The Ultimate Guide to Typeface vs Font: When to Use Each Term.

Typeface vs Font Featured Image
06Aug, 2018
You’ve always said font but recently you have been hearing the term typeface? To add even more confusion to the issue, it would seem both terms are used interchangeably. So, what is a font? And what is the difference between font and typeface?

Typeface vs Font

Yes, there is a difference.

But the great thing is with a little knowledge you’ll be soon using both terms like a pro.

To gain an understanding of where these two terms originated from a quick history lesson is in order (but don’t worry I’ll make it interesting). Then I’ll explain how these terms are used in todays context and how they are used in popular software programs like the Adobe Creative Suite.

A Trip Back in Time

As with most typography terminology it originates from the pre-digital world of analogue typesetting. Back in the day, type was set manually by placing re-usable metal characters into a chase (which is basically a frame), ink was applied to the letters and then this was pressed onto paper to produce the finished printed piece. Yes, page layout was a very time consuming process in those days!

It is where these metal characters were stored that hold the answer to the typeface vs font debate.

Typeface vs Font: An example of a Chase

Printing form set in chase. Form is the New Testament in Scots. Chase is Miller & Richard.

The Type Cabinet

As you could imagine, there were thousands of these metal characters and they were stored in large wooden cabinets. Obviously, there needed to be some sort of organizational system which would enable the typesetter to find the required characters, so the type cabinets contained a number of compartmentalized draws called type cases.

An example of a Type Cabinet

A Type Cabinet

Each type cabinet would house a single typeface. For example, a type cabinet for Helvetica would contain multiple alphabets of metal characters of varying sizes and weights with each stored in their own draw (type case).

Therefore, a typeface refers to the design or look of alphabet and is used for identification purposes. Typefaces may be called after their designer such as Baskerville or Garamond; a country such as Egyptian; or just a name like Myriad.

When speaking, you might use the term typeface like this:

“ITC Officina Sans is one of my favourite typefaces”

“Times New Roman is a serif typeface and was designed for the British newspaper The Times”

“Erik Spiekermann is one of my favourite typeface designers”.

The Type Case

The type case is a single draw within the type cabinet. It has a special organizational system and houses both the upper and lower cases of one size and style of a typeface. For example, one draw (type case) of would contain Helvetica 12pt regular and another may contain Helvetica 12pt Bold. Each one of these draws (type cases) contains a single font.

An example of a Type Case

A Type Case

Therefore, a font is one alphabet of a particular size and style of a Typeface.

When speaking, you might use the term typeface like this:

“Change the font to Garamond, 14pt, italic”

“You need to make the font larger as I cannot read it”

“You need to change the font to bold so it stands out more”

So How Does This Apply When Using Software?

When using software things can get a little more confusing…

Referring to any of the Adobe applications such as InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator the terminology used is font. This makes sense as you are always only selecting a single alphabet of one size and style at any given time.

One thing to take note of is the terminology used on the tool tip when hovering over the font (or is that typeface?) name in Illustrator. You’ll see it says Font Family. The same can be seen within the New Paragraph Style box with InDesign.

Illustrator screen capture of tool tip showing font family

InDesign screen capture of paragraph style showing font family

So What’s a Font Family?

A font family refers to all the different styles within a single typeface. For example, Helvetica Regular, Helvetica Italic, Helvetica Bold, Helvetica Condensed etc. So you may refer to a typeface as having a large family if it contains lots of different styles.

Why have Adobe decided to use the term font family and not typeface?

Hmmmm. I guess maybe this is to do with being able to select both the typeface and font style from the same menu? Maybe I’m clutching at straws here!

As you can see, things aren’t so black and white when trying to determine whether to refer to typeface or font within a software program.

Does it Really Matter if a Say Typeface or Font?

Well, you’re not going to be outcast from the typographic community if you happen to use the terms incorrectly. Especially when using and selecting fonts within software.

However, I think it’s always nice to preserve a little bit of history, so when you can try and use the terms correctly.

To summarise, use the term typeface for identification purposes and when you are discussing look or style. Use the term font when you a referring to one particular alphabet of size and style of a typeface.

Image Sources

Featured Image: icon designed by Freepik from Flaticon

Chase Image:

Type Cabinet Image:

Type Case Image:

About The Author
Matt Smith is a graphic designer and principal lecturer with expertise in print media and web design. He has over 20 years of experience under his belt and has dedicated much of his career to educating others. He founded Edgee in 2014 with the aim of providing quality education for new and experienced graphic designers. With ‘hands on’ experience and qualifications in graphic design, along with a Bachelor of Education in Adult Vocation, Matt combines his passion for design, typography and teaching with his expertise in Adobe Creative Suite to develop eBooks, tutorials and informative articles aimed at helping designers of all levels improve their skills and knowledge.