Font or Typeface?

  • Type Tips
Type Tips, Typography Basics | Yves Peters | September 11, 2008

As we’re collaborating with multiple authors on the FontFeed, we compiled a list of guidelines for ourselves and guest contributors. One of our concerns is that we should attempt to “speak the same language” when using typographic and related terms. Because these terms evolved over a considerable period of time and saw several transitions in technology, they can sometimes be interpreted in varying ways. This resulted in a terminology that is often perceived as at best esoteric, at worst plain confusing.

The first terminology we agreed upon was in which situations we’d use font and when typeface. Mark Simonson once recapped it handsomely in this discussion on Typophile. The gist of it is that

the physical embodiment of a collection of letters, numbers, symbols, etc. (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) is a font. When referring to the design of the collection (the way it looks) you call it a typeface.

Nick Sherman used an interesting analogy in a comment on Typographica’s Our Favorite Typefaces of 2007:

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).

Stephen Coles agrees:

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.

Update, Nov. 12 2008 — Norbert Florendo commented with this concise explanation:

font is what you use, and typeface is what you see.


The exact origin of the word font isn’t entirely clear. Type designer and SOTA Typography Award 2007 recipient David Berlow claimed that “it’s mostly believed to have originated in France, where the idea of a spring of water (fontaine) was close enough to the ideas that spring from words, I guess, to merit the additional definition of the word…” Jim Rimmer expounded a variation on that theory. “Font sprung fom the word fount (still used today in the UK) meaning a source from which words gushed.”

However another theory seems more plausible (please keep in mind I have no academic background in typography whatsoever; I’m just your average graphic designer). As Norbert Florendo explained in that same Typophile discussion:

The term font would be derived from fount and foundry going back to the manufacture of type using molten metal. The fount was the reservoir or pot of molten lead/tin/antimony which was used for casting individual type characters, and eventually complete lines of type (linecasters, Linotype contraction of ‘line-of-type’).

Originally – when type still were little blocks of metal or wood and thus only fit for a specific size – a font was a single point size of a complete set of characters for setting text, so for example Centaur Roman 16 point (according to living legend Matthew Carter the most beautiful size of Centaur). With the advent of film type and eventually scalable outlines the term font became size-independent.

Do you have a type-related question? Send it our way and we’ll answer it in a future episode of Typography Basics.

Header image: Letterpress wokshop at the London College of Communication © Jamie Pulley


  1. That’s how languages evolve.

    Posted by BillB on Feb. 8, 2011
  2. In digital terms the term ‘font’ still makes sense to me. The bits and bytes (the .otf or .ttf) that are the instructions for rendering a typeface is a font seeing as (at it’s simplest) there is a single description for each character, and characters can be duplicated from that single source limitlessly.

    Posted by Robert O'Rourke on Feb. 10, 2011
  3. What seems to be missing from this conversation is the origin or usefulness of the word font as opposed to typeface. Go to any letterpress studio that still has fonts(lead or wood)of type and you will get it immediately. The typeface is what is impressed on the paper and the font, a box with all the characters of that typeface family (usually wood or lead pieces) are divided alphabetically and numerically. Font is the box that holds all those pieces of lead or wood of that a particular typeface being impressed on paper. So, on your computer, those folders that hold your “Typefaces” with names like Helvetica and ugh!, Arial, are actual fonts. But with the advent of the computer, I think a font/folder can hold a whole type family! Where-in the old school physical world of letterpress the shear physical weight of lead type would make it impossible to put the entire helvetica family for example in one font!

    Posted by Steven Kelly on Feb. 26, 2011
  4. 1) a particular punchcutter, usually the designer of the style of the letters, weighting, etc. filed the letterforms of all the characters, punctuation, and diacritical marks onto the end of a steel punch.

    2) about eight families of faces existed in the 14-17th centuries: rotunda, gothic, italic, roman, bastarda blackletter (“English letter” in England until the 1620) etc.), which were derived from scribal letterforms stretching back through manuscript history to about the 8th century A.D. when a particular script/style was developed, used and then replaced, but only to emerge in the later 15th century as the model for the “roman” family with the capital copied directly from roman temple and public building inscriptions and other sculptured images. The “italic” face evolved from letterforms that leaned right rather than standing erect, but quite similar to “roman” letterforms. Both were “perfected” and adopted in Italy, France by 1500, followed in England by 1554 and the arrival of the Geneva Bible from Switzerland in 1560 or so. Before the 1554 introduction, the romans and italics seen in English prinnting were crudely cut, poorly proportionated, and generally ugly. The major manuscript letterforms characterised by thick vertical strokes, very thin diagonal strokes (i.e., joining the left vertical of an “n” with the right vertical. The “gothic” and other related faces in his family spread primarly through the the Low Countries (Holland etc.) and Germany.

    3) a set of punches transferred the letterforms onto brass matrices; the molten composite of lead + tin + antimony was poured into a mold (Gutenberg’s design of mold is not known; the earliest description of a handmold is from 1547 which uses the names of the parts of the mold that are found later in Joseph Moxon’s 1683 precise “as good as CAD” drawings of the parts of his mold, which then are repeated in 18th and 19th century descriptions and drawings.

    4) The punchcutter’s name was attached to the set of punches, and contemporary type specimens describe the main characteristics: italic family, designed and cut by Garamond, in sizes such pariel, pica, auguste, Double canon etc. etc. sizes. Although eight sizes of roman type could carry Garamond’s name, unlike TruType scalable fonts, each size was an independent design generated from another set of punches and matrices. So, a Garamond pica roman was usually an attempt by Garamond to produce the exact same characteristics of the next sizes up and below, but there were never any exact duplicate designs across the range of sizes even though they all bear the same punchcutters’ name. Another twist is that in the apprenticeship system, the master Garamond contracted teach the “mystery” (i.e., the secret tricks of the trade) of letterform design and proportions to the apprentice. An early 16th century comment indicates that it took the typical apprentice four years to master the technique of cutting a pica “g” on the end of a punch.

    5) The thousands of individual pieces of type consisting of the long vertical “shank” topped by the letterform on the shoulder of the shank all together formed a typefont. Each casting operation with a set of matrices to fill a “full bill” or “half-bill” order (the proportion of letterforms were determined by the frequency of each letter in the target language) of a complete alphabet, numerals punctuation, and diacritical marks produced another typefont. Usually a sequence of typefonts cast in the same set of matrices turned out pretty nearly identical except that the technology could not produce perfectly duplicated type “sorts”. As soon as the new type was set and pounded level with a mallet, that typefont began to be distguishable from every typefont produced by the same set of matrices.
    cheers, A

    Posted by Adrian Weiss on Oct. 30, 2011
  5. boom Bap Bada Bop Boom POW

    Type face : what you see
    Font :what you type

    Posted by Kris Kelly on Jan. 30, 2012
  6. Font is the variation of type in styles (bold, italic) and sizes (12pt, 1in).

    Typeface describes the shape of characters, created by typographers.

    The blueprint for the font is the typeface.

    Posted by Jim Stratos on Feb. 3, 2012
  7. OK, so a font is like a technical term of the thing that designers call a type face? Did I get it right? Please advise.

    Posted by Kenneth on Feb. 19, 2012
  8. my understanding:

    font – collection or “family” of typefaces (ie. helvetica)
    typeface – specific style within the font family (ie. neue)

    Posted by gp on May. 9, 2012
  9. On Typography « Revelry Reverie referenced this article:

    […] simply by number; 500 or 700, for example. A font is the variation in style, so Helvetica Roman. See the discussion on FontFeed here. The comments are especially interesting. That said, most people use these […]

  10. This etymology links the word “font” to “foundry” as a cognate:

    Posted by Joel Mielke on Oct. 1, 2012
  11. As a cartographer and typographer, (and old enough to remember lead type) may I point out that to a typesetter the typeface is the design of the type and the font is the typeface and size. Printers and typesetters would purchase a range of fonts depending on the publications they produced; very rarely would they purchase a complete typeface.

    So a typeface is Clarendon Bold, a font is 14point Clarendon Bold.

    Posted by Dave Perkins on Oct. 8, 2012
  12. To echo others here, the distinction between typeface and font is probably easiest to consider in terms of hierarchy. Type Family – ‘Helvetica’. Typeface – ‘Helvetica Bold’. Font – ‘Helvetica Bold 12pt’. With that in mind, understanding the practical distinction in modern everyday usage is fairly intuitive. Obviously it isn’t possible to instruct InDesign merely to set a subhead in ‘Helvetica’. You haven’t provided enough information to perform the task as you have only told InDesign which type family to go to and no more. You also cannot instruct InDesign to set the subhead in just ‘Helvetica Bold’. You have given InDesign more information in terms of the particular cut/design of the Helvetica type family you wish to use, but it still doesn’t have sufficient information to render your subhead. To do this, you must also specify the point size that you wish to reproduce the typeface at. As soon as you do this, you are specifying a particular font (the typeface Helvetica Bold at x point size). A font in essence contains the minimal amount of information required to render your subhead.

    Posted by Simon Burdett on Oct. 20, 2012
  13. In that everyday practical example I’m obviously ignoring default font settings in applications such as InDesign. In actual practice you can of course initially render text without selecting anything other than the type tool, but whether provided manually or by default, information right down to font level still needs to be provided in order to produce the text.

    Posted by Simon Burdett on Oct. 20, 2012
  14. The way I learned to use these correctly is simple:

    In my head I thought: font = ‘font’, Typeface = ‘font design’.

    In any circumstance, if it would be suitably appropriate to say ‘font design’ then I use the word ‘typeface’.
    After a bit it becomes ingrained and hey-presto, no more smarmy corrections from LaTeX snobs. :D

    Posted by Paul on Nov. 15, 2012
  15. This discussion is quaint and it’s perfectly acceptable to use them interchangeably – no one will be confused. The differences were so subtle that only imbeciles still point them out. It’s like making a distinction between “sneaker” and “tennis shoe.” Carry on.

    Posted by Simon LeMonde on Jan. 8, 2013
  16. You are fighting a completely lost cause.

    And, even amid your pedantic sumpsimus, you’re wrong.

    To be completely proper, one would need to discuss typeface families where normal English has already gotten on with it’s business using font. That’s never going to happen:
    (a) because it’s much too cumbersome and
    (b) because it’s confusing.
    An olde-time printer would need many piles of fonts to adjust his text the way we can today and readily understand discussing a “typeface family”. Someone adjusting text on a computer is clicking on a single file and then making other adjustments as a secondary matter.

    “Font” has added this definition to its meaning. Move on.

    Posted by Jj on Feb. 10, 2013
  17. Apologies for the poor layout of the above comment. Your page should mention that HTML tags within the comments won’t work.

    Posted by Jj on Feb. 10, 2013
  18. I’m a little confused. I teach Typography and I have always taught pretty much the opposite. The comment above mine, JJ, has it right. You should take note and maybe reconsider your post as to not misinform.

    Posted by Stephanie on Jul. 19, 2013
  19. Before getting to my point, I just want to let Simon know that if you wear sneakers on, say, a squash court, you are liable to be thrown out, whereas you will not if you wear tennis shoes. Who’s the imbecile now?

    1. When I buy a set of characters of a particular design, I do not buy a typeface: I buy a piece of software — a font — that generates the glyphs on my screen or my printer.

    2. When a type designer creates a typeface, s/he typically draws AT LEAST a Roman and an Italic, and typically also bold variants of these. When I buy a complete set of such variants, once again I am buying a font, or if you prefer a family of fonts, not a typeface.

    3. Presume, for a moment, that there were no restrictions on what foundry could legally sell a font implementing the design of, say, Optima. In that case, it would be clear that font and typeface are not the same thing: a font is a means of generating glyphs whose shapes are intended to reproduce the characters in the typeface design called Optima. It’s only a matter of law that there aren’t a dozen different Optima fonts, one from vendor X, one from vendor Y, etc. If a vendor other than Linotype wants to sell a font that reproduces the design of Optima, that vendor has — for legal reasons — to call it something other than Optima, but they’re not fooling anyone: Optimum is Opus is Optima. So for all practical purposes, they’re all implementations of the typeface Optima, i.e. different fonts that generate via different code the forms in the design of Optima.

    The moderators were not saying that all people must use a particular nomenclature, just that — for the sake of precision and clarity — a common set of terms should be used IN THIS FORUM. Anyone who objects to this should probably go elsewhere, because a set of common definitions is a sine qua non for rational discussion among members of any profession.

    Posted by Jon Pastor on Aug. 30, 2013
  20. So a type face is basically a technical term that designers call a font?? Jon Tan’s interpretation is great!

    Posted by Jason on Apr. 25, 2014
  21. A font, as I came to understand it working in an ancient print shop some 65 years ago, is a distribution of letters of a single size of a single typeface, the distribution representing the typical use of the letters in the alphabet in a given language, much as the uneven distribution of letters in a Scrabble game. The more fonts you have of a given typeface size, the larger a project you can take on before having to toss the individual pieces of type you have already set back into the case and set some more. A printer can then tell a client, “Yes, I can typeset your book. I have 20 fonts of 10pt Caslon Roman.

    Posted by Tom Parker on Jun. 15, 2014
  22. As a brazilian I am quite skeptical of the french origin of the word “font” from “fondre”, melted.

    For a start, the latin fons means spring of water, but the word has long ago been modified and used in all romance languages to mean “SOURCE”/”ORIGIN”. Fonte in portuguese and italian. Fuente in spanish.

    Considering the translation for Font is Fonte in portuguese and Fuente in spanish…

    Considering that typography is much older than the medieval movable typeface printing system by Gutenberg…

    Considering that “source” makes much more sense for a set of types with same size and typeface than the “spring of water” as an analogy for literature…

    … it seems to me there is really a chance that the origin of the word is the latin fons, maybe through the italian fonte, rather then french fondre.

    Posted by Roger Penna on Dec. 9, 2014
  23. font ~ element

    typeface ~ gestalt

    Posted by Mark Reeves on Feb. 10, 2015

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