Talking type

I often use this space to bitch. I also won’t apologize because if it really bothers you, you’ve long since gone elsewhere. In this entry however, I will tell you about a peeve of mine, and explain why it bugs me.

If you know me, you likely also know that I’m a bit of a type nerd. You’ll notice that I didn’t say I’m a font nerd. Being a type nerd, I know that font doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

Font

A font is a particular typeface, in a specific style and size. For example, 10 pt Helvetica bold is a font. Both 11 pt Helvetica bold and 10 pt Helvetica italic are different fonts.

Type style

A type style is a particular typeface in a specific style. For example, Helvetica bold is a type style.

Typeface

A typeface includes all the styles and sizes. For example, Helvetica is a typeface. This is what most people mean when they say font.

As with most terms, not everyone uses them in exactly the same way. Style describes a variety of permutations like roman, italic, bold, and small caps, while type style generally refers to the definition above, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Most type terms are used in multiple ways, but context often makes the meaning clear. Context is why I know most people mean typeface when they say font.

Knowing this, font may seem so specific that it’s not much use. I largely agree, which is why you’ve probably never heard me use the word. The term was more important in the past however, when changing the size of text was not as simple as entering the required point size in a field.

Before computerized type, presses used metal letters that were manually set into place, thus the term typesetting. If you wanted a different font, you had to get it as you couldn’t simply change the size of the metal letters you had. This is also why the companies that produce type are often called foundries. When type was metal, making it required an actual foundry.

In the early days of computer type, fonts were truly fonts … they were bitmapped and not scalable. If you had only 12 pt Helvetica normal, you didn’t have Helvetica normal at any other size or style. Even after scalable fonts appeared, bitmapped fonts remained for a time because scalable type wasn’t as clean at small sizes. Today, bitmapped fonts are largely unknown for print, but they have limited use for on-screen display.

Times, they are a changing. And the changes haven’t stopped yet!

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