Phinney on Fonts About Thomas & the blog Phinney on Fonts main page

Picture of ThomasThomas “my other car is a sans serif” Phinney on fonts, typography & text. Geeky troubleshooting and info for font developers and users. Consulting & expert witness for fonts & typography.Read more...

« A font by any other name?

[UPDATE 5 Mar 2009: Survey is now closed. I am analyzing and writing up the results.]

I’ve noticed over the years that there isn’t a perfect consensus on the use of certain terms, such as “font” and “typeface.” I am of the opinion that there is a strong majority usage, and historical precedent, but I’m curious to understand better current usage, and how it differs by degree of font expertise (a.k.a “geekiness”) and/​or geographic location.

Please take my survey. I’ll let it run until I feel like I’ve got enough responses, then I’ll post the results and my analysis.

I’m eager to learn more. Is there a gap between expert usage and the average user? Maybe we’ll discover that I’m just a stick in the mud regarding terms that have mutated over time… or maybe I’ll get ammunition to defend the Wikipedia definitions from the clueless, and persuade type foundries to standardize their langauge. Stay tuned!

SPOILER ALERT! Please don’t read the comments below until after you’ve done the survey! There are definitely some… well, not spoilers, but potential influencers and links to other pieces on the subject. Thanks!

[UPDATE: Survey results are here.]

23 commentsto “A font by any other name?”

  • February 18, 2009
    David Walsh wrote

    I tried to do it but found the questions too hard! I am a casual font user (but I do subscribe to your blog and have paid for fonts) according to question 7. If the stated aim is to find usage according to geekiness, then I think the bar is set too high. You’ll only find valid stats from more advanced users. I’m trying to help here.

    [Sorry, you’re probably right. I suppose I could do a different survey aimed solely at casual users, but I doubt I’d reach many of them via my blog. On the other hand, I am willing to accept that the opinions of the “expert users” determine the “correct” usage of the terms. Thoughts, anyone? – T]

  • February 18, 2009
    Simon Robertson wrote

    hey thomas, there was no australia listed and no box to write other countries… so i just ticked other…


    [Sorry, but at least I added it for the next person – T]

  • February 18, 2009
    Stephen Coles wrote

    Great idea for a poll! I assume you’ve purposely left out links to discussions on the topic as to not color survey takers’ opinions?

    [I had been doing exactly that, plus postponing approving certain comments. But I decided just to add a “spoiler alert” at the end of my post above the comments. I’ll collect links and such for my follow-​up, with the survey results. – T]

  • February 19, 2009
    Kris Kendrick wrote

    Hey there. I’m a little busy to take a survey, but I will tell you that I prefer the word “typeface” to “font” – because, as a good Episcopalian, a “font” is a vessel filled with holy water used in Baptisms. Font, when used to refer to typefaces, sounds unprofessional to me. Newbies and clients use the word “font”. As a typography student and designer, I use the word “typeface”.

    Hope that helps!

  • February 19, 2009
    Ben wrote

    Interesting and thought provoking – I wonder how the effect of modern software development and distribution effects my approach to defining font/​type?

  • February 19, 2009
    Michael Everson wrote

    I tried to be as precise as I could. Interesting poll.

  • February 19, 2009
    Allan Haley wrote

    Hi Tom,

    I wrote the following as a sidebar to an article a while back.

    Fonts and typefaces are very different things, even though people tend to use the terms interchangeably. Typefaces are designs like Bembo, Gill Sans or Papyrus. Type designers create typefaces, using software programs to shape the individual letters. A few still draw the letters by hand and then scan the drawings into a type-​design application.

    Whether a set of metal letters or a set of electronic files, fonts are the things that enable the printing of typefaces. Type foundries produce fonts. Sometimes designers and foundries are one and the same, but creating a typeface and producing a font are two separate functions.

    From Design to Font
    The 16th-​century French designer Claude Garamond created the typeface that now carries his name. Creating the design was a multistage process. First he cut a letter (backward) on the end of a steel rod. The completed letter was called a punch. Next he took the punch and hammered it into a flat piece of soft brass to make a mold of the letter. A combination of molten lead, zinc and antimony was poured into the mold, and the result was a piece of type whose face was an exact copy of the punch. After Garamond made punches for all the letters he would use and cast as many pieces of type as he thought he would need, he put the type into a typecase. The resulting collection of letters was a font of type.

    Many Fonts-​One Typeface
    Over the years, there have been hand-​set fonts, machine-​set fonts, phototype fonts and now digital fonts of the Garamond typeface. Currently there are TrueType, PostScript Type1 and OpenType fonts of Garamond. There are Latin 1 fonts of Garamond, used to set most of the languages in Western Europe, and Greek and Cyrillic fonts, which enable the setting of these alphabets. All these fonts are of the Garamond typeface design.

    [But is Garamond Bold Italic in a given format a different font than Garamond Bold in the same format? I’d say yes, but not everyone agrees. – T]

  • February 19, 2009
    Hrant Papazian wrote

    Q7 is confusing.

    [Yeah. I tweaked the wording a bit, but it’s still a complicated question. – T]

  • February 20, 2009
    Andy Ford wrote

    I think you’d find this article by Jon Tan interesting:–font

    [Jon and I definitely agree on the terminology. – T]

  • February 20, 2009
    James Arboghast wrote

    To Kris Kendrick—the kind of font you’re thinking of should be called a “baptismal font” to distinguish it from “font”. Perhaps we should call fonts “type fonts” to distinguish them further. The church could distinguish “baptismal font” further by restoring past etymology of the word to “fount”. This would be most appropriate since a baptismal font involves water.

    Being “a good Episcopalian” has nothing to do with this for most peeple, and it’s annoying when somebody tries to assert their religious preference over a broad-​based term in use for over five centuries.

  • February 20, 2009
    Esz wrote

    I’m a fledgling font-​geek but still use the word font as it’s easier! Blame it on my Gen Y-​ness but its easier to say “what’s that font?” instead of “what’s that typeface”. We all know what we’re talking about with both but font is the shorter version isn’t it? I mean, it’s not that necessary to distinguish between the two these days. Sure, us designers know the difference between Open Type and PostScript – but as technology advances you often don’t even have to think about these things even all the way through to print.

  • February 21, 2009
    Johno wrote

    Great idea for a poll. “Current usage” is what’s most important. I think there are some among us who are desperately trying to hold on to definitions that only confuse; definitions that require recourse to analogy, if most are to make sense of them. In my experience most use typeface and font synonymously. That used to pain me. Now, I have no problem with it. It is current usage that will determine tomorrow’s definition.

    Looking forward to seeing the results.

  • February 21, 2009
    msikma wrote

    Hey there. I’m not an expert by any means, but I was always under the impression that a typeface is what you call an actual type design, such as Helvetica, and that a font (in the modern sense of the word) is one of the often multiple versions, styles or weights of such a typeface. Such that Helvetica Bold would be the font, in which case Helvetica would be the typeface.

    Of course, that’s probably not correct either (judging by the comments!) but I’ll fill in the survey based on what I’m saying right here.

  • February 21, 2009
    msikma wrote

    Just did the survey. I kinda feel like a total geek now. 🙂

  • February 21, 2009
    Alan Scott wrote

    If I just sits and think I can work it out. A face is recognisable. Therefore a typeface is the thing that makes the bunch of words recognisably different from another bunch of words put together with a different typeface.

    So… this leaves font. I looked it up in my dictionary on the Macbook and I quote “a set of type of one particular face and size.”

    So that gives us typeface, type and font. Specific, general and collective.

    I’m not a type designer but I’m well aware of the effort and care that goes into the design of a good typeface and into all the weight variations and the other bits besides the letters and numbers. I try and make my my graphics students aware of this. They think it’s just what each letters look like with not a thought to what happens when you make them into words. Hence the loads of mainly rubbish free fonts.

  • February 26, 2009
    David Bergsland wrote

    Typeface and font have become synonyms. In my experience font is used more. A font family is a collection of styles (also commonly called typestyles). A font is all the characters found in a given typestyle. So Hal Bold is a different font from Hal Thin.

    I suspect this is not traditional usage, but who cares? Clear communication is found using the terms in this manner for most people in the US in the first decade of the 21st century. I do not know if this lines up with use outside this narrow sphere of experience, but then I am relating to people all over the world and this seems understandable usage for all English speakers.

    [I think the problem is that we need a single word to refer to a single style of a type design… and “font” is the popular choice. Only a very small minority of survey respondents think of “typeface” and “font” as synonyms, for whatever that’s worth. I’ll cut off the survey soon and publish results…. – T]

  • February 26, 2009
    Steve Fairbairn wrote

    As with typography in general I think it always best to revert to the terminology used when hand setting monotype in lead. That’s where I started, and if you know the basics you can’t go far wrong. Each font (size, style, everything) was stored in a separate tray (or case) and woe betide anyone who dumped his used lead into the wrong tray. Nowadays there are a lot of casual type users who don’t know their arses from their elbows, so a survey of this kind is long overdue. Hopefully someone may learn from it 🙂

  • March 4, 2009
    Alan Gilbertson wrote

    Coincidentally, I just started a newsletter for clients and other interested folks, aimed at educating them to break away from the defaults in Word (and other common office software). The first bit of terminology I cleared up for the reader was the difference between a typeface and a font. (I agree with your definitions. I lay no claims to being a typographer, but I have the geek nature.)

  • March 5, 2009
    Carina Marano wrote

    I think the confusion became widespread with software programs like Word that let users apply attributes like bold and italic, creating fake fonts. This confused some people into thinking that a user didn’t need a separate font for bold and italic, extended, condensed, etc. Therefore the typeface became the font. And the font faded away…

  • March 14, 2009
    Reed Reibstein wrote

    Carina: Very good point. I’ve never considered that as a potential source of the fungibility of terms discussed here.

    As a type geek, I greatly enjoyed this poll. I’ve always been a stickler for the font/​typeface distinction.

    BTW, when I asked Jonathan Hoefler about where he came down on this distinction, he said that he doesn’t see it as a big deal. The bigger problem, he said, is confusion between “typographer” and “type designer,” with the former being used to encompass both designing typographic works and typefaces.

  • March 14, 2009
    Reed Reibstein wrote

    Regarding some other aspects of the survey, I think the major issue is that our terminology, as has been mentioned, comes largely from metal type, but with such expansive font groups nowadays, the historical baggage is detrimental. The font/​typeface distinction, while important, clouds the words and makes them more difficult to put into a terminological system.

    This is nothing radical, but as I see it, the system (without the names we are seeking) should be

    1) A single style, e.g. Garamond Premier Pro Caption Semibold Italic or Garamond Premier Pro Display Regular.

    2) A weight, width, optical size, etc. These are smaller groupings that would not often be broken out as separate wholes. For example, we usually talk about Benton Sans, not Benton Sans Thin, Benton Sans Condensed, Benton Sans Italic, etc. Caveat: Interestingly, H&FJ do tend to emphasize the different widths as distinct versions (e.g., but according to what they write, that’s because in this case Gotham Condensed changes more than Gotham Narrow and Extra Narrow from the regular width. In other cases (as with HTF Didot and Requiem), they don’t.

    3) A larger stylistic group that could stand alone, e.g. Fresco Serif, Fresco Sans, Fresco Informal, Fresco Script. Each of those in this group are related to the others but have significant differences beyond what could be considered tweaks or variations. If I saw Scala Sans, for example, I would not assume that there must be a Scala Serif, too. (This category is a bit harder to define precisely, since people make condensed fonts without wider versions and display fonts without text versions. Perhaps the difference is in how different one group is from the others).

    4) The biggest group that comprises all other stylistic groups. In the interest of clarity, this term should not be used for groups that could fit in smaller categories. So Arno Pro, having weights, italicizations, and optical sizes, should be referred to as #3, not #4, but Vista (containing Sans and Slab varieties) should be called #4. Of course, this presents a bit of a problem when speaking to a layman, but a layman might see the Sans and Slab varieties of Vista more as separate items (and thus #3s) rather than one large group (#4).

    My proposed names would be #1 = font, #2 = style, #3 = typeface, #4 = type family. But, as I said before, the meanings of these words keep the classification from seeming as rational as it could be.

    Sorry for the long post, but I’d appreciate any feedback on this. The poll results should be very useful for determining the terms used, but maybe it’s necessary to first have a definite structure to apply the terms to.

  • March 18, 2015
    Nicole wrote

    Any comments of textures and shapes, depth and angle, does that change the font ?

  • March 31, 2015
    Thomas Phinney wrote

    Well, typically such effects are applied during typesetting, or even in a graphics program. So it’s the same font, with some effects added after the fact.

    But it is also possible to create a separate font that has some special effects such as extrusion or shadow, inline or outline, baked into the font itself. In such cases, it is a separate font.

Leave a comment