Categories / Inspiration
20 Essential Typography Terms for Non-Designers
Marc Schenker August 3, 2017 · 13 min read
Typography is one of the most essential aspects of design. It’s single-handedly responsible for getting the message of a design across clearly and understandably. The specific fonts a designer chooses for a project can impact readability, legibility, the aesthetics, and the overall effectiveness of the design’s impact. In short, typography can make or break a design. While designers are well-versed when it comes to typeface terminology, beginners can find it a bit overwhelming to make sense of everything typography-related. Looking at fonts and appreciating their aesthetic qualities is all well and good, but truly understanding the basics of what goes into the science of typography can take that appreciation to another level entirely. In the spirit of making design more accessible to everyone and explaining some of that highfalutin design terminology, let’s look at 20 of the most essential typography terms for non-designers.
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TypographyLet’s start with the most obvious term: typography itself. For many non-designers, font and typography are probably interchanged with good frequency in everyday usage, but there’s a noteworthy difference. Typography is the art and/or technique behind arranging type, where type means the letters and characters that you see in printed material (whether that’s offline or online). A font would be something like Times New Roman. Typography, therefore, is way more than just how letters and characters are designed: it’s about the science behind laying out said letters and characters, which affects readability and legibility. Without effective typography, design fails to communicate its central message.
FontI touched on this briefly above, so it’s worth exploring in greater detail in its own subheading. When you think of fonts, you think of Times New Roman, Zurich Calligraphic and Verdana, just to name a few. A font is group of characters that you can print or display in a certain size and style. These characters include letters, numbers, punctuation and additional symbols. A font has various characteristics such as:
- Font style: the indication of the spacing between the characters in a font, whether italic, oblique, etc.
- Font weight: the thickness of the characters’ strokes within a font
- Font size: the number of points or pixels (digitally) of a font, representing its height
Font FamilyYou may have heard of the related term “font family”: this is the set of fonts that have the same basic qualities in their design, yet their sizes, styles, and weights can vary. An example of just one font family is Lucida. This font family features Lucida Grande, Lucida Bright, Lucida Casual, and many more, including both sans-serif and serif fonts. In Lucida, all the fonts will vary based on their specific style, size or weight, but their essentially similar design is what ties them all to each other—hence, a font family. Other font families include Arial (Arial Black, Arial Greek, Arial Monospaced, etc.), Helvetica (Helvetica Light, Helvetica Narrow, Helvetica Rounded, etc.), and Georgia (Georgia Bold, Georgia Italic, Georgia Regular, etc.). Fun typography fact: another word for font family is typeface.
StrokeThe stroke is simply one of the lines that comprise any given letter. It can be straight or curved; if the former, it will be horizontal, vertical or diagonal; if the latter, it will be closed or open. For example, in the lowercase “k,” there are three strokes, both vertical and diagonal. On the other hand, in the lowercase “c,” the stroke is obviously curved. Strokes are also interesting in that they can have different widths. For instance, if a stroke in a letter is thinner on the top and bottom versus the sides, it’s said to have a vertical stress. Of course, the namesake for this term comes from the strokes that people had to manually apply when putting pen to paper—long before the days of digital typefaces.
StemThe stem is a type of stroke, the basic unit of the parts of a character. The stem is usually the main and vertical stroke in a letter. For example, in the lowercase “m,” there are three stems — all of which are running vertically. In the capital “L,” the stem here is the long, vertical stroke that forms most of this letter. Since the stroke and stem are so closely related, it’s easy to get them confused if you’re not paying close attention!
SerifYou’ve no doubt come across this word before, ubiquitous every time you read about type. What does it mean? Serif is a reference to the tiny feet or lines connected to the ends of strokes in letters or symbols. The very words you’re reading right now in this blog are all serif fonts. Look closely to identify the little feet or lines at the ends of the strokes of the letters in this sentence. A font with these little feet or lines is called a serif font. Here are some examples of serif fonts from our marketplace:
Sans SerifSans serif is like the yang to the yin of serif. Balancing things out, sans serif is the very opposite of serif. The word “sans” is French for “without,” so sans serif is a font without the aforementioned tiny feet or lines at the ends of the strokes in its letters or symbols. In this way, a sans serif is less ornamental, more straightforward, and simpler than a serif font. Check out these sans serif fonts from our marketplace:
Slab SerifsWhile we’re on the topic of serifs, we should also cover slab serifs. These are fonts that have very thick serifs at the ends of each letter’s strokes. These typefaces were very popular back in the 19th century, when they were also invented. Historically, these were utilized mainly in typewriters. The slab serif legacy is alive today with lots of monospaced text fonts meant for computers still using slab serifs. We have a nice selection of slab serifs in our marketplace:
Script TypefaceScript font families are unique in that they resemble handwriting. You know you’re looking at script when you see fonts with the fluid strokes of cursive. More common in trade or display printing, scripts today are scalable, which means the letters in scripts are automatically strung together when they’re used for digital printing. Not only does this effectively copy handwriting, but it’s more convenient for users than having to manually select which characters follow each other in words. In general, scripts fall into two categories:
- Casual scripts – These resemble ordinary handwriting of an informal nature
- Formal scripts – These look like the handwriting straight out of 16th and 17th centuries, with more ornate designs that are perfect for fancy invitations and announcements.
BlackletterBlackletter is a script that was very popular in Western Europe from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Also known by other names like Gothic Script, Textura, and Gothic Miniscule, Blackletter is characterized by varying thin and thick strokes, as well as the ornate swirls evident on its serifs. Because of this script’s focus on being elaborate, readability and legibility take a hit. As a result, it is very uncommon for it to be used in body copy. Look for Blackletter mostly in headlines, subheadings, posters, logos, and other places that need to grab people’s attention quickly. Some of the most famous Blackletter fonts are Germanica and Cloister Black. Here are some outstanding Blacketter scripts from our marketplace:
Cap HeightPretty straightforward, the cap height of a character is the height of a capital letter from the baseline all the way to the top of the cap. This is most reliably measured when a character possesses a flat baseline. Examples are E, L and I, just to name a few. On the other hand, characters with curved bottoms—like O, C, etc.—make it a bit more difficult to accurately measure their cap heights.
X-heightThe x-height is your basic height of a lowercase letter, most specifically when referring to the actual letter “x.” The x-height excludes ascenders and descenders, which are, respectively, the parts of lowercase letters that extend over the x-height and those parts that descend beneath their baselines. For ascenders, compare the lowercase “x” to any other lowercase letter; for descenders, simply analyze how much of a letter dips below the baseline.
PointThis is utilized to measure the size of a font. As a rule, one point equals just 1/72 of an inch. If a letter is referred to as, for example, 24-point, this means that the whole height of the text block is being indicated, not solely the character on its own. As a result, two font families in the same point size might look different in size, depending on how the letter is positioned in the text block. Here’s a great reference to help you make sense out of point size.
BowlThe bowl is the curved portion of a letter that encloses either the curved or circular portions of certain letters. Another way of looking at the bowl is that it’s just a curved stroke that just happens to establish an enclosed space inside of a letter. This enclosed space is the called the counter. Applying this definition, let’s look at an example. In the uppercase “B,” there are two bowls: the curved strokes that create the rounded or curved loops of the letter. The two spaces created by these bowls in the letter are then, naturally, the counters.
SpineThe spine is perhaps the most unique typography term in that it’s reserved for only one character alone: the letter “s.” It’s the curved, main stroke of the letter—essentially that entire, squiggly curve. The “s” alone gets this term since the spine can be mainly horizontal or nearly vertical, depending on the specific font that you select. Furthermore, isn’t it apparent what part of the human body this part of the letter resembles? Thanks to its dead-ringer resemblance to the human spine, it was a no-brainer to apply this nomenclature to this typography term as well.
KerningKerning is the procedure of altering the spaces in between the letters in a font, but only among specific and individual letters. In other words, kerning allows for varying degrees of spaces between different letters in the same word, as long as the end result is visually attractive. Again, depending on the typeface that’s used, it’s necessary to sometimes adjust the spaces between different letters inconsistently, if the typographer wants to create an aesthetic, final appearance. Take, for example, the word “VAGRANT.” When it’s all in uppercase like this, the “V” and the “A” have to be manually adjusted to bring them closer to each other for a more pleasing, readable result. Without kerning in this example, the “V” and “A” would be too far apart and look awkward in the same word. Kerning can sometimes be confused with tracking, but more on that shortly.
TrackingTracking is the typographer’s term for simple letter spacing. The crucial difference between it and kerning is that tracking makes uniform adjustments consistently among all the spaces in the same word, whereas kerning only makes adjustments to the spaces between words on a case-by-case basis. This might seem almost like a distinction without a real difference, but to typographers who must ensure readability and aesthetic appearance in type, even subtle differences like these can make a huge impact on the overall legibility of the words. Think of it this way: if you’re looking at a particular font with tight letter spacing, it may be too tight to be of any use to read properly. That’s why tracking is so helpful and necessary.
LeadingAnother essential term in typography, leading relates to the spacing in between any successive lines of type. Originally used in the olden days of typesetting by hand, this term has survived today even in digital printing, with such programs as Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress both utilizing it. Also known as line spacing, leading is most prevalent when you have to either single or double-space your work. Leading refers to the distance between the baselines of type, baselines being the actual lines on which the characters rest. Depending on the leading used in lines of type—which is in turn affected by the specific typeface used—print can become more or less readable and therefore legible. The greater the leading is, the more distance between the baselines; the less leading, the narrower the lines of type will be.
TerminalEarlier, I talked about the serif, which is the little attachment that’s found in one of the main font styles common across all sorts of font families. The serif can also be looked at as a way of terminating a stroke of a letter. The terminal, on the other hand, occurs when a letter terminates in a stroke, but without the presence of a serif. Essentially, a terminal is, then, just the end of a stroke without the presence of the serif or those little feet or attachments at the ends of some fonts. The lowercase “t” is the perfect example of such a case: Note how the stroke terminates at the bottom of the “t” without a serif. It just ends in a small curve, which is the terminal.
Ascender/DescenderThe ascender and descender are two closely related terms. The ascender is the portion of the lowercase letter that extends above its x-height while the descender is the portion that goes beneath its baseline. You can think of the ascender as the portion of a letter that’s taller than the x-height. It’s helpful to think of the descender as the lowest or longest point of a lowercase letter. Good examples of ascenders are found in lowercase “h,” “k” and “t”; good examples of descenders are found in “p,” “q” and “y.”
Understand Typography Better Than EverIf these terms are new to you, they’re probably a little bit daunting. Typography anatomy has a plethora of terms—as you just read—that might even be a mouthful for some designers. Ascenders turn into descenders, and who’s to know the difference between a serif and a mere terminal? As a non-designer, the logos, ad campaigns, and illustrations you encounter every day may seem somewhat alien to you. “Who came up with that design?” or “Why is this so hard to read?” may be common questions you ask. But if you can remember only 20 typography terms in your lifetime, make it these 20 terms. They’ll open up a new world of design and communication know-how to you, increasing your ability to interact with the world all around you. And when you get to that point when you can go a little bit beyond merely seeing a design or piece of messaging for its face value—and actually understand the various components that are a part of it—that’s a beautiful thing.
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