Good in-house publishers know which typefaces they like and can usually tell you why. Great in-house publishers can tell you about the structure of a typeface and how it feels to a reader. You can’t do design work for very long without developing a love for typefaces.

A typeface is an overall design of letters, while a font is the face at a given size.

Fonts and Faces

Computer programmers have confused two commonly used terms in print shops: font and typeface. A typeface is a lettering design while a font is a design at a given size with specific attributes. Computer applications now use the terms face and font interchangeably. The reason for this change is simple: computers only need one digitized font to create all other variations of the face. Don’t worry about this – as professional printers and designers become increasingly computer-literate, they’ll change their definition of font, too.

Better by Design

In America, typeface designs cannot be copyrighted, but font names can be. As a result, type publishers often issue clones of each others’ faces. These clones are generally named to indicate their lineage. For example, Revue, Review, Renfrew, and Roost are clones of each other. Revue is the original, as best as we can determine. One thing we have had to do for our work is create a table of names and type foundries.

Clones of typefaces usually leave a lot to be desired. Buy the originals, not copies.

Most clones are not exact. Some are actually a bit better than the original, but most are disgustingly awful imitations. Try to avoid clone faces marketed by no-name companies. We believe Adobe, Bitstream, Linotype, and Monotype publish the best faces. One additional name to look for is ITC. International Type Corporation creates and licenses designs to type foundries, but publishes no faces itself. All of the major foundries issue ITC designs – with their own enhancements, of course.

Formats and Hinting

Computer typefaces are shipped in several formats. The four most common formats are OpenType, Adobe PostScript Type 1, Adobe Type 3, and True Type – known as Type 42 in PostScript. Additionally, there are vector fonts used to create images of fonts on screen. Apple and Microsoft are both working to extend the True Type font standard to make it more useful, merging the Adobe Type 1 with True Type into a single file, known as OpenType.

OpenType has the benefit of merging the two most popular formats into a single data file type. However, the Type 1 fonts and True Type fonts converted to OpenType will not have the complete feature set of OpenType until additional characters and computer codes are added. For example, OpenType automatically replaces some character combinations with symbols.

We discount Type 3 fonts, as well as vector fonts and bitmap fonts, as less than ideal for in-house design. Bitmap fonts only print at given sizes and are commonly used in older laser printers. Vector fonts appear very computerized and are not suited to most tasks. Type 3 fonts are simply not compatible with some laser printers and often lack quality.

Adobe Type 1 (and OpenType)

Adobe PostScript is a special computer language used by printers and typesetters. PostScript tells a printer where to place dots on a page using an English-like instruction set.

Adobe PostScript Type 1 typefaces rely on a rasterizer to draw the letters in a font. The typeface information is stored in one, two, or more separate data files. These files contain a list of commands and hints instructing the rasterizer how to draw, or render, a letter. Because PostScript rasterizers are usually hardware – ROM boards or chips inside of a printer – only commands and tricks known to the rasterizer can be included in a font. Each generation of rasterizer improves the implementation of Type 1. If you have an older printer, you have to replace the computer chips or upgrade their “firmware” to improve the rendering of small fonts.

Adobe developed hinting to make smaller fonts more legible. At smaller sizes, the rasterizer is told to modify certain strokes. These hints are known as declarations or declarative instructions.

Before Adobe’s technology became widespread, typesetting equipment was proprietary. Each vendor used a unique font technology. Adobe’s hinting produced much better results with less work. As a result, fonts have fallen dramatically in price in just a decade. Through aggressive marketing and early technological superiority, Adobe’s PostScript page description language and Type 1 fonts dominated the publishing industry by 1988. Considering the technology was only a few years old, this was quite astounding. Nearly every major typesetter is now based upon PostScript.

Adobe Type Manager is a software-based rasterizer, allowing Type 1 fonts to work without requiring a PostScript printer. If you do have a PostScript printer, the built-in rasterizer renders the fonts to paper unless you instruct ATM to do so. In other words, upgrading the software does not affect font output unless you tell ATM to do so.

These two letter g’s are in Monotype’s Times New Roman. On the left, is an enlarged 8-point letter, on the right, a 72-point letter. You can see the results of hinting.

True Type

Apple and Microsoft wanted to include scaleable fonts in their operating systems, but found Adobe’s royalty charges not to their liking. While other operating systems and environments include Adobe’s rasterizer as software, Apple and Microsoft added their own software-based rasterizer to their systems. They named their rasterizer technology True Image and the font format True Type.

While True Image never caught on among high-end printer manufacturers, True Type fonts currently out-sell Type 1.

True Type’s rasterizer is quite different from PostScript’s. When developing the technology, Apple and Microsoft decided to make the rasterizer a low-level engine. Unlike the Adobe rasterizer, the True Type rasterizer does not contain a great deal of logic. Instead, each letter in a typeface is like a powerful computer program.

True Type fonts can be more complex than Type 1 fonts. However, most True Type fonts fail to exploit this ability.

By making each letter a small block of computer code, True Type frees designers from any limitations a rasterizer might impose. For example, Type 1 faces do not contain hints for diagonal strokes, since older rasterizers do understand them. True Type faces can contain hints for any line or curve.

Selecting a Font Format

Selecting a font format is only important if you plan to send some documents in electronic format to a print shop or service bureau for printing. Most commercial print shops rely on OpenType, Adobe Type 1 fonts, and PostScript compatible data files. Many of these shops also favor Apple Macintosh computers over other systems. So, if you send documents out, you might use OpenType fonts to avoid confusion. Be aware that OpenType fonts tend to be more expensive than True Type fonts.

We use a mix of OpenType, True Type, and Type 1 fonts based on our needs. True Type’s rasterizer can convert fonts to Type 1 as a page is rendered. This means PostScript printers support Type 42 fonts without any problems. On the other hand, Adobe Type Manager can render Type 1 fonts to almost any printer, regardless of the rasterizer used.

As time passes, print shops will care less about PostScript and Type 1 fonts – especially since businesses do not tend to own Macintosh systems or PostScript printers. Less than ten percent of computer users have access to a PostScript printer or ATM, so the trend is obviously toward True Type.


Taxonomy of the typeface
Times New Roman:
Group: Serif
Family: Times
Weight: Normal
Style: Roman
Special Effect: None

Taxonomists are important to life scientists. Every living thing must be categorized and named so relationships can be studied. Fonts are not alive, but typographers and designers need to understand relationships among the lettering styles.

All fonts belong to a group. Within a group, there are families of faces – usually one typographer or team of typographers designs a family. Families are then further divided by weights and styles. Finally, a special effect, such as underlining, can be applied to a face. If you describe a typeface using all these characteristics and a point size, you have named a specific font.


Most typographers agree that there are at least five major groups, or classes, of typefaces. These groups are determined by visible characteristics of the printed letters. There are several classification systems, with varying levels of detail.


Serifs are small accent strokes added to a typeface to make it more interesting and pleasing to read. Most publications use serif type for blocks of text. Usually, serifs result in a sharp point at the end of lettering strokes. However, some serifs feature less finesse. These serifs are square serifs, commonly used for an industrial appearance. Typographers often refer to traditional serif faces as Roman, Times, or Dutch faces.

Sans Serif

Sans serif means “without serifs.” Sans serif typefaces became popular in the twentieth century. Sans serif fonts are straight-forward, with no embellishments. Some typographers also call sans serif faces Sans or Grotesque fonts. Popular examples of sans serif faces include Helvetica, Swiss, Univers, and Futura. Sans serif typefaces are the easiest to read at small font sizes.


Script faces are also known as cursive faces. Noted for round, smooth strokes, script faces can be elegant. Unlike serif and sans serif faces, scripts usually print poorly at smaller sizes. There are notable exceptions, of course. The most common script faces include Brush, Present, and Park Avenue. Most beginning designers are tempted to overuse script typefaces just because these faces are interesting.


Decorative typefaces are also known as poster or display faces. Most decorative faces must be set as large fonts – at smaller size they are often less legible than script faces. There are hundreds of popular decorative faces. Examples include Arnold Boecklin, Bauhaus, Davida, and Galleria. Decorative faces slow down most readers – so use them sparingly.


Symbol faces, or dingbats XE "Dingbats"  XE "Font:Dingbat" , have numerous uses. Dingbats (it’s an old newspaper term) are sometimes used in place of art work. Special dingbats, bullets ( • ), are used to indicate individual items in lists. The two standard dingbat faces are Zapf Dingbats and Wingdings.


Typeface families are often named for their designers. Fonts in a family resemble each other closely, and their family ties are obvious. Faces in a family can have various uses, such as headlines versus text. The headline faces, since they are printed as larger fonts, can contain more detail, for example.

Bitstream publishes Swiss 721, with nearly 30 variants, Swiss 911, Swiss 921, and Swiss 924. These faces are all related and work well together. The Swiss faces are sans serif, with a smooth, geometric appearance.


Most typefaces have variants in their families with different weights. Weights describe the thickness of lines and curves – also known as the strokes. There are dozens of weights, from extra bold to extra light. Most weights are self-evident.

Bitstream’s Swiss 721 is available is base weights of thin, light, Roman, medium, heavy, and black. Each of these weights features several variants.


Typefaces may include fonts of various styles. Styles other than book or Roman are redesigns of a face meant to attract attention. These redesigns resemble the original typeface in height and weight, but feature letters with different shapes.

Book, Roman, and Normal

The most common styles are known as book, Roman, and normal. Some faces feature a specially designed book font. Book fonts tend to be less detailed with taller and wider lowercase letters. Book faces print well at small sizes. Roman and normal fonts are traditional, upright fonts. Faces with both a normal and a Roman style generally feature more strokes or detail in the Roman fonts.

Italic and Oblique

Computer users often confuse oblique and italic fonts. An oblique font is created when a font is slanted, or skewed. More than once we have seen a font skewed using an illustration program. Under most circumstances, italic fonts are much more pleasing. Italic fonts are quite different than the default font of a face. Italic letter designs are not merely tilted versions of the Roman or book design; italic styles are based on calligraphy. Note the changes in the letters. Though e and a and g are the most obvious changes, all letters change slightly.


In extremely rare cases, type designers put extra effort into a face and create a stylized font for special use. These special fonts are known as swash characters. Swash character are used as large initial caps, the first letter in lines of poetry, et cetera. Swash styles are radical calligraphic designs used rarely in desktop publishing. These are not common fonts and are only appropriate for special layouts.

Font Physiognomy

Physiognomy is another word for appearance. Why typographers use this fancy word, we’ll never know. The physiognomy of a font is used to help classify the font. Designers have to keep all of the characters within a typeface’s fonts uniform. Imagine if letters were uneven or had various heights. Even the slightest errors can attract too much attention to a font.

The following offers only the shallowest study of type. There are entire books on typography. As an in-house designer concentrating on business, you only need to know enough to recognize a typeface’s strengths and weaknesses.

The sample diagram can be saved or viewed by right-clicking on the image:

Different Strokes

Each line or curve in a typeface or font is a stroke. There at least two dozen distinctive types of stroke, but an amateur designer only needs to know the most common, generalized strokes.

Serifs and Brackets

As mentioned previously, some typefaces feature short, additional strokes to improve their artistic nature. These additions are known as serifs. The most common typefaces are grouped together as serif, or Roman, faces. The place at which a serif meets another stroke is known as a bracket or joint.

Ascenders and Descenders

Some strokes rise above or fall below the general shapes of the characters within the font. Strokes falling below the base of most characters are descenders. Descenders are essential to the letters g and y.

Other letters, such as f and t, rise above most characters. These letters ascend the average height, even of capital letters. The portion above other letters is the ascender. The italic f features both an ascender and a descender.

Crossbars and Cross Strokes

Characters such as the capital H and lowercase t feature horizontal strokes. When the horizontal meets two vertical strokes, it is called a crossbar. When the horizontal crosses or meets only one vertical stroke, it is a cross stroke.

Bowls and Shoulders

The curves of a typeface create bowls and shoulders. The letter b’s curve is a bowl, while the letter n features a shoulder. The important design consideration is that bowls and shoulders peak at the same height.

Counters and Eyes

Completely closed areas of a character are counters and eyes. Completely round holes are counters, as in the letter o. Non-circular openings, as found in most samples of the letter e, are eyes.


Any stroke that ends without connecting to another is a terminal stroke. The letter r features a terminal stroke. In many fonts, the letter lowercase a includes a terminal.

Invisible Lines

When typographers design a typeface and fonts within the face, they use several lines as guides. These lines ensure the consistency of each font. These guidelines vary from face to face and even from font to font.


The baseline is the most important guide. The baseline defines the bottom, or base, of most characters. Note that characters with a round stroke at the base generally rest below the baseline, while characters with straight strokes rest on the baseline. If rounded characters do not fall slightly below the baseline, they appear to be higher than other characters. Typographers know this optical illusion and compensate for it.

Cap Height

Capital letters meet the cap height line. The distance from the baseline to the cap height is generally two-thirds of the total point size of a font. For example, a 90-point font might have a cap height 60 points above the baseline.


Within one font, lowercase letters are generally the same height. This height is known as the x-height. Unlike the cap height, the x-height of fonts varies. Some fonts have relatively low x-heights, making the capital letters tower above the lowercase. Other fonts have large x-heights, increasing readability.

Descender Line

Some letters, notably g, j, and y, rest on the baseline, but feature strokes that fall below the base. These strokes are known as descenders. The descender line is used to match descenders’ lengths.

Ascender Line

Just as some letters fall below the baseline, others are taller than the cap height. Strokes taller than most capital letters are known as ascenders. The ascender line is slightly above the cap height and is used to match ascender heights.

Cross Line

Cross strokes, eyes, and bowls are set along the cross line. Not every such stroke will be exactly along this line. Some bowls start above the line, while eyes in the same font might close below the line. Cross lines are generally below the x-height of a font.

Gap Line

One of the more important, yet less obvious, lines used by designers is the gap line or shoulder line. This line marks the thin gap between the bottom of the font, as measured, and the descenders. This tiny gap keeps fonts from touching. This gap is also why a 72-point font might measure to be 71 points – there is a 1-point gap.


Spacing affects how text appears in a document almost as much as the selection of fonts. While a font is a specific face, with a specific style, at a given size, that one font can take on numerous appearances via spacing alone. Default spacing is acceptable for many documents, but serious in-house design requires knowledge of detailed text spacing.


The space between lines of text is known as the leading of the lines. Typesetters describe leading as the distance from one line’s baseline to the next baseline. Then, they use what looks like a fraction to describe the line of text. Text with a point-size of 10 with 11 points from baseline to baseline is denoted as 10/11 type.

One line of text cannot have a leading – leading is the white between lines. Normally, leading is 110 percent of the upper line’s point size. Ten-point text, no matter which size follows, should have a leading gap of at least one point – resulting in a total leading of 11 points. Do not confuse leading with line spacing, a term seldom used in publishing.

Good software allows you to alter leadings based on the purpose of text. This book has a greater leading between paragraphs than between text lines within the paragraphs. The following paragraphs are set in 10 point text with leadings of 11, 9, and 12 points.

This paragraph is formatted using the default leading. Careful leading can make text columns longer or shorter without being too obvious.

This paragraph is formatted using minus leading. Careful leading can make text columns longer or shorter without being too obvious.

This paragraph is formatted using generous leading. Careful leading can make text columns longer or shorter without being too obvious.


The gap, however slight, between letters in a block of text is the tracking of the text. In the old metal type days, tracking could only be made “loose” but never “tightened” since it was impossible to have metal type characters overlap.

This paragraph is set with normal tracking. Tracking can be used to alter column depths or to make a font easier to read. Normally, designers do not adjust tracking.

This paragraph is set with tight tracking. Tracking can be used to alter column depths or to make a font easier to read. Normally, designers do not adjust tracking.

This paragraph is set with loose tracking. Tracking can be used to alter column depths or to make a font easier to read. Normally, designers do not adjust tracking.


Pairs of letters can be kerned without regard to tracking. Kerning is altering the gap between a pair of characters because of their shapes. Unlike tracking, kerning refers only to a pair of characters. For example, the letter pair Wa must be kerned in order to allow the a to fit next to the w without a noticeable gap. The capital letters A, L, P, T, V, W, and Y are usually kerned tightly when paired with each other or lowercase letters.


Distorting letter widths, sometimes known as changing the set width of a font, allows designers a bit more freedom to make text fit a layout. You should avoid distorting widths if at all possible. Remember, most typeface family feature fonts of several widths. These fonts have design details that may not be matched by merely changing the width of another font in the family.

Summary & Tips

  • Typefaces are classified by appearance.
  • Serif and sans serif type are the two largest groups of faces.
  • Good face designs maintain consistent heights.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 08-Mar-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach