Understanding Typefaces, Part 1
When we refer to a typeface, we’re talking about the design of type—the shape, x-height [The height of lower case characters without considering any ascenders and descenders. The x is a good example of this measurement.], etc. of it. This design can come in a variety of forms and that whole group is called the type family. These can include roman (vertical) and italic (slanted) forms, various weights (light, regular, bold, extra bold, or black), as well as varying widths (condensed, normal, or expanded). Of course, not all faces take advantage of the many forms, but this gives you an idea of the broad meaning of the term typeface.

While often confused with typeface, font originally referred to a complete set of type for a particular typeface in a specific size. For instance, 12-point Times New Roman would be a font while Times New Roman would be the typeface. It comes from the days of metal type. The pieces of type would be organized in a large tray, with a single size of a particular typeface per tray. Today, a font is the digital file your computer uses to display text with a typeface. A single font (the digital file) can generate any size of the typeface you want. Some software will even fake things like italic or bold if you don’t have the necessary files for those other forms of the typeface. With so many people using computers these days, font has become the de facto term.

The many faces of type
Typefaces come in many different styles. Most fall into either serif or sans serif categories. Serif faces have short lines at the tops and bottoms of many or all the letter forms like this. Sans serif faces do not—sans is French for “without.” This is a sans serif face.

The most common example of a serif face is Times New Roman, on almost everyone’s computer. A few of the other more well known serif faces include Garamond, Goudy, and Minion. Body copy should usually be set in a serif face. It’s easier to read in large blocks of text.

Sans serif faces work well in headlines or short pieces of text. They include the familiar Arial and Helvetica families, as well as Gill Sans, Frankfurt Gothic, and Optima.

Then you have your decorative faces. These should not be used for body copy, but used sparingly, as in headlines or drop caps. In this category, you have some very elegant script faces such as Ex Ponto, Shelly Allegro, and Vivante. For classic appeal, choose a calligraphic face like Black Chancery, Old English, or Zurich Calligraphic. There are plenty of fun faces like Giddy Up, Party, and Snap. In the grunge department, you’ll find faces like Motrhead Grotesk, Overexposed, and Smash.

Choosing the right face
One of the most important steps in a desktop publishing[A term usually used to describe the creation of printed documents using a desktop computer. These may be printed directly from the computer using a laser printer, or sent to a service bureau for higher quality output.] project is selecting the correct type. Different faces can create very different feelings in the same piece, so you need to first decide what image you want to project. A brochure going to corporate executives may need a conservative image while one promoting to a teen market should be more fun and lively. Look at this simple brochure cover done both ways. Both use the same background image and the same words, but the one on the left with its traditional typeface creates a more conversative impression than the one on the right with a playful face.

While serif faces often portray a traditional image, sans serifs tend to give a piece a more modern look. Here’s an example of the same phrase set in both a serif and sans serif face. See the difference?

Using the right emphasis
Back in the early days of typewriters, if you wanted to emphasize a word or phrase, you didn’t have too many options. You could underline the text or set it in ALL CAPS. Later typewriters added a bold feature (by overtyping the letters a second time) and italics if you changed the print wheel or ball. Thanks to the advent of computers, adding emphasis to text is much easier.

Underlining is not recommended. If the word you’re emphasizing has descenders[The portion of a lowercase characters which lies below the baseline.] like young, the underscore runs into the lower portions of the letters, making it harder to read.

Typing in all caps is also discouraged. When you read, you’re not just recognizing the different letters, you’re recoginzing the shape of the word as well. The combination of ascenders[The portion of a lower case character which lies above its x-height.], descenders, curves, and slants make up this shape, enabling you to read more quickly. For instance, which of the below lines is easier to read?

Once upon a midnight dreary…

Today, it’s better to use either bold, italic, or bold italic to provide emphasis. The better typeface families include a regular form as well as all three of these, but not all do. Some software packages can force these emphasized styles, but the result may not be as pleasing as you would like. For instance, a true italic form isn’t just a slanted, or oblique, form. Certain letters are quite different in the italic as you can see here.

Another option would be to set the emphasized type in a different face, or at a different size.

If you’re not limited to just a single color for your text, try setting the emphasized portion in a contrasting color.

That’s all for now…
This article lays the groundwork for understanding typefaces. In our next installment, we’ll go a bit deeper into the different styles. Part III discusses the anatomy of letter forms. Part IV discusses typographical marks—what they are and when they’re used.

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