Last Updated on January 4, 2021
Time has been shown to change the meanings of words. Our society progresses and the way certain words are used differs when a lot of outside factors are involved. The demands of industries that come and go tend to take the origins of words with them. This has been the case of the font vs typeface debate – terms that are now interchangeable by today’s standards.
A beginner or a complete layman to the world of type treats these words as synonymous, much to the annoyance of typography experts or those who are familiar with the field. It is commonly-accepted in today’s conversation that font and typeface are almost one and the same.
But looking at it from the technical side of things will point out a few differences.
A Brief History of Typography
Pages were painstakingly set out in frames with metal letters during the days of analog printing. These letters were loaded in ink and were pressed onto clean paper surfaces; this was part of the page layout process.
Making a page required these tiny metal blocks by the thousands – each with the letter it was supposed to show. These characters set out in relief were called type faces. If you are to print in Times New Roman, you’ll have to have different blocks for every size (e.g. 12-point, 14-point, 22 point and, so on) and weight (light, medium, bold).
Where do typeface and font come to the scene then?
Taking the example from the previous paragraph, Times New Roman is the typeface: this covers all of the metal blocks the printers will use that share the same basic design aspects. Fonts are used to describe the subsets of the typeface. These refer to the size, style and, weight of the typeface to be used to get certain effects out of print.
With that being said, Medium Times New Roman 12-point is a different font from Bold Times New Roman 24-point. One typeface can have several fonts based on the intended final product that the printing press needs to meet.
The Difference of Font vs Typeface
There was little need to differentiate the mechanic from the end result when desktop publishing became widely available. Printing was no longer exclusive to a profession with the advent of machines that can be set up at the comfort of one’s home.
Fonts are no longer imprinted on paper using thousands of tiny metal blocks. They became computer codes that can be altered by the user to a desired size or weight. Process and output were merged when technology has presented mastery of computing.
Pulling up any word processor and the program has dropdown lists for fonts, their sizes, weights and, styles. From the programmers who made the word processors and the typographers who create these letters on computer screens, they are working on typefaces.
The regular end users or consumers only care for what the letters will look like when creating their files. Whether it be a business letter, a birthday card, an email signature, or even logos for personal use, the font has been the embraced term for the letters. It’s all about the looks, not the technicalities.
Fonts have grown far beyond their original definition in typography. There are instances when what should be called a typeface is named “font families” instead. Font styles are generally named and categorized according to weights, widths, styles, optical sizes, effects, etc. These attributes are combined, and there are no general rules to how many attributes can be used to name a specific kind of font.
Different attributes are combined and often result in these conventions. The below example is from the Times New Roman typeface and some of its named fonts:
- Name typeface (Times New Roman)
- Name typeface – weight (Times New Roman Bold)
- Name typeface – style (Times New Roman Italic)
- Name typeface – weight – style (Times New Roman Bold Italic)
- Name typeface – effect (Times Modern Swash)
- Name typeface – width (Times New Roman Condensed)
- Name typeface – width – weight – style (Times New Roman Condensed Bold Italic)
- Name typeface – optical size – weight – style (Times Display Roman)
There are no hard and steadfast rules to font names, as many type foundries will come up with their own branding method to target their intended market. End users will more often look at a typeface and/or its fonts and find out if they need the whole typeface, or if a single font from the set would be enough to cater to their needs.
Given that the allure of the classic printing press appeals to fewer and fewer people, will differentiating typeface from font matter now?
There is a growing belief, even in the circle of type professionals, that the terms can be used interchangeably. The consensus is that it only matters to people of certain generations. Older generations of those in the type industry still use “typeface” when referring to font families, while newer type designers are fine with calling everything “fonts”.
As with many other writings on the subject, this can be best related to songs in an album. The album houses the individual songs, and it’s up to the buyer if he/she wants a single or the whole set.