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Typography Basics: Understand the Language of Letters

Sometimes the toughest part of getting started with a first design project can be understanding the language of design. Typographers, for example, have a whole language of their own that relates to type, fonts and design.


To have an open and successful conversation in your next design meeting, it will help to fully understand the lingo when talking about type. Here’s your primer.


Fonts and Strokes

What is a font anyway?

A font is a complete set of characters of a specific size and style from one typeface. A typeface is a group of letters, characters, symbols and punctuation of the same style. Helvetica, for example, is a typeface; whereas 9-point Helvetica is a font. All of the options – bold, italic, light, etc – make up a type family.


The distinction is often ignored by most designers (both for web and print) and the terms font and typeface are often used interchangeably.


Stroke: The weight of each line in a letter. Strokes were originally identified in handwritten lettering as each time the pen came off the paper to create the next line. Letters can have only one stroke, or be created using multiple strokes.


Point: Unit that relates to the measured size of a font. There are 72 points in each vertical inch of type.


Condensed: Property of type in which each letterform is made using narrow proportions. These typefaces can be made using a series of thin or thick strokes.


Bold: Type style in which each stroke is heavier than the normal stroke for a certain typeface.


Italics: Type style in which each letter is slanted (most commonly to the right) more than the normal typeface.


Subscript: Smaller letters or numbers that fall slightly below the baseline. In most instances this text is somewhat smaller than the preceding letters. (Commonly, a subscript is about 60 percent of the size of lettering around it.)


Superscript: Smaller letters or numbers that sit above the normal line of type. In most instances this text is somewhat smaller than the preceding letters. (Commonly, a superscript is about 60 percent of the size of lettering around it.)


Initial or drop cap: A large or decorative letter used to begin a block of text.


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