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What is Typeface?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A typeface is is a selection of stylistically related letters which collectively comprise a family of alphabets which can be used for typesetting. Typeface design also usually includes numbers and symbols which are designed to blend stylistically with the core alphabet used in the design. It is also possible to design entirely symbolic typefaces, such as the specialty products used by mathematicians, and typefaces come in all languages.

Typefaces and fonts are frequently confused. A typeface is a design family of items which are interrelated: Garamond, for example, is a typeface. A font is a particular iteration of a typeface: 12 point Garamond italic is a font within the Garamond family. While this distinction may seem petty, especially to people who are accustomed to using “font” and “typeface” interchangeably, it is important, because the individual fonts within a typeface can take on a huge variety of iterations.

Historically, a typeface designer would create the desired look and feel, and then specific fonts needed to be cast in type. Printers could order various fonts as needed to fulfill their needs, and each font was specifically designed and scaled to look optimal in the desired size and style. Since most people work on computers today, it is very easy to switch fonts within a typeface at the click of a button, but this process was once much more involved, and it required great skill on the part of the designer and foundry which cast the type.

Typefaces are often broken up into larger families, such as serif and sans serif families. A sans serif typeface has letters which lack decorations, such as the typeface used on the wiseGEEK site for legibility. Serif typefaces have small ornaments which make them more visually interesting, but sometimes more challenging to read. People may also break up typefaces by style, lumping together designs which share a theme, such as Gothic typefaces or Modern typefaces.

Working as a designer of typefaces can be very interesting, as a design family can display a huge range of variability and individuality. Having a good design aesthetic is important, as is understanding the principles of typesetting and the way that displays of text can work with or against a design. Some people like to specialize in highly imaginative, fanciful typefaces which are intended to be used as visual accents, while others may be more interested in creating utility designs which are easy to read, use, and work with.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By StarJo — On Jul 06, 2011

I worked on a personal computer that does not have very many typefaces installed, but it does have one of my favorites. I love the Bodoni typeface and its light serifs.

The Bodoni style varies in thickness within each character. For example, the letter B is quite thick on the rounded portions of the right side, but the line on the left is extremely thin, as are the barely visible serifs extending off of it.

I love using this typeface for antique stores or old-fashioned restaurants. The characters look very stately and refined.

Bodoni typeface is great for printed material, but its intricacies likely would not show up well on websites. It's one of those styles that is just too delicate to be appreciated onscreen.

By OeKc05 — On Jul 05, 2011

At the newspaper where I work as an ad designer, they still have some of the old equipment from the typesetting days. I shudder when I think of what they went through just to get a day's paper printed back then!

Some of the equipment is in the back of the building by the press. I rarely go back there, but in the advertising room where I work, they still have the old rolls of thin black tape used to make frames for the ads. The tape varies in thickness, letting the designer choose from different borders. They had to use sharp knives to cut the tape, and they had to be absolutely precise.

I have such shaky hands that I never could have been an ad designer in those days! It makes me appreciate my computer very much.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 04, 2011

Every year, I am responsible for designing my local hospital's physician directory. Within this directory are doctor's phone numbers, photos, and addresses, along with general information about the hospital and its departments.

I originally recommended using the Verdana typeface. It is sans serif and easy on the eyes. However, the hospital has to comply with corporate's orders, so I am required to use the Gotham typeface found in all of their other marketing material. This typeface is sans serif and easy to read. This is good for the large amount of text that is found on the pages of the directory.

By shell4life — On Jul 04, 2011

It's good to know what the difference is between a typeface and a font! I am one of those people who thought they were the same thing.

Deep down, I think I knew there had to be a difference, though. There are so many variations of each typeface, so there had to be a name for the individual ones.

If you told someone to use a Goudy font, they would probably ask which one? They could mean Goudy Old Style, Goudy Open Face, Goudy Bold Italic, or any number of others. However, if you told someone to use the Goudy typeface, they would probably assume that the choice was up to them, so long as it belonged to the Goudy family.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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