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Category: typography Page 1 of 2

Kerning! Do you speak it?

I followed a white Impala for quite a distance on my way to a mall this afternoon. I was entirely distracted by it. See for yourself:

IMG_0749.jpg: iPhone5s, back camera @ 4.15mm, 1/800, f/2.2, 32 ISO

IMG_0749.jpg: iPhone5s, back camera @ 4.15mm, 1/800, f/2.2, 32 ISO

Every letter of the LTZ designation is crooked, and the ‘L’ and ‘T’ pair suffers from wretched kerning! Whoever attached those letters clearly did so by hand and has no idea what kerning even means. What a mess.

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.


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.


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!

You want to annoy me?

I read about a shirt on Boing Boing that would certainly do the trick. In their article “Helvetica tee is type-nerd-bait,” they describe it as

a shirt that’s bound to infuriate your type-obsessed pals: the word Helvetica, set in Comic Sans.

It makes me shudder, and you wouldn’t like me when I shudder.

Image courtesy of BustedTees.

Wherefore art thou Arial

These days, everyone knows what Arial is. It’s that typeface in Windows, right? Right. Others know it as Microsoft’s version of Helvetica, right? Wrong. Very wrong.

Arial was designed by Monotype in 1982. It’s not the same as Helvetica but Arial is so similar that I wonder if Monotype commissioned it because they wanted Helvetica and weren’t willing to pay, but were too proud to simply clone it under a different name. Arial hit the big-time when Microsoft licensed it for Windows 3.1 in 1992. I absolutely believe that Microsoft included Arial because Helvetica was more expensive.

I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed because I prefer Helvetica over Arial. There’s no contest. And to those who suggest that they’re the same, I suggest that you’re either blind, or you’ve only seen them at 10 point. Take a look at these samples:

Sample 1:

Sample 2:

They do look very similar, don’t they? When I first formatted these two samples, I thought to myself, “They’re damn-near identical. Maybe I’m just a Helvetica snob!” I’ll admit to being a Helvetica snob, but looking at them more closely reveals all kinds of differences. In fact, of the ten characters presented above, I see clear differences in six. There may be differences in the other four, but I either haven’t noticed them, or can’t see them at this size.

The unveiling: Sample 1 is Helvetica. Sample 2 is Arial. Let me share the differences I see.

  • The end of the strokes in Helvetica are almost always exactly horizontal. When they’re not horizontal, the end of the strokes are exactly vertical. In contrast, the end of every curved stroke in Arial angles with the curve. The e, c, t, a, and ? display this trait. Part of the appeal of Helvetica is the simplicity and lack of quirks in the majority of the characters. These angled ends stick out as quirks, and there are a lot of them. Even worse, it gives Arial a distinctly unfinished look compared to Helvetica’s clean and finely honed appearance.
  • The top of the Helvetica t is flat while the Arial t shows a significant angle. I have no dislike of the t being angled in this way. I absolutely adore how this same angled top integrates the left arm with the top of the stem of the Gill Sans t. There it fits beautifully into the typeface, while here it sticks out as an aberration.
  • The Helvetica a has a tail. The Arial counterpart does not.
  • The bowl of the Helvetica a intersects the stem with an upward sweep, showing a smooth integration of the two strokes. The bowl of the Arial a more or less smashes straight into the stem.

And these are only ten characters. There are many more differences when you consider the entire character set.

Helvetica and Arial are not the same.


A strange character, the ampersand.

According to an Adobe page on the character, one of the first examples of the ampersand appeared in 45 AD. Then, as now, it’s a ligature of the letters e and t, and in Latin, et is the equivalent of the English ‘and.’ Logical and straightforward, right? But where does its name come from, and why does it look that way? One thing at a time, grasshopper.

The visual appearance of the character seems to give no indications of its origins. The ampersand above, from Adobe Caslon Pro, does not look like any et I can imagine. If pressed, I’d guess it’s a highly stylized ex. Look at the italic version of the character to the left, however. You can see it pretty clearly once you get past the crazy arms on the t.

Different typefaces can show remarkable variation in letter-forms, and the ampersand is no exception. The Adobe Caslon Pro italic ampersand appears to be capitalized while the Adobe Garamond Pro italic ampersand is distinctly lowercase, as you can see to the right. Don’t ask me why the cross bar of the e extends beyond the rest of the letter.

The origin of the name is a simpler thing. Our alphabet currently has 26 characters. In the past it had more. Some characters are not used anymore, while others are no longer considered letters. The ampersand is one of the latter. When it was still a letter, children would recite it as part of the alphabet. It was placed at the end, after z. The only issue was that it didn’t have a name at the time.

The end of the alphabet recitation was, “x, y, z, and per se and.” In Latin, per se translates roughly to “by itself.” What the children said could be understood as “x, y, z, and [the character] by itself [means] and.”

No name? No problem! They just described the character. Over time, everything they said after z was compacted into the word ampersand. The description became the name we use today.

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