In last week’s article we looked at the story of a font as it developed from the handwriting of a king’s librarian in Renaissance Italy to the go-to font for a modern multinational corporation. This week, we’re going to have a closer look at fonts themselves. We’re going to delve into the arcana of typology and hopefully develop some appreciation of the complexity that’s involved in creating those little marks on screen and paper that are all but transparent to most of us.
Next week we’ll round off our short series on fonts with a look at how the professionals combine different fonts to make a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing document.
First things first, what most people call a font is actually known by professionals as a typeface. Typographers use the term font when they want to refer to one particular size of a given set of letters and characters. So Times New Roman 10 pt is a different font to Times New Roman 12 pt, but they are of the same typeface.
If you look at the image at the top of this post you will see a letter “S” from a serif font. Serifs are the little twiddly bits that protrude from the extremities of some of the letters. Some typographers claim that these make typefaces easier to read in blocks of text, and you’ll often see serif fonts used in the text of magazine and book articles. Sans Serif typefaces lack these protrusions. Take a closer look at the text you are reading right now. If you haven’t changed your browser setting for fonts, you should be seeing a sans serif typeface. The “sans” part of sans serif comes from the French word for “without”.
Typefaces have to accommodate documents from the “small print” on labels to huge billboards. Typeface sizes are usually measured in a unit called “points”. The point has varied over the years, but these days there are generally held to be 72 points to an inch. Another frequent measure of typeface size is the pica, which is 12 points.
Here things get complicated. Each part of a typeface has a name.
Part of the art of typeface design is making sure that all of these parts fit together to make cohesive whole. Check out this guide for a more comprehensive breakdown of the parts of a typeface.
Almost as important as the shape of a typeface, is the way that it fits together on the line. Proportional fonts — such as you’ll find in books — are carefully laid out along the line, with the spaces between the the letter precisely calculated. This has to be done per letter combination. The space between an “E” and a “T” isn’t the same as the space between a “V” and a “M”. There’s a precise art to laying out the text along the line properly so that it looks good. Type also has to be arranged in vertical blocks, and getting this right takes some considerable experience too.
Much of what type designers do is invisible to the ordinary reader. This is deliberate, readers read for information and anything that draws attention to the form of the letters will distract from the reading. Type designers are the unheralded architects of the information age.
Don’t forget to check back next week (or subscribe to our RSS feed) for the last in our series on fonts, which will teach you how to combine fonts like a pro.