What is Typeface?

With today's word processors and digital media platforms, it can be hard to distinguish between a typeface and a font. The average user may not know the difference, but before the age of computers, these terms meant a lot more to our written culture. Below, we've outlined what is typeface, how it differs from a font, and why the anatomy of typography can be so complex.  

What is typeface?

Before you could choose from hundreds of fonts on Microsoft Word, every page was printed using metal letters arranged in rows, and then rolled in ink. During this age, each set of characters with the same design features was known as a typeface, and designers still use the term today. For example, Times New Roman is one of the most popular typefaces for word processing. It doesn't matter if you're writing bold, italic, 8 point, or 72 point Times New Roman — it's still the same typeface. 

Okay, then what is a font?

Think of fonts like a subset of typefaces, as they refer to size and weight within a larger family. For instance, if you're using the Arial typeface in 12-point italic, we would say that the font is 12-point italic. Each size and weight combination refers to a different font. This is why Microsoft Word and other programs use the word "font" instead of typeface, because technically, you are working with different fonts every time. However, the broader stylistic choices behind a font should actually be ascribed to the typeface. Today, experts seem to be okay with the terms being used interchangeably, just as long as you're not a designer.      

How are typefaces designed? 

Behind every typeface, there is a detailed anatomy of design. Here are some of the basic distinctions between font families:

  • Serif: This refers to the decorative details of a letter, which are found at the end of a stroke. Used in most printed works, it's often believed that serif typefaces are easier to read in longer passages. 
  • Sans Serif: On the other hand, typefaces without any decorative elements (such as Helvetica) belong to the sans serif family. Sans is French for "without". These typefaces are commonly used in digital media and advertising, and they're easier to read on a computer screen. 
  • Proportional: Every typeface is composed of glyphs, which are the symbols that represent a particular character. When building a typeface, designers also have to think about how the glyphs should be spaced from each other. Proportional typefaces allow each glyph to take up its required space, as some letters need more (ex. "m" and "p")  than others ("l" and "i"). 
  • Monospaced: These typefaces use a standardized width for every glyph, which makes them tidier than proportional typefaces. Typewriters use monospacing, and many computer programmers prefer this typeface style because it's easier to see each character.  
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