Dipping a toe into the world of typography? Once you know a few basics, it’s much easier to navigate this complex design field. Learn these four things before you go any further.

Cover image via De Repente.

Ever had a graphic designer look at you with a distinctly unimpressed air? It’s possible that you used a dirty word in their presence.

Typography has its own unique terminology, and many of the words can easily be confused, misused, or mistakenly switched. In this article we’ll cover four essential distinctions to know about typography language. Use these as your foundation, and you’ll be talking and thinking like a type pro in no time.

Distinction #1: Typeface vs. Font

Typography Essentials: The Only Four Things You Need to Know – Font vs Typeface

Aside from outright swearing, one of the worst words you can throw about in the presence of a committed typographer is “font.”

This is because all fonts originate from their more noble incarnations, the “typeface.” Before you offend anybody, let’s spell out the difference:

  • A font is a digital file that contains information about the weights, style, and sizing of the type. When you browse through type styles on your design software or download them from online, you are viewing and accessing a font file. In short, a font is what you use.
  • Typefaces have deeper origins. The term was originally used to describe all the metal blocks that shared similar design characteristics. A typographer would have arranged these blocks to use in their printing press. As time has gone on, and with the invention of desktop publishing, the distinction between font and typeface has blurred, but the general gist is the same. A typeface describes the look of the type.

So, for example, Caslon is a typeface. But Caslon set in Italic with a 12 pt size is the font version in use.

Still confused? Don’t panic. The main thing is to appreciate that typography has non-digital origins (i.e. ‘typeface’) that were developed by skilled typographers, and most designers now, even digital ones (i.e. the ‘font’ users) have a respect for this.

Distinction #2: Letterform vs. Paragraph

Typography Essentials: The Only Four Things You Need to Know – Letterform vs Paragraph

There are many layers to typography. A letterform is like the atom from which larger words and paragraphs are built.

A letterform describes the distinctive shape of a single letter or character.

Type a single letter (even in default Calibri) into Word and zoom in to look at the letter in detail. Notice any sticky-out bits (“serifs”), enclosed areas (“counters” or “eyes”), or lines going up (“ascenders”) or down (“descenders”)? These details make up the unique design of the letterform.

Typographers have to not only understand how to create or identify letterforms, but also how to work these letterforms into a cohesive whole as part of a paragraph.

Formatting paragraphs requires a different set of typographic skills. Here, the task switches to optimizing the paragraph as a whole, by aligning (or “flushing”) the text, adjusting the leading (line-spacing), tracking (see Distinction #3, below), and remedying straggling words (called “widows” or “orphans” depending on their position on the page).

The key thing to know is that letterforms and paragraphs require different levels of observation and care, but both are equally important to making the typography look good on the page.

Distinction #3: Kerning vs. Tracking

Typography Essentials: The Only Four Things You Need to Know – Kerning vs Tracking

Letter-spacing is letter-spacing, right? Nope, not really. Letter-spacing can either be adjusted equally across a whole word or phrase, which is called ‘tracking’, or it can be tweaked between individual letters. While tracking is great for generally evening out text and making everything more legible, it’s kerning that typographers really go crazy for.

Some of the things that typographers really care about, like really, REALLY care about, can baffle even professional designers. Kerning is one of those things. When you start to have passionate opinions about kerning, you know you’re a full-fledged typographer.

Kerning describes the process of adjusting the spacing between two letters or characters.

Most fonts are not designed to have absolutely perfect spacing between each letter, given the hundreds of possible combinations of letters and characters. Typographers therefore use kerning to give a more visually pleasing effect to a word or phrase. By minutely adjusting the spacing (measured in thousandths of an em), it’s possible to give type a more symmetrical and overall more attractive appearance.

Kerning is often applied in incredibly subtle ways, as it was with the Google logo redesign back in 2014.

Distinction #4: Typesetter vs. Typographer

Typography Essentials: The Only Four Things You Need to Know – Typesetter vs Typographer

We’ve come to our final typography distinction, and it demonstrates how broad and diverse the typography discipline can be.

Most graphic designers will describe themselves as just that, but individuals with a particular interest in type will describe themselves as either typographers or typesetters.

  • Typographer generally refers to a designer who has chosen to specialize in creating and using type. This means most of their work will have a type- (rather than image-) based focus. Many typographers also design their own typefaces, selling them as downloadable fonts, and sometimes they go on to establish their own foundries, which sell a selection of high-quality (and often highly priced) fonts.
  • Typesetters, on the other hand, are quite a different breed and they don’t have the edgy reputation of trend-leading typographers. Typesetters specialize in typesetting, which is the process of laying out type. Most typesetters work for publishing firms or printing businesses, typesetting the inside pages of books or magazines.

Why do you need to know the difference? Well it goes to show that typography is a very broad field, ranging from visual design and crossing over into editing and publishing. So if typography has piqued your interest, you’ll be sure to find a niche to suit you.

Sometimes it can feel like typographers are speaking another language, but once you understand a few distinctions and key words, the world of typography becomes much clearer and more accessible.

What Next? Exploring Typography Further…

If you’re looking to deepen your typography knowledge, these tutorials and articles are well worth a look: