Do the words 'font' and 'typeface' mean exactly the same thing?

ravells's picture

Hi all, I'm a long time lurker of the site.

A few nights ago I got into a discussion about whether the words 'font' and 'typeface' are entirely interchangeable or whether there is a difference between the two.

Online dictionaries suggest that they have exactly the same meaning along the lines of: a complete set of letters and numbers in one size and style, used for printing or for computer documents

but I wondered whether that was the end of the story?

Many thanks in advance,

Ravs

ravells's picture

Thanks Commonprojects! I did try a search before I posted, but the two words are so common on this site that there were too many returned results to sift through.

JamesM's picture

As the articles point out, the words have different meanings. However in common usage by the general public, the words are often used interchangeably.

A few years ago I heard a dictionary editor discuss this subject and his observation was that "font" was gradually replacing "typeface" in common usage because when 2 words have a similar meaning the public tends to use the shorter word.

ravells's picture

Thanks very much for the link eliason.

James, from my reading of the links posted, they are presently interchangeable, but there are (sensible) moves afoot in the industry to create a distinction: font = vehicle of delivery and typeface = look/feel. It will be interesting to see if that distinction becomes the accepted norm.

As things stand though, if one were to say, "what a lovely font!" Most people would understand that to refer to the look and feel rather than than the vehicle of delivery.

A friend of mine who is a law professor in the US mentioned in passing that under US IP law, a font is defined as a sub-species of a typeface, so it seems that there yet other distinctions out there although those would probably only be ever used for the purpose of statutory interpretation.

Interesting observation by the dictionary editor, thanks!

Mark Simonson's picture

Judging from many of the type i.d. requests on Typophile, it seems that the word "font" in the minds of many in the general public includes not only typefaces, but lettering, handwriting, calligraphy, stone carved letters--in short, any kind of letter no matter how it was made.

My own theory is that it's the fault of the ubiquitous "Font" menu. The average person, with no knowledge of typography, sees this menu called "Font", looks at its contents, sees different styles of letters, and concludes that "font" must mean "letter style". Thus, when they see some style of letter (with no idea how it was made), they come here and ask what "font" it is.

Nick Shinn's picture

Is Bodoni a typeface?

**

There are other difficulties:
character/letter/glyph
complement/compliment

Especially between common meanings and technical meanings:
style/style
roman/roman
modern/modern
grotesque/grotesque

And even between technical meanings:
script/script

When speaking technically, it always helps to qualify one's terms.

ravells's picture

Then again, I wonder if there's any real purpose in having a distinction between the two words. Printing presses have gone the way of the dinosaur (except for a tiny number of specialist printers), so there is only one significant font (in the sense of 'a physical embodiment of a collection of letters', or 'a delivery mechanism')which is the medium of computer files; for the life of me, I can't think of any other significant media in which collections of letters and symbols are stored, can anyone think of any?

If that's right, and it's taken for granted that all fonts are computer files, I suppose you might say, 'That's a lovely typeface, could you email me the computer file font [as opposed to the lead type font]?', but wouldn't it be easier to say, 'That's a lovely font, could you email it to me?'?

lol, never thought I'd get into these waters when I asked the question.

JamesM's picture

Mark I think you're right, the "font" menu label has influenced folks' use of that word.

Nick Shinn's picture

…it's taken for granted that all fonts are computer files…

But they aren't.
Letterpress is not extinct.

That's not the point, however.
A typeface may be considered as a family of fonts, sharing the same stylistic genes.
For instance, Helvetica is a typeface, comprising fonts such as Helvetica Bold and Helvetica 67.
A font cannot be comprised of fonts, that doesn't make sense.

Thomas Phinney's picture

What Nick said.

In essence, there is a difference between the lay-person usage (font=typeface) and the professional usage.

I did a survey a couple of years ago, and confirmed that among folks who work with fonts for their living, there is a significant difference between the terms:
http://www.thomasphinney.com/2009/02/font-name/
http://www.thomasphinney.com/2009/04/font-terms-survey-results/

The Wikipedia entries for typeface and font accurately reflect the way these words are usually used by professionals in this field (though this of course could change, as is the way with Wikipedia):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typeface
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Font

Cheers,

T

John Hudson's picture

This is what I occasion to say on the subject on the ATypI discussion list last month:

I think there is a fairly direct parallel between a metal font as a set of sorts, a hotmetal font as a set of matrices, a photo font as a disc or strip of negative or positive images, a dry transfer font as a sheet of rubdown images, and a digital font as a collection of outline or bitmap glyphs. The principle difference is scaleability: a font of metal type, a set of hotmetal matrices or a dry transfer sheet are size-specific, whereas photo and digital fonts are scaleable. In all cases, the design that we think of as the typeface can be extracted from the particular implementation as a font, most obviously by being implemented in a different technology. Ergo, regardless of the technology there is a need to be able to distinguish, in thinking or speaking about some aspects of type, the typeface design from the font implementation.

ravells's picture

Thank you everyone for continuing to humour my geekish fascination with the subject.

"A font cannot be comprised of fonts, that doesn't make sense."

But don't people call a collection of fonts of the same typeface in different styles 'Font Families'?

Nick and Thomas, your distinction between typefaces and fonts makes much more sense to me than those suggested by the font-feed article posted by eliason (3rd post in this thread). I must speak to my professor friend again, because I have sneaking suspicion that your definition is probably the same as that used by US IP statute(s). Sadly I don't know which ones they are as I don't have access to the material - but he did say that fonts were treated as a subspecies of typefaces.

Saying that a font represents the delivery mechanism and using the CD / Song analogy, while accurate, to my mind almost makes the word 'font' redundant, because the collection type to which it once referred is now nearly redundant. I take the point about letterpress being in existence, but it's use is not significant when compared to fonts stored as computer files. A font is wider than a descriptor of the delivery system, whether it be computer files or metal type, it is also a descriptor of the typeface (that's what threw me).

I find it quite subtle, because the definition is not entirely Cartesian but what I have learned is that:

A font is a collection of letters and/or symbols of a particular typeface created, stored and intended to be used together.

A font family is a collection of fonts of varying styles based on the same typeface.

A typeface is a descriptor applied to distinguish the appearance of font (or font family), usually by name (e.g. Helvetica).

Putting this hypothesis to the test, I might say:

Helvetica is a typeface. (Here I am referring to the style of letter-form which makes Helvetica what it is).

Helvetica is a font. (Here I am referring to a collection of letters and symbols which comprise Helvetica).

Helvetica Regular bold and Helvetica Regular Italic are all part of the Helvetica font family. (Self explanatory).

So:

I would download a Helvetica font.
I would prefer a Helvetica typeface over a Comic Sans typeface.
If I stole your font, I might have downloaded it without your permission.
If I stole your typeface, I might have created a font in a very similar style.

Am I getting there?

Nick Shinn's picture

There are four kinds of typeface:

1. A commercial product which is a collection of fonts.
2. A commercial product where there is only one font in the typeface.
3. A design which may be considered independently of particular commercial products, i.e. one which has been implemented by more than one foundry and/or in more than one medium, e.g. Hobo.
4. A design which has been reinterpreted in many ways, often quite different, to the extent that it is a communal archetype—typographers "know" what its general characteristics are, independent of any particular implementation. Bodoni, Garamond, Caslon, Jenson, Century, &c.

ravells's picture

Why does it have to be a commercial product?

Nick Shinn's picture

Right, it doesn't have to be.

ravells's picture

I'm sorry, you were being helpful and my answer may have come across as glib (but I had to leave my desk for few minutes).

I like the words Archetype and design when applied to typefaces - it implies that a typeface is a set of rules by which a font is created.

So revising my working definition of typeface:

A typeface describes one or more fonts which follow a recognised set of visual rules.

Nick Shinn's picture

A typeface describes one or more fonts which follow a recognised set of visual rules.

That's putting the cart before the horse.
I design typefaces, not fonts.
In other words, I will have an idea for a typeface before I put pen to paper (or stylus to tablet, to use those rather quaint terms).
So I should revise my category (3), changing i.e. to e.g.

ravells's picture

Crumbs, quite right.

So...A typeface is a set of visual rules from which fonts are created?

ravells's picture

I just want to collect the definitions in one place again:

A font is a collection of letters and/or symbols of a particular typeface created, stored and intended to be used together.

A font family is a collection of fonts of varying styles based on the same typeface.

A typeface is a set of visual rules from which fonts are created.

Examples:

- I like that typeface!
(I like the visual rules applied to create that font). You would not say, 'I like that font'.

- x and y are fonts which are all variants of the same typeface.

- I would download a Helvetica font.

- I would prefer a Helvetica typeface over a Comic Sans typeface.

- If I stole your font, I might have downloaded it without your permission.

- If I stole your typeface, I might have created a font in a very similar style (because I used the same rules to create the font)

quadibloc's picture

One point that has come up in this discussion implies the need to be careful about the distinction involving a third term.

Bodoni is a typeface.

It is available in several weights, the roman, italic, and bold.

You can obtain a font of one of those weights in various forms. While I think that Kelsey has closed up shop, one type of font would consist of, for example, 4 pounds of a lead-antimony alloy, with perhaps 26 "a"s, 36 "e"s, and so on and so forth. Another might be a Type 1, TrueType, or OpenType file to enable a computer to print in a given weight of a given typeface.

I'm not quite sure, though, that a set of matrices to be placed in a Monotype matrix-case, or a disk with images of the characters upon it to be placed in a phototypesetter, was ever called a font, and so the general meaning of "means of delivery" depends on the recent usage in connection with font files.

And, of course, there is a question of whether Bodoni Book should be considered another typeface or a weight of Bodoni.

Nick Shinn's picture

A typeface is a set of visual rules from which fonts are created.

Certainly, it has visual themes (rather than rules).

It's a design system of readably ergonomic, culturally expressive, harmoniously styled glyph shapes (including alphabets, numbers, and punctuation), a pattern for rendering linguistic character encodings in fonts.

charles ellertson's picture

Multiple Masters are what, typefaces, or fonts? I've always taken a particular instance of a Multiple Master as a font, the MM itself as a typeface. Though MM are formally dead, Adobe's OTF Families that have titling, subhead, and caption variants are instances of a multiple master.

It was similar with photocomp. You could purchase many fonts as an 8-point master, a 12-point master, and an 18-point master. Also true of the Linotron 202 (which some consider digital, some photocomp).

Thomas Phinney's picture

Myriad MM is a font. Myriad MM italic is another font. There were two fonts in the MM implementation of the Myriad typeface. There are 40 in the OpenType implementation.

Those of us who still use MM technology in typeface design are able to have fewer upstream fonts (in MM form) to make it easier to create more downstream fonts from instances of the MM font.

This is a great example of why, when dealing with this stuff on a professional level, it is really useful to have clear definitions.

Of course, with the MM technology, the really interesting question is how many masters did you have to create, and how that compared to the number of output fonts in the end, rather than how many MM font files those masters were stored in. So for example, Hypatia Sans had two masters for six fonts (plus a large handful of alternates for the black master, to make the black weight work for both interpolation and on its own). Then double that all for the italics.

Cheers,

T

dberlow's picture

>This is a great example of why, when dealing with this stuff on a professional level, it is really useful to have clear definitions.

We'll, in that case we should say a typeface is a virgin, a font is a whore, and a MM is a pimp's wife, right?

butterick's picture

The 500 or so type professionals in the world, and let's say another 1000 typographic enthusiasts, are the only ones who are keeping the font / typeface terminology distinction alive.

The original Macintosh called it the "Font" menu, not the "Typeface" menu, and accelerated the merging of the terms. In the bitmap-font era, I guess one could've argued in favor of either term, but Font was shorter, and that mattered when you only had 512 pixels across. The arrival of outline fonts diluted the distinction further. (If a "font" is a specific style and size of a "typeface," what does it mean when all the sizes and styles are derived from one master file?)

For nonprofessionals, "font" is the prevalent term and embraces both meanings. "What font does the New York Times use?" "Imperial." "What font should I use for my report — 11 point Bembo, or 10 point Adobe Caslon?" And so on. Lexicographer Bryan Garner agrees, saying that "Technology has changed the meaning of this term … font most often denotes a whole family of styles that can be printed at almost any size." (Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Ed. at 364).

Indeed, I have always found that attempts to teach nonprofessionals the term "typeface" usually results in the response "oh, you mean a font?" If folks get the conceptual distinction, that's what counts. It doesn't really matter if they want to use the same word. Let's also note that typography pros muddy the waters by sometimes using the terms interchangeably — I mean, why is it the Font Bureau, not the Typeface Bureau? Why is it FontShop not TypefaceShop?

Under this common usage, YES, a font (meaning 1) can be made of fonts (meaning 2). If you dislike the idea that "font" can mean more than one thing, consider the term "type." When I worked in a lettepress shop, "type" was stuff made of metal and stored in cases. But we also say "type designer," using "type" to mean "typeface." And then we have companies like Storm Type Foundry, which makes and sells fonts, so I guess "type" means "font" in that context. So "type" can mean at least three different things.

I predict that "typeface" is on its way to becoming merely an important-sounding synonym for the popular term "font," like "physician" for "doctor."

John Hudson's picture

Matthew: The 500 or so type professionals in the world … are the only ones who are keeping the font / typeface terminology distinction alive.

Sure, because they are the people for whom the distinction is meaningful. Many professions employ specialised vocabulary usage that is irrelevant to the needs of lay people.

butterick's picture

Sure, because they are the people for whom the distinction is meaningful. Many professions employ specialised vocabulary usage that is irrelevant to the needs of lay people.

The conceptual distinction is meaningful and relevant to lay people. They just use the same word for both ideas. Compare book, a term that embraces a similar pair of meanings: "my brother wrote a book" and "my brother bought a book." In the first usage, book means a text, which might be stored in a word-processing file. In the second usage, book means a specific instantiation of that text for a reader. (And "I bought my brother's book" is an ambiguous sentence without further context.)

The professional-necessity argument for having two terms would be more persuasive if type professionals a) agreed on the specific distinction between the terms (as this thread shows, they don't) and b) used the terms consistently (they don't).

So to go back to the OP's question, I'd say that font and typeface mean the same thing, unless you're talking to type professionals, who reserve the right to use typeface to mean something narrower than font.

Because I frequently discuss typography with nonprofessionals, I've mostly purged typeface from my vocabulary, without negative side effects.

Té Rowan's picture

As I understand it, it's 'typeface' in the abstract and 'font' in the concrete. Or, as someone put it: "A font is a typeface with its hard hat on."

charles ellertson's picture

In the old days (metal), you'd by a typeface in different sizes and weights. The individuals sizes and weights were "fonts", the collective was a "typeface."

On that analogy, a Multiple Master -- e.g. the roman (which may include the "bold"), is a typeface. Instances are fonts. The italic MM is a different typeface, again, instances are fonts.

This runs contrary to Thomas' usage, but makes good sense to me.

Nick Shinn's picture

I mean, why is it the Font Bureau, not the Typeface Bureau? Why is it FontShop not TypefaceShop?

Because they sell font licences, not typeface licences.

The choice between "type" and "font" in a business name may well be based on which sounds better.

For instance, "Shinntype" is more snappy than "Shinnfonts", although I do occasionally refer to the firm as Shinn-O-Fonts.

The professional-necessity argument for having two terms would be more persuasive if type professionals a) agreed on the specific distinction between the terms (as this thread shows, they don't) and b) used the terms consistently (they don't).

Surely the important thing is that professionals recognize that there IS a distinction. Arguing over such minutiae is what professionals do best.

**

I'm contributing to preserving the distinction, beyond the 1,500 figure, which I believe is an underestimate.
Over several years I've taught it to over 100 design students in the type design component of a design degree/diploma, at three design schools in Toronto, as have my peers teaching the same and similar courses.

I also attempt to explain the difference between a character and a glyph. Then I come to the space character…

quadibloc's picture

Since it is generally accepted that Times Roman Italic, and Times Roman Bold belong to the Times Roman typeface, I think that it's necessary to include weight along with typeface and font as technical terms with specific meanings that should be used carefully.

What about optically-adjusted versions of a typeface?

Adobe sells Times Ten as a completely separate typeface from its regular Times Roman.

Some fonts use multiple master technology to automatically choose between different masters depending on the size of type you use. This is analogous to the situation with metal type, where, when you ordered a font of Century Expanded from ATF, you got the optical adjustments appropriate to the size you ordered. (Since type was generally used for letterpress printing, instead of creating lithography masters, this was appropriate; it wasn't likely to be optically reduced or enlarged.)

And some typefaces are sold with different optically-adjusted versions in a common package, but in separate font files. So they're packaged like different weights - and, depending on how those font files are internally labelled, that may also be also how they will show up in a word processor menu.

Are optically-adjusted versions of a typeface... different typefaces, different weights of a typeface, or intrinsic parts of a single weight of a typeface? The answer, of course, is that they're none of those: they're optically-adjusted versions of a typeface. Because they're not really any of those other three alternatives, it may be most appropriate or convenient to package them in any of the three ways typically used.

I would also say that small capitals are a case, while titling is a weight.

John Hudson's picture

Matthew: I'd say that font and typeface mean the same thing, unless you're talking to type professionals, who reserve the right to use typeface to mean something narrower than font.

Actually, I'd be more inclined to say that font means something narrower than typeface.

John Hudson's picture

Quadibloc: Since it is generally accepted that Times Roman Italic, and Times Roman Bold belong to the Times Roman typeface...

No, they belong to the same typeface family.

A typeface is an individual format-independent design. Ergo, all variant styles, weights and size-specific designs are distinct typefaces. They are grouped into families of related typefaces. They are implemented in fonts, which are sets of glyphs in particular formats or technologies.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this nomenclature, and it is the only one in which each term means one specific thing and not anything else, and hence the only one that is useful for analytical discussion. Everyday conversation of the 'Hey, pass me that hittie-thing, I need to bang a nail' variety does not require such precise usage.

kevintheophile's picture

@all

Remember well:
The word typeface is impossible to translated into French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. It doesn't exist in these neo-Latin languages. To replace the word typeface in French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish is the word font.

Font in Portuguese is fonte, which means literally source. Font in Spanish is fuente, which means literally fountain and source.

Ever in French, the word "font" and "fonte" don't exist, the correct word is "police", which means literally "police" as in English, according the Lingoes dictionary, beyond the word "font".

And in Italian, the words "fonte" and "fonti" don't exist either, the real words are tipo di caratteri which means literally "characters type" and carattere di lettera which means literally "letter character".

It's impossible to translate the word typeface to other languages because this translation doesn't exist, but if you insist, here are the translations;

TYPEFACE, beyond the Lingoes dictionary:
In French: oeil d'un caractère, style de police, configuration de base des lettres selon les police

"Oeil d'un caractère" means literally "character eye", "style de police" means "font style".

in Italian: forma di base di un carattere (means "base form of a character)

in Portuguese: forma de fonte, forma básica de letras conforme a fonte (means "font syle/form, basic form/style of letters according the font")

in Spanish: carácter (character), tipográfia (typography)

If you think these translations are worng, search for the translations and the dictionaries of neo-Latin languages.

If still wrong, in neo-Latin languages, you must replace "typeface" by the word "font" which exists in all these neo-Latin languages.

riccard0's picture

you must replace "typeface" by the word "font" which exists in all these neo-Latin languages.

In Italian, neither one exists as single word.
Giambattista Bodoni, for one, wasn’t worried.

kevintheophile's picture

@riccard0

In Italian, neither one exists as single word.

If these words don't exist, when you speak of a font or a typeface, you can call it tipo di carattere or carattere di lettera.

When I come to Firenze, a famous city and mother of arts, if I walk and I find an add the which has a glad font (= a group of styles) mixed italic and bold à la Italian that is under the restaurant full of laughing and glad people in piazza... would I ask to the restaurant manager in Italian: Mi piace quel tipo di carattere, è bellissimo, proprietario, dove hai comprato questo tipo di carattere??

I ask myself: Gl'italiani sanno che cosa è la parola "tipo di carattere"?

quadibloc's picture

@John Hudson:
I agree that the distinction you refer to as existing between a "typeface" and a "typeface family" is real, and needs to be preserved in order to have accurate terminology.

The only way in which I disagree with you is that I believe that existing usage gives the word "typeface" the meaning which you express by "typeface family".

The meaning which you assign to "typeface", on the other hand, makes both weights and optically-adjusted versions into distinct typefaces, so it is indeed clear and unambiguous. I don't think there is an existing term in typography with that meaning.

And I suppose that using "typeface family" and "typeface" is superior to inventing a new term, and, say, using "typeface" and "shape-collection" as the terms for the two things. But if the existing usage of typeface is not possible to change, I fear that might be what has to be done. (I suppose "shape-collection" might sound better if we borrowed the German-language version of it, or a similar term.)

dberlow's picture

Jh>Many professions employ specialised vocabulary usage that is irrelevant to the needs of lay people.

but not this profession... this profession employ-ED relevant vocabulary. But someone came along and stole hints, pixels, points, variations, leading, font, and even typography, slapped new meanings or new words on all of it, and then presented that to lay people instead, just in time for lay people to become confused by the thousands, soon, by the hundreds of thousands. :)

quadibloc's picture

Oh, wow. A test post for spam which has spam keywords stuck in the middle of a verbatim quote from an earlier post in this thread, so that it looks like an on-topic post.

Evidently, it's just too easy to register for this forum.

Té Rowan's picture

{The Icelander gives the Canuck a flat stare.} Really?

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