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The Only Font Anatomy Design Guide You’ll Ever Need
Marc Schenker March 31, 2021 · 12 min read
typography can’t resist any deep look at font anatomy, which is the study of the different parts of fonts. The words you’re reading right now, the words you read inside your favorite app, and even the words telling you the dinner specials at the restaurant you visited last week all possess the same features that determine how easily you can read the text you’re viewing. Understanding this font anatomy is crucial to you as a designer because it helps with choosing the right fonts for specific projects and goals. It’s not just a matter of what looks more attractive: it’s a matter of ensuring that your design is legible and readable. And if it’s also aesthetic, then that’s just a spectacular bonus. Identifying the various parts of a font goes a long way toward empowering designers to make sense of how to use and pair fonts, depending on the project they’re working on. Here’s a deep dive into the specific parts of characters, sure to stimulate the budding typographer in you.
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LetterformThis term refers to the specific shape of a letter, making it one of the fundamental terms in all of typography. A letterform is a form of glyph, or a definitive and real way of writing down an abstract character.
BaselineVery straightforward, the baseline is the imaginary line upon which all fonts in a typeface sit and beneath which descenders extend. Other closely related imaginary lines are the capline for a character’s cap height and the midline or mean line for a character’s x-height.
StrokeThe component of any character, the stroke can be straight line segment or a curved or rounded line in a letterform. If a stroke is straight—as in an uppercase L, lowercase d, or capital Z—then it can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. If the stroke is curved—as in a lowercase c or a lowercase o—then it’s either open or closed. Depending on its use within a character, the stroke can take on many names and purposes, as you’ll soon see.
StemOne of the most fundamental portions of any character, its stem is the main stroke running vertically in upright letters. Examples include the main, vertical segment in an uppercase L, but also the main, vertical segment in a lowercase k. A stem can also be the diagonal, main stroke of a character that has no upright segments. Examples would include the diagonals in an uppercase A and the diagonals in both a lowercase z and uppercase Z. For an up-close-and-personal look at this font feature and others, browse our wide selection of font families and take a look at some of our standout fonts:
BarSometimes called the crossbar, the bar is the horizontal stroke in a character that connects stems to each other. Examples of bars in letters include the horizontal strokes of the uppercase A and H and the lowercase l and f.
ArmIn font anatomy, a character’s arm is the part of the letter that reaches up or out. It’s attached on one end and free on the other and can either be straight or curved. Examples of arms include the horizontal line segments on an uppercase E and the diagonal strokes on both the lowercase v and uppercase V.
LegThe leg of a font is the counterpart of its arm. Whereas the arm would extend up or out, the leg is simply the portion that extends down and is connected at one end and free on the other. An example of a leg includes the diagonal line segment that extends down on a lowercase k.
X-HeightUnlike many of the other font anatomy terms in this guide, a font’s x-height isn’t a part of the character. Instead, it’s a way of measuring it. Also called the corpus size, the x-height refers to the distance between the mean line (or midline) and baseline of lowercase letters in a font family. The mean line refers to half the distance between the cap height and baseline. The baseline refers to the line on which a character sits and below which descenders proceed.
Cap HeightIn many ways the counterpart to a letter’s x-height, the cap height refers to the maximum height of a capital letter that rises above the baseline for any given font family. To be precise, cap height refers mainly to flat uppercase letters—such as H or T—instead of rounded capital letters like O or pointed ones like A. Both of these can present overshoot.
OvershootIn typography, overshoot occurs in a rounded or pointed letter when said letter extends either higher or lower than a similarly sized flat character, such as a capital X or H. In other words, overshoot is the degree to which uppercase characters go beneath the baseline or above the cap height and to which lowercase characters extend beneath the baseline or above their x-height. Overshoot actually occurs to create the visual effect of letters being the same size, even though they’re not. Its purpose is to compensate for any inaccuracies in visual perception.
AscenderThe ascender is the section in a letter that reaches up beyond its x-height. The purpose of an ascender is to increase the legibility of the words formed by the letters, thus making them more readable.
DescenderThe descender is the section in a letter that goes beneath its baseline. An example is the lowercase y’s so-called tail, which extends below the vertex of the “v” that’s created from the two diagonal lines in the y. In a letter like the lowercase p, the descender is the stroke running past the baseline.
BowlA bowl is quite straightforward: It’s the curved and closed stroke that forms an enclosed space within a letter—which also has its own typeface term. Examples of bowls include the curved strokes in the lowercase b and d and the uppercase B. In the case of the capital B, the letter has two bowls.
CounterAlluded to above, the counter is an interesting feature in font anatomy because it incorporates a design term called white or negative space. Contrary to popular belief, white or negative space doesn’t have to refer to a large area. In a character, the counter is simply the small negative space that’s created by either curved or straight strokes. Counters are therefore either open or closed. Examples of closed counters are these areas in lowercase a, b and e while examples of open counters are found in lowercase c, m, and n. Fun font fact: In the lowercase e, the counter is called the eye.
CornerSomewhat related to the negative space in counters, a corner is an angle, as opposed to an area, of white or negative space. For example, the lowercase w has three, distinct corners.
SpineAppropriately enough, the spine of a font is found in only one character: the “s.” It’s defined as the curved and central stroke of both the lowercase s and uppercase S. Since this stroke mimics the human spine, the naming makes a lot of sense.
EarThis feature is a decorative addition found on the right side of bowls. It’s unique in that it can be an identifying feature of specific typefaces. An ear is the very small stroke that you see showing up in the lowercase g. You’ll see it from the upper right side of the bowl of this character. You’ll also notice it in the curved or angled lowercase r. Note how some of these typeface terms are now venturing into overlap with human anatomy terms.
ApexLike the summit of a mountain, an apex in typography is the upward-pointing section in specific characters. Examples of an apex include the pointed top of an uppercase A, the middle, upward point in a lowercase w, and the topmost point of a lowercase t. The opposite of the apex is the vertex.
VertexThe counterpart of the apex, the vertex refers to the sharp point created when two strokes converge at the bottom of the strokes. Examples of a vertex are the sharp points at the bottom of uppercase characters like V and W.
The Link in Font AnatomyAgain related to specific characters such as the lowercase g, a link is precisely what its name implies: It’s the tiny and curved stroke attaching the loop and bowl of the lowercase g. Other names for the link are neck and collar.
LoopSome characters have specific features that are exclusive to them. Accordingly, they also have font terms that only apply to them. The loop is a feature you’ll only find in the lowercase g; it’s found at the bottom of the character.
TerminalThe terminal is another word for the end. It refers to the end of either an outstroke or instroke. This little ending feature is commonly a serif, which is a little line or foot connected to the end of a character. Other names for the terminal are a slab, wedge, teardrop, and bulbous—all depending on the type of the specific font being used. For an in-depth look at this interesting feature and others, check out our huge selection of font families:
SpurA spur is similar to a terminal, but still its own unique feature in typography. You’ll find a spur off of a main stroke, such as its appearance as a tiny projection on the uppercase G of some serif fonts. Smaller than a terminal (which is already quite small), a spur usually shows up on an angle instead of at a terminal. Another example of where you’ll find one is a lowercase serif e.
LowercaseAnother way of indicating the non-capitalized form of letters within a typeface. This letter’s height only reaches to the x-height or midline in a line of type. Lowercase letters form the majority of all written copy and text, as capital letters are usually reserved for the start of sentences, proper nouns, or special, stylized cases.
UppercaseThe opposite of lowercase, uppercase refers to a character that’s capitalized. As such, its height reaches all the way to the cap height in a line of type. The cap height is twice the height of the midline.
SwashAlso closely related to finishers like terminals and spurs, a swash is an ornamentation in the form of a flourish on a letter. This flourish usually shows up as an embellished terminal, spur, serif or tail. Not all fonts have swashes. If a font has a swash, it will usually be a serif font that’s also italicized.
TailAnother form of ornamentation in typography, the tail of a character refers to the decorative descender that extends out of specific letters. Examples include the decorative ornamentation seen in the uppercase Q, K and R. On occasion, the descenders of the lowercase y, q, p, j, and g are also termed tails.
StressStress is a reference to the disparity between thin and thick strokes in the same character. This illustrates how strokes can have different widths. The effect of stress on the viewer looking at a font is a change in optical perception. An example of a character that uses stress is the lowercase g. Note how the strokes on the sides of the g are noticeably thicker than the strokes on the top and bottom of the character.
ShoulderThe shoulder of a letter, in font anatomy, is its curved or arching stroke that extends downward from the stem. An example of a shoulder is seen in the top of the uppercase R, as well as the in the midlines of the lowercase h, n, and m.
TittleThe tittle is yet another part of font anatomy that only applies to a few letters. Also called the jot or dot, the tittle is the tiny, distinguishing mark that you’ll see on top of lowercase letters like j or i.
BoldBolding is a type of emphasis in typography that’s used as a way to strengthen the words in a piece of text. By utilizing a bold font weight, you’re able to make the letters of a specific text thicker than other words around it. As a result, the text stands out from the rest, which makes it ideal as a method to highlight vital words that you want the reader to focus on or remember. Bolding also helps with legibility, as the bolded words are easier to scan and skim.
ItalicsAnother form of emphasis in typography, the use of italics doesn’t rely on making the text thicker to emphasize a certain word or group of words. With italics, which takes influence from calligraphy, text is written in script (cursive) style, so that each letter is slanted to the right. Use italics to highlight vital points in a text or to quote a speaker to indicate the words they stressed.
LobeThe lobe refers to the projecting and curved stroke that’s attached to the main structure of a character. An example of a lobe is the curved stroke that’s coming off the main stem of the uppercase P.
The Twists and Turns of Font AnatomyFont anatomy is a highly captivating part of typography. Many people reading this line of text likely didn’t realize how many terms can be applied to all the features of the letters they’re reading right now. For typographers and designers, it’s an opportunity to further understand how almost every part of a character is another chance to use skillful design to communicate legibility, readability, and aesthetics in the fonts you’re working with or creating from scratch. The more you know about the makeup of every letter, the more you can pick fonts intelligently for the next project you’re working on, thereby creating happy clients and successful outcomes.
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