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What the Font!?

By Chad Gordon | August 29, 2014

What the Font?

I’m warning you up front. That this is a curmudgeonly blog about design language.

First, when speaking out loud of a photograph, it is a “picture.” Not a “pitcher.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss Font vs Typeface. Like when people say “font” when they really mean “typeface”. Or vice- versa. Whatever. The definitions have evolved with technology, so it is kind of confusing. It isn’t that easy to explain either. But I will try.

What I was taught is that typeface is the style or the design of the letters – how Times looks different than Helvetica.

Font is the delivery mechanism.

Way back in the day type was crafted out of metal or wood blocks, each individual letter would be created at a particular size and stored in cases or drawers with the rest of the letters of the alphabet in that exact size.  So, for example you would have a drawer full of every letter of the alphabet in the typeface Bodoni at 36 point size. Another drawer may contain all the letters for Bodoni at 24 point, and so on. The collection of letters in each size is the font. I’m sure you have seen these drawers or the individual letters.

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Fast forward to today and everyone can set type on their computers. It is easy to see why the definitions have become lost or murky. Most software applications that allow you to set type use the word font. You scroll through a “font” menu. So everyone just says “font”.  In one way, this is correct as font is the mechanism for delivering a typeface. The type drawer has been replaced by a computer file. But non-designer people, and even designers, use the word font when they really mean typeface. Saying, “I love that font you used in that logo!” really means, “I love the computer file you used to render that typeface!” I’m sure that isn’t what you meant.

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Still confused?

One of the better metaphors I have seen comes from typographer Nick Sherman:

“The way I relate the difference between typeface and font to my students is by comparing them to songs and MP3s, respectively (or songs and CDs, if you prefer a physical metaphor).”

And expanded upon by designer Stephen Cole:

“When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say: ‘That’s a great MP3’. You say: ‘That’s a great song’. The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work; just as in type a font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.”

I know language evolves, so I will cut you some slack if you use the font instead of typeface. I’ll know what you mean. But give it a shot. Typefaces are beautiful.

Just don’t tell me I make pretty “pitchers” any more. I’m not a potter.

Love,

Chad

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