 46. By Sam on 6th Nov ’11 at 09:48am

    Great post Jon, I stumbled across it by chance on Google. I certainly will not confuse Fonts and Typefaces again!

  47. 47. By Birger on 21st Feb ’12 at 01:10am

    Thanks for that informatinal posting. Before reading I didn´t have the slightest idea what the difference between font and typeface is. I even thought there are just two names for one thing. But your example withe the family-name made it all claer to me.

  48. 48. By Richard Rutter on 30th Sep ’12 at 06:57am

    Sir, I stand corrected. I was previously using them interchangeably!

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