Different fonts printed on a sheet of paper

Typeface vs font

By BBC Maestro

Brace yourselves – we’re about to explore one of the biggest questions in graphic design: are font and typeface the same?

While the terms often seem to be used interchangeably, type purists will tell you that font and typeface are completely different. 
Spoiler alert: typeface and font aren’t the same, although they are very closely related. In this article, we look at what the two terms mean and how they differ from each other, along with a bit about their history.

What’s the difference between font and typeface?

The typeface is the design of the characters, while the font is the variations on that typeface. None the wiser? Let’s look at the popular sans-serif font, Helvetica.

Here’s Helvetica:

It’s a nice, clear typeface that’s easy to read, won’t argue with other design elements and suits most types of content. In her BBC Maestro course, Graphic designer Paula Scher explains Helvetica’s origins:

“American modernism, a style from the 1940s and ’50s, was the result of Swiss modernists and Europeans moving to the US. Corporate design of that era was clean and modern. Helvetica was a big part of this corporate look.”

So we see that Helvetica is a deliberately designed type, created to look “clean and modern”. However, sometimes we need to vary a typeface. We can change its size and its weight to create a different look and feel. These variations are called the fonts. So, Helvetica is the typeface, and Helvetica Bold is the font. Here’s Helvetica Bold in action on a sign.

So, a font is simply a specific variant of a typeface. There – argument settled. Let’s take a closer look at how the font family works.

Font vs typeface: A familial affair

You’ll often come across the term ‘font-family’ when working with type. The typeface is the overarching design, while the fonts are the variations within this, usually created by changing the size and weighting of the characters. If the family analogy helps, typeface is the family surname, while the fonts are the army of cousins who descend at every wedding.

Thinking of surnames, let’s use Gill Sans as an example of a font family. Designer Eric Gill created numerous typefaces, including his famous eponymous Gill Sans (known as the ‘Helvetica of England’). This clean, sans-serif type comes from Gill’s quest to find the perfect legible typeface. It’s characterised by a small ‘x’ height and a double-storey ‘a’ and ‘g. It also has 36 font variations in its family.

As you can see, each one has its own personality – the Nova Light and Ultra Bold Condensed, for example, have such a different look and feel from each other. Like a family, you can see the resemblance, but each member has its own idiosyncrasies.

How fonts can vary

Fonts can make a typeface look different in several different ways. Here are the main ways that a font can change the original typeface.

  • Size. Simply clicking up a couple of point sizes doesn’t make a new font. However, header text and body copy count as different fonts. You’ll notice that if you use the headings layout in MS Word, the Theme Fonts name changes as you switch between sizes.
  • Weight. Original, light and bold options change the weighting of the lines, giving you very different looks.
  • Width. The spacing in between letters also creates a different visual impact: look at the difference switching to a Condensed font makes. You can also adjust spacing yourself by applying tracking to your text.
  • Italics. Is the text italicised or Roman (straight)? This is usually used to change the emphasis of a word or phrase in the copy or to highlight a quotation; however, you can use a completely italicised font to give the text a different look.

Then there’s colour, capital and lowercase options, design effects like shading, and scale…You can do a lot with a typeface as a designer.

The history of type

But why do we use such misleading and confusing terminology? If you want to understand the terminology of typeface, you need to delve into the history of the printing industry. A lot of today’s more obscure terms (such as kerning and leading) come from the old days of hot metal.

The word ‘font’ originates from the 16th-century French ‘fonte.’ This term refers to the process of casting in metal, which of course, is how the characters were made. What is a typeface? Fonts that had a similar design were known as typefaces from the Greek ‘typos’, meaning an impression or blow. Therefore, the typeface makes the impression on the paper or parchment during printing.

Typesetting by hand was a laborious process. To speed things up, the different fonts were organised into separate cases (we get the terms ‘uppercase’ and ‘lowercase’ from old printing techniques, too). Even though these days, we simply need to click a few times to change the typeface and font, the old terminology for organising printing characters remains in place.

Font vs typeface: do the terms matter?

If you find yourself saying ‘font’ instead of ‘typeface’, most people on the project team will know what you mean. It would take a real pedant to correct someone for using the wrong term. Etymology evolves, and in this case, font and typeface are becoming increasingly synonymous. Even Microsoft uses the word ‘font’ when it should technically be typeface.

However, if you’re trying to decide which member of a font family would be the best for your design, it can be a helpful distinction to make. As graphic designer Paula Scher says, being able to articulate your ideas is one of the most important aspects of working as a designer:

“You don’t necessarily have to ‘know’ how to draw (although everyone can draw), but you will need to be able to express your ideas and describe those ideas to others so they can see what you’re seeing. This is a huge part of graphic design – showing people what you’re seeing and thinking.”

Being confident with graphic design terminology can really help you explain your vision. While knowing the difference between font and typeface isn’t exactly career defining, it’s one more little design detail to add to your growing knowledge.

Find out more about working with type from designer Paula Scher, in her BBC Maestro course, Graphic Design. Paula talks about the history of type and the important role it plays in graphic design today.

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