You Know You’re Just My Typeface (Or Is It Font?)

But wait, aren’t typeface and font the same thing? Not always! A typeface (also called a font family) used to denote a particular style of lettering that shared common design features, such as the Arial or Garamond families. A font indicated a specific size or style of the typeface, such as 14-point EB Garamond Bold. Due to the rise of the digital age and the ease with which users can now switch from one font size and style to another, the terms “typeface” and “font” have more or less become interchangeable.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg introduced European society to large-scale printing and publishing through his development of what we now call the Gutenberg printing press. His crowning achievement, however, was the creation of a movable lead type, which allowed printers to publish multiple works at a drastically reduced cost. As the printing press and the publishing industry as a whole gained momentum, a new set of vocabulary also followed and entered public consciousness.

A replica of a Gutenberg printing press.

A few typographical terms still in use today have historical origins. As technology and the practice of digital font creation have advanced, some terms have been replaced by their digital counterparts in conversations surrounding graphic design.

  • Uppercase and Lowercase:
    As shown in the image above, typesetters used to use two typecases when composing: an “upper” case that held the uppercase letters and a “lower” case that held the lowercase letters.
  • Em and En Dashes:
    In metal type, the em dash equaled the width of an uppercase M for each font size—this ensured consistency! Similarly, a lowercase n represented the length of the en dash.
  • Kerning:
    Kerning is the horizontal spacing between two consecutive characters, and it ensures that text reads fluidly and that readability isn’t compromised by letters being too spaced out or too close together. In lead type, typesetters manually adjusted kerning between troublesome letters through the placement or removal of thin strips of copper or brass; digital graphic designers can adjust spacing with the click of a button.
  • Leading and Line Spacing:
    Thick or thin bars of lead affected the vertical spacing between lines of text and produced a different effect for a block of text depending on the thickness; these pieces were called “leading” and varied in length based on the length of the typeset line of text. Without the physical pieces, digital typographers introduced the term “line spacing” to indicate the same concept as leading.
  • Italic and Oblique Fonts:
    Italic fonts showcase a unique design that differs from (but is still recognizable as part of) a font family, often including cursive letterforms and curved ascenders or descenders not seen in the roman font. Oblique fonts are simply a slanted version of the roman font; these fonts are what most people refer to as “italics” in the digital age.
  • Several alternate forms of the ampersand.

  • Ampersand (&):
    A character with Latin origins, this symbol initially closely resembled the letters et—the Latin word for “and”—and was one of the first ligatures (a single piece of metal type containing two characters). Messy handwriting has contributed to the vast array of stylistically unique ampersands available today. The word “ampersand” itself is a slurring of the Latin phrase “and per say and,” meaning “and by itself meaning and.”

Graphic designers can—and should—continue to draw inspiration from their lead-wielding predecessors. As graphic design and typography continue to evolve, the English language will continue to adapt to these changes. History can also provide current designers the context for modern design variations and decisions, such as choice of leading or type of ampersand.