Type Tidbit No. 06: What’s a font?

Cala is not a font. Cala is a typeface.

Font is the most misused term in all of typography. A font is not a typeface. A typeface is comprised of fonts and those variations make up the typeface family. As seen in the example above Cala is a typeface; in fact it’s an excellent typeface designed by Dieter Hofrichter of Hoftype. A font is a set of characters in a specific iteration of a typeface – 54 point Cala light italic is a font. A font is a specific size, weight, and style of a typeface. More often now it refers simply to the typeface, weight, and style, as in Cala light italic.

If you were to ask me what the font is used in the second line of the graphic above, the correct answer would be “54 point Cala medium.” If you asked me to name the typeface, I’d answer “Cala, and it’s spectacular.”

Since the advent of word processing, personal computers, and desktop printing, typography has fallen into the hands of the unlearned masses. Typographic ignorance really isn’t a problem for the vast majority of written communication. Your cousin’s annual Christmas letter is not made any less interesting or profound by its lack of quality typography and her incorrect use of two spaces after a period. Still, for those who wish to preserve the integrity of the craft of typography, it’s painful to see misinformation become supposed fact. The purpose of these Tuesday type posts is for me to brush up on my own knowledge of typography and share what I’ve learned to be the cold, lead facts. At the bottom of these shared bits of knowledge, I will begin to add links to typography resources referenced.

If you aren’t a graphic designer, printer or type enthusiast, most of what I’ll share in these Tuesday tidbits will be of little interest to you. For anyone who is not a trained typographer or graphic designer, a good rule of thumb is to let your word processing program provide the spacing defaults and stick with those. Unless you really understand what you’re doing, you’ll likely only make it uglier than it already is. If you are a graphic designer, it’s probably true that you can’t use Microsoft Word because its product is so ugly that it seems to disrespect anything you write. Apple’s Pages is better, but hardly perfect.

Today’s graphic designers are expected to be typographers. Unfortunately for most their expertise must come from on-the-job training. True typographic expertise is not taught adequately at most design schools. The sad fact is that graphic design neophytes are allowed to use typeface masterworks without sufficient training. It’s as if a violin student who is competent at scales and sight-reading were handed a Stradivarius and put on a concert stage. Tragic.

I am a graphic designer and I love type. Admittedly, my own typographic expertise is at times lacking. That’s why I read books on type. I’m researching and writing these posts to improve my command of the craft of typography. While I’m helping me, I thought I might help others. That’s why I’m writing these posts. Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments, gripes, or disagreements.

Robert Bringhurst’s excellent reference The Elements of Typographic Style is a fantastic handbook of type facts. Find the hardcover edition if you can.

  • I mix up “font” and “typeface” all the time, and I’m pretty good at the art of typography. Thanks for the explanation. By the way, my biggest pet peeve is the use of vertical “foot” marks (‘) and “inch” marks (“) in place of proper quotation marks and apostrophes. It drives me bananas, especially when used improperly in headlines. It’s OPTION-LEFT BRACKET for the left quotation mark and OPTION-SHIFT LEFT BRACKET for the right one. For apostrophes and close-inner quote marks (’), it’s OPTION-SHIFT RIGHT-BRACKET. For the open-inner quote (‘), it’s OPTION RIGHT-BRACKET. For feet (‘), simply click on the ” key next to the RETURN key. For inches (“), SHIFT-CLICK that key. If you’re on a PC, I couldn’t care less what key you press. Get serious and buy a Mac.

    • XK9

      The quote thing is a tell-tale sign of haphazard typography. According to Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style the correct glyphs for feet and inches* are the angled prime (′) and double prime (″). The vertical strokes and are known as dumb quotes. My WordPress type plug-in prevents those characters from being shown here.

      Most modern word processing and blog software subsititute “real quotation marks” for dumb quotes.

      * Prime and double prime also designate the measurement of minutes and seconds– related to degrees. Let me further confuse things by saying that 5 minutes on a clock is equal to 1800 minutes in degrees (1 degree = 60 minutes, 5 minutes = 12 degrees).

      • XK9

        FYI. In the Mac OS, the Character Viewer may be accessed from the menu bar by activating the option in the Keyboard control panel. From the Character Viewer you can click on characters to place them in your document, and create a list of favorites you use most often.

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