But Everyone Says Font

Typeface or Font? The topic is not new. It’s been written about before. As you can see, discussion on the matter can spark heated debate. Inevitably someone will throw out the argument: “I’ve always heard them used interchangeably, even by professionals.” My response to this is the old adage: “If everyone was jumping off a bridge…”

Unfortunately, it’s true. The word ‘font’ has become common vernacular. So common, in fact, that professionals and type foundries are using the term ‘font’ as a synonym for ‘typeface.’ (I’m not going to lie, I’m also guilty. Old habits die hard. A year ago I probably couldn’t have explained the difference between the two).

The fact is ‘font’ and ‘typeface’ are not interchangeable. If they were, they wouldn’t warrant two separate definitions. With the democratization of design and ‘favorite font’ series popping up everywhere, it’s even more important that design professionals reinforce the use of proper nomenclature.

Although I’m probably beating a dead horse, it’s all in the efforts of design clarity.

Breaking it Down
Typeface is easy to define. A typeface is what you see. It is the design, like Helvetica, Baskerville or Copperplate. Defining a font can be a little trickier. A little background information might be helpful. Here’s a brief overview:

Font is derived from a Middle French word ‘fonte,’ meaning something that has been melted. In type founding, metal was melted then poured into a mould to cast each individual piece of movable type, known as a sort. Every time a specific variant of a typeface was cast at a specific weight, a font was created.

In other words, the set of all characters for ‘9pt Helvetica Bold Italic’ is a font as is ’12pt Helvetica Bold Italic,’ ‘9pt Helvetica regular’ and so on and so on.

With digital fonts nothing is cast. Instead we use a computer file containing scalable outline letterforms. A couple of mouse clicks and you can change the size of the typeface variant. It’s become so easy to change the size that you no longer need to purchase fonts at different sizes. So, even though historically inaccurate, we generally refer to a font today as a typeface variant such as ‘Baskerville Italic’ or ‘Helvetica Bold Condensed’ without reference to a particular size.

Still Confused?
I find it easy to use the analogy at FontFeed’s post on this very topic.
In brief:

You can relate the difference between typeface and font by comparing them to songs and MP3s, respectively. When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say, “That’s a great MP3”. You say, “That’s a great song”. The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work; just as in type a font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.

So What Now?
Spread the word, that’s what. That’s not to say designers should be pretentious or preachy. I suggest you simply continue to use the proper classification in conversation. If a client says, “I don’t care for this font.” Question, “What is it about the typeface you don’t like?”

A client or layman not understanding the proper language is reasonable. However, it is important for those of us who claim to be design professionals to use proper terminology. It helps establish credibility. If you boarded an airplane and the pilot came over the loudspeaker and told you the flight has been delayed because the “thingy” on the wing looks a little “cockeyed,” you might second-guess getting on that flight.

Then again… you were going to jump off that bridge.