Font or Typeface?

August 1st, 2009

font or typeface by wanken
Last week over at the ISO50 blog, Alex Cornell wrote a great post about narrowing your font list down to bare necessities. I myself am guilty of installing nonsensical fonts and I am in the process of cleaning out my font book. I bring this up because towards the end of the post Alex mentions the use of “font” and “typeface” interchangeably.

I believe that one of the biggest issues in talking with other designers is being able to speak the same language. Through time we’ve pushed around these two terms so loosely that I would say, the majority of young to middle-aged designers probably can’t tell the difference.

Hit the jump to read the differences.

Font (or previously, fount) is derived from a Middle French word, fonte, meaning something that has been melted. In type founding, metal was melted then poured into a hand mould with a matrix, to cast each individual piece of movable type, known as a sort. Font, fount and fonte have a common ancestor in the Latin word, fons, meaning spring or source (of water). They are all related to the word, fountain. So, now you might be able to see why “font” is a word that describes a variant of a typeface, and a container for casting water on Christian babies’ heads.

A font is one member of a type family. It designates a specific member of a type family such as roman, bold, italic. If it helps, try thinking of a font as being the sons and daughters of a typeface. “Helvetica Neue 65 Medium”, “Helvetica Neue 45 Light”, “Helvetica Neue 73 Bold Extended” are all fonts in the Helvetica Neue typeface.

A typeface is not a font, nor is a font a typeface. A typeface is a type family’s consistent visual appearance or design if you will. Much like we all have family names, type families have names. Take Helvetica Neue as an example. It’s type family name is “Helvetica Neue” and includes–as stated in the previous paragraph–light, thin, regular, medium, bold, heavy, extended and condensed fonts.

In the era of metal type, a font used a specific point size with it (ex. “8-point Caslon Italic” or “10-point Caslon Italic”). Being that we are in a digital age, it really isn’t necessary to include the point size because the fonts are now scalable.

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Posted by on 08/1/09 in Design

21 COMMENTS   »  Leave your Comment

  1. Sitti says:

    Great article Wanken !

  2. […] this a while back so it was nice to see the whole subject wrapped up in a nice post over at Shelby White’s blog. Now you can annoy the hell out of all your non-designer friends by constantly correcting them when […]

  3. Carson Shold says:

    I didn’t realized people had such strong conceptions of these words, but now that I think about it, you’re completely right.

    I just started going through my fontbook and started cleaning them out too. The first one to go: Comic Sans.

  4. Grafiko says:

    nice read, thanks for sharing

  5. Matt says:

    This is great. Preach it. Helpful and informative and very concise!

  6. Rent says:

    very informative and helpful. thanks!

  7. […] This post was Twitted by whitneymullon […]

  8. The prevailing misunderstanding of font vs typeface is entrenched even further because of Google searches. I have quite a few posts like “top 10 fonts”, etc, but I know I really mean typeface. But the average user isn’t aware of this. On Windows, there is the “Fonts” folder. Same on the Mac. And then there is the Mac “Font Book” and talk of “font management”. Yes, in a manner of speaking, there are folders with fonts in them, but it’s in the same way we have an “mp3 collection”. However, most people don’t collect mp3s as much as they collect albums. iTunes hasn’t helped this problem either, selling “mp3s” a la singles. But I buy albums and typefaces, and I like individual tracks (mp3s) and fonts.


    Very few people, including new designers, know to type “top 20 typefaces” as much as they would type in “top 20 fonts”. Again, the search is valid, but it obscures the proper meaning. Oh well!

  9. Carson–

    Likewise about Comic Sans and actually, that new post over at ISO50 about ‘United’ being Alex Cornell’s new favorite type choice, is making me want to purchase ‘Knockout’ (


    I think we’ve all used the terms so interchangeably that it may forever change the definition, which isn’t such a huge problem just as long as people are speaking the same design language.

    It’s great to see this article picked up and spread more widely than it was previously!

  10. […] Font? Do you know the difference. Well, you should. Shelby White has written up some food for thought over at Wanken after reading a post on ISO50. As we should all know, it all boils down to this: A […]

  11. Will you post where you sourced the quotes that you use as images in your article?

  12. Marcus says:

    ha thanks for this. As a young designer i do find myself interchanging these words often even though I know there’s a difference. Makes me think of the difference between barbeque and grilling. :)

  13. Andre says:

    YES. I’m a student at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and not once were the two differentiated. The post at ISO50 get me thinking about it a bit, and now, thanks to this post, I will, in fact be able to “annoy the hell out of all your non-designer friends by constantly correcting them” haha

  14. gonzoblog says:

    Hi Shelby,

    great article and your conclusion is very right: Young designers don’t know the difference between fonts and types.

    For all of you who want some more information about this topic, please see the

    Keep on the good work, love to read your articles! Cheers & Ciao ….

  15. tarini says:

    hi shelby,
    vry informative article.thank u.
    But i strongly believe that the immense confusion between a typeface and font has been created due to todays technology calling typeface softwares as ‘FONTBOOK’.
    Ignorant young designers & non designers simply emulate this term without the detailed understanding of it!!! So may be amendments could be made at a large scale.

  16. vic says:

    “The way i relate to the difference …is by comparing them to songs and mp3s respectively (or songs and CDs…)”

    I used to differentiate them by what are you refer to. When you talk about the .ttf file (in daily life) you call them fonts, when you refer to the style or design, you call them typeface.
    That’s why studios who release the fonts called font foundries, the designers called typeface designers.

    love your blog..

  17. Comments Notice…

    Publicised on this specific web property…

  18. m gates says:

    glad i came across your site – introduction to ISO50 was good for me – great reading

  19. Krishna Gordhan says:

    The first paragraph after the boxed text, summed it up perfectly.

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