Know your typography terms!

Typography is a designer’s secret weapon. It may not be as pronounced as a graphic component, but master the art of choosing the right type – something fresh and gripping – and you’ll have a distinct edge over your less enlightened peers.

Among the designers who do know how to use type, there are two subgroups: those who can talk about typography, and those who cannot (a staggering number of people misuse the word “font” without even knowing it!). Knowing your typography terms and being able to better articulate design concepts from an analytical perspective is a major skill. Not only is this a great way to convince clients of your design’s value but peer-to-peer discussion generates new concepts and pushes the art form forward.

This article is the first part in a series exploring one of the oldest ongoing design projects in all of human history: the alphabet.

Now, on to step 1 towards being on the cutting edge: knowing your terms!

Basic definitions

Character – any sign or symbol that carries meaning in a written language.

Glyph – the specific shape or design of a character.

Typeface – a set of glyphs designed according to common principles; it is the overall appearance of a complete set of characters.

(Left to right) Baskerville, Didot and Futura are three typefaces

Font – traditionally, font is defined as a set of characters of a certain typeface, that are of the same family (weight, slope and width usually determine this. For example, bold and italic are both font families) and of the same size (i.e. 12 point).

However, since the introduction of digital technologies, vector graphics has made it possible to scale characters freely, so it is no longer necessary to characterize fonts according to size. As a result, the modern usage of “font” usually refers to typeface and font family only (i.e. Minion Pro Italic).


Proportion – in proportional typefaces, such as Times Roman, glyphs are of varying widths.

Times Roman – a proportional font

In monospaced (a.k.a. non-proportional, fixed-width) typefaces, like Courier, every glyph is the exact same width.

People generally find proportional typefaces easier to read, but monospaced typefaces align into columns nicer and are still the preferred style for manuscript submissions (this is traditionally because they made it easier for editors to determine word count, before the days of word processing software).

Kerning vs. tracking – when composing words in proportional typeface, often not all letters will have an equal amount of space between them, because certain letter pairs fit together in a way that looks nicer with overlap. For example, in the letter pair VA, the rightmost point of the V is further right than the leftmost point of the A. In contrast, in the letter pair ST, the rightmost point of the S is still further left than the leftmost point in the T.

This spacing adjustment depending on letter pairs and how they fit is known as kerning. Meanwhile, tracking refers to the spacing between letters of a group (a word, s e n t e n c e , l i n e , e t c . ) and does not depend on what shape the letters are or how they might “fit.”

Metrics – Imagine that the letters of a typeface sit on a straight horizontal line — the base line. Certain glyphs like g, j, p, and y have parts that dip below the base line. These parts are called descenders. The lowest point that descenders of a given typeface reach is that typeface’s descender height.

Above the baseline, imagine another horizontal line resting above the average lower case letter — for example, the line that would rest evenly above the word “egg” or “moss.” This is the midline, or x-height. Some glyphs like b, d, f, h, i, k, l and t have parts that rise above the midline. These parts are called ascenders and the highest point a given typeface’s ascenders reach is its ascender height.

Finally, the horizontal line that sits above a typeface’s CAPITAL letters is its cap height. Cap height and ascender height are often the same, but not always, as with Minion.

Serifs in roman lettering systems, tales, knobs and other little forms added to the end of strokes for purely ornamental value are known as serifs. Serif fonts also tend to have strokes of varying widths.

Typefaces that lack serifs are known as sans serifs (without serifs) or grotesks (so named because, when first introduced in Germany, people found this style grotesquely ugly). Serifs are now most common in dense passages or bodies of text because the strokes help with readability. Sans serifs are commonly used for larger headlines, public signs and on the web.

The list of typography-related terms is huge but this should cover the basics.

Stay tuned for part 2: the evolution of typographic technology.

Any extra typography terms you’d like to share? Teach us in the comments!

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