What do these words actually mean? Aren’t they just the same thing?
Let’s clear it once and for all.
For anyone new to design or typography, choosing the right term might seem a little overwhelming. Understanding the difference between words, and when to use the right term can be a little confusing. There is a degree of mystery around type design specifically, and a lot of designers use many terms interchangeably. It doesn’t help that much of the terminology we use is derived from out-dated sources, or a process that simply no longer exists.
One particularly common source of misunderstanding is regarding the correct use of the words Font and Typeface. These seemingly interchangeable terms actually refer to different things and therefore are often misused by novices and long time designers alike.
So, what is a font and what is a typeface?
Well in very simple terms…
A font is what you use, a typeface is what you see.
The term typeface refers to the way the letters look. It is the specific design of the letters across an entire family. Think of it as the visual characteristics (or the face) of the type. For example Baskerville is a typeface, so is Helvetica. The term font officially refers to a specific size and weight of this design. For example Baskerville 16pt Bold is a font, so is Helvetica 32pt Italic.
As with much of the typographic language, the history of these terms date back to the very early usage of the printing press, where designers would set out individual metal blocks, one for every character, on a plate ready to print the design. Each iteration of the typeface would require its own set of metal blocks. These specific configurations of weight, size and design were called fonts. In fact, the word font is of French descent, originally meaning ‘something that has been melted’ or ‘a casting’.
With the progression of digital type changing how we use these terms, we no longer need specific fonts for every size or weight of character. Today our font files are mostly only differentiated by the weight, with each weight containing the ability to render characters at any size. In some cases, modern day fonts will have a large suite of open-type features which allow the type designer to include many glyph variations in a single file, which would of previously required a separate set of metal blocks. This is why, in the early days of digital type, small caps or swash variants would come as a separate file from the standard version.
So there it is. A typeface is a collection of fonts. The typeface is the name of the overarching design (sometimes called the font family), whereas the font refers to the specific file you use.
It will be interesting to see how the lexicon changes with the introduction of variable font files. Will the abstraction of a specific permutation of size, width, and weight change how we use or think about these terms? Or will they simply transcend the original meanings? Time will tell.