Terminology for Non-Designers
Typography is easily one of the most important pieces of design, with a language all its own. And we’re well-versed in it. On behalf of all designers, we apologize for throwing around terms that have no meaning outside to the outside world.
Sometimes we forget that we’re speaking a foreign language. Nobody likes jargon, and in the design world, we use it on a regular basis. We know deciphering the terminology can be confusing, so we’ve created this guide to help.
Let’s start with the most obvious term: typography. For non-designers, typography, typefaces, and fonts are probably interchangeable terms. However, there’s a noteworthy difference. Typography is the technique of arranging type. Yes, some people specialize in typography—they’re called typographers. Typically, they use letters as their design medium.
A typeface is the design of the letters themselves. You know their names too—like Times New Roman, Myriad, Helvetica, and Baskerville. Technically speaking, the term font refers to the size of the lettering. For example, 10-point Helvetica and 12-point Helvetica are different fonts. But in everyday conversation, the terms typeface and font are mostly the same.
A serif is a decorative line that extends from the top and bottom of letters. They’re sometimes called feet, but it’s more like a hat with a matching pair of shoes.
Serif typefaces draw the eye across printed text and improve readability. The next time you read a book or a magazine, take notice of the font. Most likely, it’s a serif typeface.
Because the serifs often look decorative, you’ll see a lot of high-end brands use them for a timeless, sophisticated look.
While we’re on the topic of serifs, we should also talk about slab serifs. These typefaces feature a bulky style of serif. These serifs are square and command attention because of their size. Historically, these typefaces were mainly utilized for typewriters. Today, they are mostly used for logos and package designs.
Sans serif literally translates to “without line.” These fonts do not have any additional lines or strokes on the letters. In this way, a sans serif is less ornamental than a serif font. They look more straightforward and simpler. By the way, the words you’re reading right now are sans serif.
In print, they’re generally used for headlines and short excerpts because they don’t guide the eye as well as serifs. However, digital text adheres to its own set of rules. Generally, website content is broken into smaller pieces, making it easier to read.
That’s why you see websites use both serif and sans serif fonts in their body text. However, online newspapers or scholarly periodicals tend to go for serifs because there’s a lot more to read.
Bold letters are darker and heavier than a typeface’s normal weight. A bold typeface looks thicker and stands out from the surrounding text, making it ideal for highlighting and emphasizing certain words.
This is a slanted version of a typeface—slanting from left to right. A true italic is uniquely designed with specific flourishes. A regular italic font, however, is more like a tilted version of a font.
Script fonts resemble handwriting. You know you’re looking at a script font when the fonts have the fluid strokes of cursive or the embellishments of calligraphy.
The ascender is the top of the letter that extends above the x-height. It rises above the main body of the letter.
The descender is the bottom part of the letter than falls below the baseline. When teaching kids how to write, adults usually call these “tails.”
This is the horizontal spacing between two letters. Adjusting the kerning creates uniformity and reduces gaps of white space between certain letter combinations.
Kerning is one of the most powerful tools in typography. It can drastically transform text by placing spaces in between the letters themselves.
Leading is the amount of vertical space between lines of text within a sentence. If a sentence has too much leading, the lines can look disjointed. With too little leading, the text becomes unreadable. It’s important to find a balance.