Technical terms explained: Fonts, Typefaces, and other wordy matters

Posted on December 4th, 2013 | Tags: Technical, Technology, Tips and Tricks

Fonts, font families, typefaces, weights, serif, sans serif, points, em & en sizing, headline and body faces, glyphs, dingbats. What do those strange terms that have to do with putting words on to a printed page. What do they all mean? Well stand back as I’ve you the quickest of quick rundown of the wonderful world of fonts.

We start with Fonts . Fonts, or more accurately a font family, is what most people think of with they chose how to style their text from the font options in Word etc. The reason why I point out the idea of family is that when you chose to make a word bold or italic you are using different fonts that belong to the same family of type. A Typeface is the old term from the typesetting days of printing when a typeface described not only the font but its size, weight and style; i.e Helvetica heavy 12 point italic.

Fonts start of in two basic families, Serif and Sans Serif . Serif is latin for ‘tail’ and Sans Serif means ‘no tail.’ When you look at fonts, if the lettering has little pointy bits at the ends of the lines, as in Times/Times New Roman , then it’s a serif font. Fonts like Arial/Swiss, where the lines end neatly are sans serif. The rule is not a hard and fast one, so a sans serif fonts can have tails on individual letters to make them more identifiable, lower case l, upper case I and 1 being examples

The size of the font is its Point size. A point is the traditional unit of measure for printing being 1/72 of an inch or 0.35mm. This point size defines the height and width of a ‘em square’ that the average letter fits in to, but individual letters can be larger than, i.e. the letter o is the average, but letters like q, l, t, etc can be larger. (Actually until the 1990’s when desktop publishing became commonplace the point could be could be anywhere between 0.18-0.4mm in size. Handy design tip, if you want to know what size a printed font is, each millimetre in the em square or ‘o’ height is 2.8 in points)

A font comes in different Weights which describes how wide the letters are and how thick the lines that make up the letters. (It’s another term from the typesetting era when thicker larger letters were on bigger bits of metal so weight more.) There are many variations of weight: thin, light, condensed, narrow, wide, thick, heavy, outline, etc. In fact the more useful or popular the font is for everyday work the more variations there are for it, generally speaking. Monospace is a special type of weight, where all the characters are the same size, making it typewriter like in alignment. Monospace fonts aren’t used that often but there are occasions where it can make details clearer.

Headline and Body fonts are a term I use to describe the two basic ‘design goals’ of all fonts. Headline fonts are generally fancy typefaces that are used a lot for graphical design and are very artistic. Body fonts are used for areas of text where the type is small or there’s a lot of it. I’ve noticed that people get enamored with headline fonts and try to use it for everything. The problem is, that those fonts are designed for use in very limited conditions, so they won’t have all the characters for different languages, common punctuations, or even lower case letters (Not having  Māori macro vowels are giveaway that its a headline font.) If you set headline fonts to point sizes smaller than 18, they start looking muddy or messy, and forget about using them at 10 point or smaller. Body fonts, while ‘boring’, are designed to be useable at even 4 point and will have all
the different characters you might need; the better ones will have lots of different weights too, allowing you to get fancy without losing readability

Following on from weights we need to talk about emphasis using Italics , Bold , Small Caps . Italics, or oblique type, is used to give a word/s contrast while it’s being read, as if someone is changing tone while speaking but not to make it jarring. Bold, sometimes called strong, is much visually heavier and draws the eyes to it right away (as in this article) and is used to make emphasis.  I would recommend using bold sparingly or it can read like someone is shouting out words when speaking. Small Caps is simply text where the lower case letters are replaced by small version of the capital letters and like bold it’s best use where you need to draw the eye or make clear separations between text sections.

Also of note is the use of Underlining , Overlining , Strikethrough .Underlining is a hangover from the typewriter days where you couldn’t change fonts for bold or italic type, so you put ‘_’ ( underscore ) under each character to mark emphasis. It still has use in some situations, but use italics or bold instead as most people associate it with web page links and on a printed page it can look unprofessional. Overlining comes from the Arabic tradition to show emphasis and unless you are using  Arabic it’s not needed. Strikethrough is put through using a ‘-’ ( dash/hyphen ) where there you need to show text that is no longer correct, but is there for context. The only time I’ve seen it used for is material of a legal or official nature.

Then there is  Superscript and Subscript .  Superscript and Subscript small version of the font placed at above or below the ‘em square’ centerline, ie sub normal super . They are used in very specialised situation to mark for example: footnotes and endnotes, citations, how to pronounce words, and in the sciences. Generally speaking you shouldn’t need to worry about them too much, but if you need them there are plenty of guides online to show you how the formats should be used.

Glyphs and Dingbats are terms used to describe the odd looking characters that are used as typographical shorthand, things as % ♕ ₰ ☁ $ ϴ ⌘ ◴ ✧ ♬ ↻. Generally speaking not all fonts have a full range of glyphs and dingbats, in fact a large number font don’t even characters for non ‘romance’ languages like Māori’s long/macron vowels. Generally the terms are used interchangeably, but I treat glyphs as the name of proper symbols like $ # ‽ ‰ ‡ which are a shorthand for a word or phrase, while dingbats are more graphical images used for situations like bullet points, maps, charts or emotions ☺

One of the more obscure terms that turn up on occasion is the Em and En sizing. I’ve talked about em before in the point paragraph, em is the box that surrounds a m , the en is the box that fits a n. More often or not you will read about em or en dashes / hyphens. There are strict set of rules of where em and en dashes are used in grammar, and if you let your word processor or dtp program take care of it, you will get the correct type. (This is a good place to start [ ] if you want to find out more) That’s the quick run down of fonts now. As always there is more information about fonts and the art and sciences behind it on the internet.