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10 Typography Terms Every Designer Should Know

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 4 min read

So you’ve got a passion for design, but you can’t tell your x-height from your ascender and you think a Bézier Curve is a new chair from IKEA. Don’t worry, here’s a quick guide to some essential terminology to get your feet wet in the typography ocean. Since design is a visual art, I’ve provided some examples from Creative Market shops to illustrate the different terms.
For starters, every font exists along four imaginary parallel lines: ascent, median, base and descent.

Ascent

This is the top most line that the upstroke from lowercase letters such as l, h, and d should reach. Not to be confused with the cap height which is the apex of your capital letters. You can see a good variance in cap height versus ascent in Roadstar Font Script. In some fonts these two heights are the same, or the cap height is actually taller than the ascender, such as Blake.
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Median (aka: mean line, x-height)

The median is where most of your lower case letters should reach their maximum height. This is also called the x-height, because it is set from the height of the x in your font. Cabrito Sans is a elegant font that keeps a strict median, which gives it a very calm and controlled feel.
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Base Line

All your characters sit on the base line. It is the lowest point of all capital letters and most lowercase letters. Notice how even in a messy font like Ship Painter’s Rough all the characters sit on the same line.
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Descent

For characters that have strokes that go below the baseline like j, g, and q, the descent marks the lowest point that their lines meet. They don’t just have to be straight lines either; check out the creative descents of Daisy Font.
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Ascender/Descender

The ascender is the upward stroke above the x-height in a lowercase letter like d, b, or h. It should touch the ascent. Dawnora Headline has short ascenders that make the letters appear much wider. The descender is the opposite: it reaches from the baseline to the descent in letters like q, p, and j.
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Serifs

These are small finishing strokes on ends of characters. They fall in line or perpendicular to the four lines mentioned above to guide the reader’s eye across the page. Always Here is a great example of an outside-the-box serifed font. While it has the extra strokes, they don’t match up with the cap and base lines. This creates a handwritten feel while keeping the classical fancy of serifs. Fonts that lack a serif are known as sans serif or simply sans. They tend to feel more modern such as Uni Sans.
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Counter

This is a description for the negative space inside a letter. It can be completely enclosed by a letter like an O or an A, but letters like S and H also have counters. Check out how the narrow black counters in CA Royal Spy make the font appear taller than it is. Playing with the space inside can dramatically affect the overall look of a font. Tattoo Deco really plays with where you can use counters in a character.
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Bézier Curves

These are mathematical curves that can be scaled to any size. They are one of the essentials for computer typography, especially when making fancy serifs and tails on your characters. Melany Lane has some great curves. Notice how on the L in Lane the loops have the same curls just in different sizes.
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Kerning

In my humble opinion, kerning is one of the most important aspects of typefaces. To put it simply, it’s the amount of space between characters in a font. As a designer, you’ll want to learn how to manually kern. Not all characters are formed equally so some need more space from another character. Bringin is a font with a great use of the space between letters: some are almost touching, while in others you could fit an entire character between them.
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Header image created using Typography by Suez Lycett Photography.


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