30 Typography Terms & What They Mean
If you’re a beginner in graphic design, getting familiar with the specialized language used in the field is key to both your learning and your ability to communicate with other designers. Typography, the art of arranging type, is a fundamental aspect of design, and has its own extensive vocabulary. Understanding these terms can enhance your appreciation for the subtleties of great design and help you make more informed design choices.
Terms like kerning, leading, and serifs are often thrown around in the design world, but what do they actually mean? From basic terms to more complex concepts, knowing the language of typography can transform how you approach your work.
It can help you understand what makes a certain design or font work, or why it doesn’t. A clear understanding can lead you to more purposeful design decisions and ultimately, more impactful work.
In this article, we’ll explore 30 essential typography terms and their meanings. This will give you a good grounding in the language of typography, and whether you’re a graphic designer, a web designer, or just someone interested in design, you’ll find this glossary useful. Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- Sans Serif
- Cap Height
- Point Size
- Em Space and En Space
- Line Length
- Pull Quote
- Typeface Classification
A typeface, also known as a font family, encapsulates a set of fonts that share a common foundational design. These designs can manifest a range of expressions, yet they all form part of the same stylistic family. Times New Roman, Arial, and Helvetica are examples of typefaces, each bringing a unique character and mood to the printed words.
Each typeface features a suite of fonts that differ in weight, width, slope, and other attributes. These variations contribute to the versatility of a typeface, making it adaptable for different contexts and mediums. Ultimately, the choice of typeface can significantly influence the reader’s perception and interpretation of the text, offering an additional layer of communication beyond the written word.
A font represents a specific style and size within a typeface. Each font exhibits distinctive attributes such as size, weight (e.g., light, regular, bold), and style (e.g., italic, underline). These qualities, though subtle, can significantly impact the overall look and feel of a text.
For example, Times New Roman in bold and 12 points is a specific font. It would differ from Times New Roman in regular style and 14 points, which is another font, even though both belong to the same typeface. The selection of the right font is not only important for readability but also for creating a visual impact and maintaining aesthetic appeal.
Serif is a term used in typography to describe the small lines or strokes that extend from the ends of major strokes of a letterform. The word “serif” is derived from the Dutch word schreef, meaning “line” or “pen stroke.” Serifs can vary in design—some are pronounced and angular, while others are subtle and rounded.
Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, are commonly used in traditional print mediums, such as books and newspapers. Their distinct feature, the serif, is believed to increase readability by leading the eye along the line of text. However, the use of serif fonts extends beyond function—they are also chosen for their classic and formal aesthetic, often employed in academic, literary, or professional contexts.
4. Sans Serif
The term “sans serif” comes from the French word “sans,” meaning “without,” and refers to typefaces that lack the small decorative strokes—serifs—at the ends of the letterforms. Sans serif typefaces are characterized by their clean, streamlined letterforms, which offer a modern and minimal look compared to their serif counterparts.
Fonts like Arial and Helvetica are popular sans serif typefaces and are widely used in both print and digital media. They’re often favored for their clear, straightforward presentation and high legibility even at lower resolutions or smaller sizes, making them a popular choice for website text, user interfaces, and screen-based presentations.
Script typefaces are characterized by their resemblance to handwriting, providing an organic, personalized touch to the written content. These typefaces can range from formal and elegant to casual and playful, mimicking various styles of handwriting and calligraphy.
The use of script typefaces often suggests elegance, creativity, or whimsicality. However, their suitability is highly context-dependent, as their readability can vary greatly. Script fonts are often used for invitations, logos, headings, or any place where a touch of flair or humanistic feel is desired. Yet, for body text, script fonts may be less practical due to their sometimes elaborate forms.
Kerning involves the process of adjusting the space between individual characters in a word or line of text. This adjustment is often necessary as the default spacing provided by fonts can sometimes result in awkward gaps or crowding, particularly between specific letter pairs (like ‘AV’ or ‘To’).
By tweaking the kerning, typographers can achieve a more visually pleasing and harmonious spacing across a word or sentence. Not only does good kerning enhance the aesthetic appearance of your text, but it also improves readability and legibility, particularly in larger typesetting like headlines or logos.
Leading, pronounced “ledding”, refers to the vertical spacing between lines of text. Originating from the days of metal typesetting when thin strips of lead were used to separate lines of text, leading plays a crucial role in determining the readability of a block of text.
If the leading is too tight, the text may feel cramped and be difficult to read. Conversely, if the leading is too loose, the lines of text can appear disconnected, causing the reader to lose their place. Proper leading ensures a comfortable reading flow and can make a significant difference in the overall appearance of a page of text.
Tracking, also known as letter-spacing, refers to the consistent amount of space between characters in a block of text. Unlike kerning, which deals with the spacing between individual letter pairs, tracking is applied uniformly across a range of characters or an entire text block. It can be adjusted to tighten or loosen the overall density of the text.
Altering tracking can manipulate the texture and “color” of a block of text, where “color” refers to the overall tonal value of a text when observed from a distance. Tight tracking can lend a text a dense, heavy appearance, while loose tracking can make the same text seem light and airy. Careful use of tracking can greatly enhance readability, especially in fully justified text or when setting lines of all-capital letters.
An ascender is the portion of a lowercase letter that rises above the main body or x-height of the font, extending towards the cap height. The x-height is the height of lowercase letters that do not have ascenders or descenders, like the letter ‘x’.
Examples of lowercase letters with ascenders include ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘h’, ‘k’, and ‘l’. The design and height of ascenders can greatly influence the appearance and readability of a typeface. They can give a font a sense of openness or compactness, and their design often helps define the character of the typeface.
A descender, in contrast to an ascender, is the part of a lowercase letter that extends below the baseline of the font. Examples of lowercase letters with descenders include ‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’, ‘q’, and ‘y’.
The length and style of the descenders contribute significantly to the overall character and legibility of a typeface. In certain design contexts, such as signage or logo design, the use of descenders may also play a pivotal role in the aesthetic appeal of the text.
The baseline in typography is the invisible line on which characters sit. The bodies of most letters rest on this line, while certain characters, like ‘y’ or ‘g’, have portions (descenders) that drop below it.
While it may seem a minor detail, the baseline serves as the fundamental alignment point in a line of text, ensuring a consistent, orderly appearance. It is also a critical reference point when setting leading, as the vertical space between lines of text is often defined as the distance from one baseline to the next.
The x-height, as the name suggests, refers to the height of the lowercase ‘x’ in any given font. This term also represents the typical height of lowercase letters within a font, excluding any ascenders or descenders.
The x-height is a crucial factor in the perceived size and legibility of a typeface. Typefaces with a larger x-height often seem larger overall, and they’re generally easier to read at smaller sizes. Conversely, typefaces with a small x-height can appear more refined and elegant, though they may be less legible in dense blocks of text or at small sizes.
13. Cap Height
Cap height refers to the distance from the baseline to the top of an uppercase letter in a particular typeface. Letters such as ‘H’ and ‘T’ are typically used as references, as they are often designed to the full cap height.
This measurement plays a significant role in defining the proportions of a typeface. It directly influences how that typeface interacts with elements like ascenders and diacritical marks. In conjunction with other factors like x-height and descender length, the cap height contributes to the overall visual character and readability of a font.
In typography, a ligature is a special character that combines two or more letters into a single glyph. This practice originated in the early days of handwritten scripts and later carried over into typesetting. The common ligatures include ‘æ’ in English, ‘œ’ in French, and ‘ß’ in German.
Ligatures often arise for practical reasons, such as resolving collisions where two letters may come too close together, or for aesthetic reasons, to achieve a certain stylistic effect. Though less common in contemporary digital typography, ligatures are still used in professional type design and high-quality typesetting, often adding a touch of classic elegance.
A glyph in typography refers to a specific design of a letter or character in a particular font. In other words, it’s the visual representation of a character. Each font in a typeface consists of a set of glyphs.
While a font might include a glyph for each character of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation, it might also include variants like ligatures, diacritical marks, and special characters. Glyph design can greatly affect the legibility and visual appeal of a font. This is why designers often spend a great deal of time refining each glyph in a font, ensuring that they all work harmoniously together.
In typography, a widow refers to a single word, or a short line of text, that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph or column. This usually occurs when a paragraph or sentence doesn’t quite fit on a line, and the last word or sentence fragment rolls over to the next line or page.
Widows can disrupt the clean look of a page layout, causing an imbalance in the composition. They may also cause a brief, unintentional pause in the reader’s flow, potentially affecting comprehension. Many designers adjust the text—through techniques like tracking, kerning, or rephrasing—to prevent or eliminate widows.
An orphan in typography is a single word or short line at the beginning or end of a column that is separated from the rest of the paragraph. Much like a widow, an orphan can disrupt the visual harmony of a page layout, leaving too much white space, and may affect readability.
There are various methods for handling orphans. Some designers might subtly change the width of the spaces between words or the size of the characters, or slightly adjust the layout of the paragraph or the page, to ensure a more even and pleasing distribution of text.
In typography and page layout, a gutter is the space between columns of text or between the printed area and the inside edge of a page. This term is often used in reference to multi-column layouts and book designs.
The gutter serves a critical function in print and digital design alike, providing sufficient space to hold or bind printed pages without obscuring the text. In digital design, gutters help to establish a clear visual separation between distinct blocks of content, enhancing readability and overall layout clarity.
19. Point Size
Point size is a unit of measurement used in typography to define the size of a font. One point is approximately 1/72 of an inch or about 0.35mm. The point size refers to the height of the body of the letter, not the character itself.
The selection of the appropriate point size is crucial for readability and legibility. It needs to align with the medium and context in which the text is presented. For example, larger point sizes are typically used for headings or billboards, where the text must be visible from a distance. Smaller point sizes are used for body text in books, articles, and web content.
20. Body Text
Body text, also known as body copy or simply copy, is the main part of a written communication that provides the most substantial information. It’s the paragraphs in a novel, the meaty content of an article, or the detailed descriptions on a website.
The choice of typeface, size, leading, and tracking for the body text is incredibly important, as it needs to be legible and easy to read over extended periods. Serif typefaces are commonly used for printed body text, while sans serif typefaces are popular for digital use, due to their clarity on screens.
21. Display Type
Display type refers to the use of a typeface at large sizes, usually for headings or titles, signage, or any application where the type is intended to stand out. Display typefaces often have more distinct characteristics and decorative elements than typefaces intended for body text.
While these typefaces can bring flair and personality when used at large sizes, they may not always be suitable for smaller text or long passages because the characteristics that make them interesting at large sizes can make them difficult to read at smaller sizes.
Italic type is a cursive font based on a stylized form of calligraphic handwriting. It is usually slightly slanted to the right. Owing to the influence from calligraphic writing, italics may have more fluid, single-stroke glyphs compared to regular typefaces.
Italics are commonly used for emphasis within a block of text, for captions, or for setting off a block quote. They can also be used for a more informal or artistic effect, depending on the overall design and context.
Bold type refers to a font that is darker and heavier than the regular or roman version of that typeface. This heaviness is typically achieved by adding weight to the strokes of the characters.
Bold type is commonly used for emphasis within a text, similar to italics. It’s also frequently used for headlines or subheads, where it can help to draw the reader’s attention. Additionally, bold type can be useful for highlighting key information or differentiating certain text elements from the rest of the content.
In typography, Roman refers to upright typefaces. It’s the standard style of type, in contrast to italic or oblique styles. The term originates from the classical antiquity period, a time when characters were often inscribed in stone in an upright manner.
Roman type is often used for the main body of a text because it’s generally more legible than its italic or oblique counterparts, particularly for extended reading. Variations within Roman typefaces can include bold or light versions, small capitals, and other stylistic alternates.
Oblique type is a form of type that slants slightly to the right, similar to italic type. The key difference between oblique and italic is that oblique typefaces are simply a slanted version of the regular (roman) style, while italics are also typically redesigned to mimic calligraphic handwriting, featuring different letter shapes.
Like italics, oblique type is often used to provide emphasis within a text, set off a quote, or create a more informal or dynamic feel.
26. Small Caps
Small caps are uppercase (capital) letters that are about the same height as the x-height of the lowercase letters of a typeface. They are used in various contexts, including acronyms, sections of text that need subtle emphasis, or stylistic purposes in headers or titles.
Using small caps can provide a more harmonious, less disruptive look than using full-size capitals, especially in running text. It allows for emphasis without disrupting the reader’s eye movement along the line of text.
A swash in typography refers to a flourish or decorative extension added to a character in a typeface. These ornamental additions can be applied to uppercase, lowercase, or even punctuation characters, and they are typically used in display type or logotypes to add a touch of elegance or creativity.
The use of swash characters should be considered carefully as they can affect legibility. Hence, they’re usually reserved for special applications where the goal is to achieve a particular artistic effect.
Blackletter, also known as Gothic script or Old English, is a style of script that was used in Western Europe from the 12th to the 17th centuries. It is characterized by its dense, angular forms, often featuring decorative elements or flourishes.
Despite its name, Blackletter is not commonly used in English text today, as it can be difficult to read. However, it is still seen in certain contexts for stylistic or historic effect, such as in newspaper logos, diplomas, or traditional German breweries.
Dingbats are ornamental symbols or characters used in typesetting, often for the creation of borders, dividers, or decorations. They can include anything from simple geometric shapes to elaborate flourishes, icons, or pictograms.
While they don’t represent specific linguistic characters, dingbats can contribute to the overall aesthetic or functional design of a page or piece of text. They can help guide the reader’s attention, signify a change in content, or simply add visual interest to a layout.
Serif refers to the small lines or strokes that extend from the ends of the larger strokes in some typefaces. Serif typefaces are often used in print media, such as books and newspapers, as they are believed to enhance readability and guide the reader’s flow from one character to the next.
Serif typefaces are often perceived as traditional or formal. They include a variety of styles, such as Old Style (like Garamond), Transitional (like Baskerville), and Modern (like Bodoni), each carrying distinct characteristics and historical connotations.
There you have it! A beginner’s guide to 30 important typography terms. By understanding these terms, you’ll be better equipped to discuss and make decisions about type in your design work.