Difference between character/letter/letterform, and typeface/type/font?

npgraphicdesign's picture

I hear a lot of the terms used interchangeably. Let's say someone is referring to the letter 'a'; I hear it called letter, character, & letterform. Are there industry accepted definitions for these terms, or are they interchangeable?

I also hear Helvetica (for example) being referred to as a typeface/type/font. A font is typically the digital file that represents a certain typeface. Is that also the correct definition, or can someone elaborate on that?

Stephen Rapp's picture

Not sure if I can give an absolutely definitive answer, but here is my take. There might also be something in the wiki part of Typophile.

The term character refers to the digital coded version of your letter a. Some fonts may contain many *glyphs that represent the shape of that letters a. Characters in a font are not necessarily letters even though an a happens to be. If you can just wrap your head around the idea of a character being what we know language wise as the letter a and the glyph or glyphs are the visual representation of that character, then you will get the basic concept.

speter's picture

For the second question, see Phinney on Fonts.

Nachos's picture

Helvetica (for example) = Typeface
Helvetica 18pt Bold = Font

Type (the noun) is similar to the term letter or character. It came from a time when letterforms were being cut from metal and wood for use on printing presses. You could say "I've lost my piece of Bodoni type". The term has been carried over to the digital realm and is used more liberally now to refer to a character or set of characters.

Hope I did not confuse you any further.

merkri's picture

My understanding is that character is a little confusing, because it can refer to two things. A letter is a character, but not necessarily vice versa (e.g., 1, % & are characters but not letters). Both refer to things in the abstract (as opposed to glyphs, which are the visual instantiations of characters). However, characters also refer to the digital representation of characters.

I think of letterforms as being something a bit more abstract than even letters or characters, encompassing letter-like designs, or features of letters.

Similarly, a font is a digital file that codes for a particular type or typeface.

I normally think of a "type" as the sort of image itself, not its instantiation, although is it correct to talk about "metal type" in the same way as "digital font"?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Font or Typeface on the FontFeed.

guifa's picture

A character is much more relatable to a grapheme and is a more technical term.

A letter is a letter depending on many more factors and is a more of a laymen's term. For instance, in Spanish, "ch" is a single letter made of two characters.

A letterform is an individual style of representing a letter/character. So Helvetica has one letterform of "a", and Times has another and so forth and so on. This can be either at the specific level of types of serifs, etc, or at a more general level, single or double storied, etc.

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