Typography and Type Design

printing-plate
You might think that typography and type design are basically the same thing. They aren’t. Typography is concerned with the way words look on a page, whether in print or on a computer monitor. Type design is the creation of letter shapes to make up a typeface.

Typography’s focus is on things like word spacing, leading between lines of type, paragraph form, and all the components that make a page of text both look good and easily read.

Type design homes in on the details of glyphs. A glyph is a character in a typeface. Letters are glyphs. So are numbers and special characters like @, #, $, %, &, etc. If you are designing a typeface, you must choose the form of each glyph carefully so it will fit in with the other glyphs in the typeface. Type design is an art form in its own right.

Desktop publishers need not be concerned with the details of type design. Instead, they need to be cognizant of the details of typography. The way text looks on a page goes a long way toward making the material attractive to readers. Choice of typeface and the particular font used, the leading (spacing between lines), kerning (the spacing between characters in words), and the design of paragraphs—including the use of subheadings where appropriate—are all part of the decisions that go into a good typographical design.

But wait. Haven’t I been redundant in saying “typeface and the particular font”? Aren’t a typeface and a font the same thing? No, they aren’t. A typeface comprises many fonts (theoretically, an infinite number of them). Through misuse of the term “font,” it has become—unfortunately—a non-standard synonym for typeface. Calibri, Times New Roman, Verdana, and Palatino are all typefaces. But each of them has variants, such as roman (ordinary text, like this), italic, boldface, italic boldface, condensed, condensed italic, condensed boldface, condensed italic boldface, and often many more. Is each of these variants a font? No. A font is a variant in a particular point size. So, how may fonts are there in a typeface? Since you can have any point size you wish, there is theoretically no limit to the number of fonts in a typeface. But let’s restrict ourselves to body text at point sizes between, say 8 point and 14 points, and further restrict point sizes to one-half point increments. So, we can have 8, 8.5, 9, 9.5, etc. points to our text. That gives us 13 different point sizes of the eight variants listed above. Thus, for this example, we have a total of 104 fonts from a single typeface.

The beauty of type

I wrote above that desktop publishers—and commercial printers as well—need not be concerned with the details of type design. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the work of great type designers. As you work with various typefaces, you will find that certain characters may strike you as especially artistic in their design.

In examining individual glyphs—or letters—in a type face, it helps to know the names of some of the commonly used features. The height of lower case letters is called the “x-height” because it is easiest to see in that letter. Any rounded part of a letter is a “bowl.” The vertical part of a letter, if it rises above the x-height, is an ascender. If it drops below the baseline—defined as the bottom of the x in lower case letters—we call that a descender.

In thinking about this while composing this blog, I realized that I have two favorite letters myself: the uppercase P from Palatino and the lowercase b from Times / Times Roman / Times New Roman. The bowl of the Palatino P doesn’t quite make it to the ascender, making the letter look a bit like it’s an upper case I with a fancy scroll hanging from the end of the top serif. But it comes off as looking elegant to my eye. It’s certainly distinctive. And the lowercase Times b has the bowl connected directly to the ascender, again elegantly so. It’s as if it suddenly forgot it was a serif typeface when it got to the bottom of the b and rounded the turn towards the ascender.

Here are the two paired, in all their glory (and large size type). Note that the Palatino has the nearly-slab style serif of a Transitional Roman typeface, whereas Times Roman has the wedge-like serifs of an Old Style Roman typeface.

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Even though they come from rather different typefaces, the two of them seem to get along quite nicely together—they even form the chemical symbol for the material used in the earliest metal type: lead.