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In typography, a typeface is a co-ordinated set of character designs, which usually comprises an alphabet of letters, a set of numerals and a set of punctuation marks. There are also typefaces of Ideograms and symbols (e.g. mathematical or map making).

In its widest sense a typeface could be said to be a set of design rules (i.e. a style, look or feel) in which any character can be conceived. This allows for addition of new characters to existing typefaces (e.g. the introduction of the euro sign).

The art of designing typefaces is called type design, being the occupation of a type designer.



A font (originally fount, from typefoundry) is a set of glyphs (images) representing the characters from a particular character set in a particular typeface. Traditionally a font was specific to a given size (the actual height of characters), weight (how dark the text appears e.g. bold, light) and style (most commonly regular, italic or condensed). The design of a given character in font took into account all these three factors. Photographic typesetting allowed for optical scaling which meant that multiple sizes could be produced from a single font (although physical constraints on the reproduction system being used still require design changes at different sizes e.g. ink traps and spikes to allow for spread of ink).

In digital fonts, the image of each character may be encoded either as a bitmap (in a bitmap font) or by a higher-level description in terms of lines and curves enclosing space (an outline font, also called "vector font").

The term fount has been used for centuries to refer to the contemporary technological device used to print in a particular size and typeface. Virtually all founts were cast by type foundries in various lead alloys from the 1450s until the middle of the 20th century. A few large founts were made of wood, especially in the USA. This is known as wood type . There was a relatively brief overlapping period (ca. 1950s1990s) where photographic technology, known as phototypesetting, was used; founts came on rolls or discs of film. From the mid-1980s the move to digital typography has been relentless and the American spelling font has been almost universally adopted. The term font nowadays almost always refers to a computer file containing scalable, outline letterforms, usually in one of several common formats. Some fonts, such as Microsoft's Verdana, are intended primarily for use on computer screens.

Typeface characterisation

Typographers have derived a comprehensive vocabulary for describing and discussing the appearances of typefaces. Some vocabulary is only applicable to a subset of all scripts.


Sans-serif font
Serif font
Serif font (serifs
highlighted in red)

Fonts can be divided in the categories of serif and sans-serif fonts. Serifs are the small features at the end of strokes within letters. A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif (from French sans: "without"), also referred to as grotesque (or, in German, grotesk). See serif for etymological notes.

There is great variety among both serif and sans-serif fonts; both groups contain faces designed for setting large amounts of body text, and others intended primarily as decorative. The presence or absence of serifs is only one of many factors to consider when choosing a font.

Typefaces with serifs are often considered easier to read in long passages than those without. Studies on the matter are ambiguous, suggesting that most of this effect is due to the greater familiarity of serif typefaces. As a general rule, printed works such as newspapers and books almost always use serif fonts, at least for the text body. Web sites do not have to specify a font, they can simply respect the browser settings of the user, but of those that do, most use modern sans-serif fonts such as Verdana, because it is commonly believed that, in contrast to the case for printed material, sans-serif fonts are easier than serif fonts to read on computer screens.


Proportional vs. monospace fonts

A font whose glyphs are displayed using varying widths is a proportional font while one with fixed width is a non-proportional (or monospace or fixed-width) font.

Proportional fonts are generally considered nicer-looking and easier to read, and thus are the most commonly used type of font in professionally published printed material. For the same reason, they are typically used in GUI computer applications, such as word processors and web browsers. However, many proportional fonts contain fixed-width figures so that columns of numbers are aligned.

Non-proportional fonts are better than proportional fonts for some purposes, because their characters line up in nice, neat columns. Most non-electronic typewriters and text-only computer displays use only non-proportional fonts. Most computer programs which have a text-based interface, such as terminal emulators, are configured to use only non-proportional fonts. Most computer programmers prefer to use monospace fonts.

ASCII art requires a non-proportional font for proper viewing. In a web page, non-proportional fonts are most commonly encountered as a result of the <pre> </pre> HTML tag. In LaTeX, non-proportional fonts are used by the verbatim environment.

The two lines of text in non-proportional font (should) display as equal width, while the two lines in proportional font are radically different widths. This is because wide characters' glyphs (WQZMDOHU) get more screen width and narrow characters' glyphs (itl[]1|I) get less when using a proportional font.


Most, if not all, scripts share the notion of a baseline. The baseline is an imaginary horizontal line on which characters rest. In some scripts, parts of glyphs, descenders, lie below the baseline. The distance between the baseline and the lowest descending glyph in a typeface is called the descent, and the part of a glyph that descends the baseline is known as the descender. Conversely, the distance between the baseline and the top of the glyph that reaches farthest from the baseline is called the ascent. The ascent and descent may or may not include distance added by accents or diacritical marks.
In the Latin, Greek and Cyrillic scripts, the distance from the baseline to the top of regular lowercase glyphs is called the x-height. The part of a glyph rises above the x-height is called the ascender. The height of the ascender can have a dramatic effect on the readability and appearance of a font. The ratio between the x-height and the ascent is often used to characterise typefaces.

Font families

Since a plethora of typefaces has been created over the centuries, they are commonly categorized into families according to their appearance. Interestingly, this categorization corresponds vaguely with the historic evolution of typefaces.

At the highest level, one can differentiate between blackletter, serif, sans-serif, and decorational fonts.

Note: The following font samples print a sentence of patent nonsense, whose only purpose is to contain all letters of the alphabet (pangram).

Blackletter typefaces

Blackletter fonts were the earliest fonts used with the invention of the printing press. They resemble the blackletter callygraphy of that time. They are often called gothic script.

Textualis lettering
Textualis lettering
  • Of all the blackletter typefaces, the Textualis ones (or Old English) most closely resemble the Textura calligraphy used with manual copying of books. A textualis typeface was also carved by Johannes Gutenberg when he printed his 42-line Bible, including a large number of ligatures and common abbreviations.

Schwabacher lettering
Schwabacher lettering
  • Schwabacher typefaces were predominant in Germany from about 1480 to 1530, and it continued to be used occasionally until the 20th century. Most importantly, all of the works of Martin Luther, leading to the Protestant Reformation, as well as the Apocalypse of Albrecht Dürer (1498) were printed in this typeface. It was probably first used by Johannes Bämler, a printer from Augsburg, in 1472. The origins of the name are unclear; some assume that the typeface was designed by a typeface carver from the village of Schwabach who worked externally and was thus refererred to as the Schwabacher.

Fraktur lettering
Fraktur lettering
  • Most commonly known among the blackletter typefaces are those of the Fraktur family, which started when Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) established a series of books and had a new typeface created specifically for this purpose. Fraktur faces were in wide use in Germany until the Nazis prohibited them in 1942.

Serif fonts

Serif fonts, sometimes called roman, are in turn divided into four major groups:

The Garamond typeface
The Garamond typeface
  • Renaissance or Garalde Oldstyle, with only slight differences in thickness within each glyph; this category includes the Garamond and Palatino typefaces.

The Times New Roman typeface
The Times New Roman typeface
  • Baroque or Transitional, where the thickness within each glyph has greater variety; this category includes Baskerville and Times Roman.

The Bodoni typeface
The Bodoni typeface
  • Classicist, Didone , or Modern, with the most variance of thickness within each glyph. These are fonts designed after, and strongly influenced by, the introduction of finer typecasting techniques in the mid-1700s. This family includes the Bodoni and Century Schoolbook typefaces.

The Rockwell typeface
The Rockwell typeface
  • Contemporary fonts, especially those designed primarily for decorative purposes, frequently fall outside any of these categories. For example, slab serif fonts such as Rockwell look artificial on purpose, with almost rectangular shapes.

Sans-serif fonts

Sans-serif designs are a relatively recent typographical phenomenon in the history of type design. The first specimen appears to be the two-line English so-called "Egyptian" font released in 1816 by William Caslon's foundry, England. They are commonly, but not exclusively, used for display typography applications such as signage, headings, and other situations where clear meaning is imperative but continuous reading is not required.

Sans serif designs are broadly divided into 4 major groups for the purposes of type classification:

  • Grotesques, early sans serif designs, such as Grotesque or Royal Gothic .
The Arial typeface
The Arial typeface

The Frutiger typeface
The Frutiger typeface

The Futura typeface
The Futura typeface
  • Geometric (Futura or Spartan).

Other commonly used sans-serif fonts include Optima, Tahoma and Verdana.

Monochrome or with shades of grey

Digital bitmap fonts (and the final rendering of vector fonts) may be monochrome or with shades of gray. The latter is for the purpose of anti-aliasing and is not suitable for use in images with a transparent background, except when partial transparency is applied. Note that there is no theoretical difference between a low-resolution grayscale bitmap and a high-resolution monochrome bitmap resampled at the same low resolution.

Texts used to demonstrate typefaces

To demonstrate typefaces, a pangram, such as "the quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog," is often used. In English typefaces, one passage commonly used since the 16th century is lorem ipsum which originated as a Latin passage from Cicero.

Legal aspects of typefaces

In the United States, typeface designs are not copyrightable, although unusually novel designs may be patentable. Digital fonts that embody a particular design are often copyrightable as computer programs. The names of the typefaces can be trademarked. The result of these various means of legal protection is that sometimes the same typeface exists in multiple names and implementations.

Some elements of the software engines used to display typefaces on computers have software patents associated with them. In particular, Apple Computer has patented some of the hinting algorithms for TrueType, requiring open source alternatives such as FreeType to use different algorithms.

Related articles

External links

Last updated: 10-16-2005 14:56:54
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