In traditional typography, a font is a particular size, weight and style of a typeface. Each font was a matched set of metal type, one piece (called a "sort") for each glyph, and a typeface comprised a range of fonts that shared an overall design.
In modern usage, with the advent of digital typography, "font" is frequently synonymous with "typeface", although the two terms do not necessarily mean the same thing. In particular, the use of "vector" or "outline" fonts means that different sizes of a typeface can be dynamically generated from one design. Each style may still be in a separate "font file"—for instance, the typeface "Bulmer" may include the fonts "Bulmer roman", "Bulmer italic", "Bulmer bold" and "Bulmer extended"—but the term "font" might be applied either to one of these alone or to the whole typeface.
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The word font (traditionally spelled fount in British English, but in any case pronounced //) derives from Middle French fonte "[something that has been] melted; a casting". The term refers to the process of casting metal type at a type foundry.
In a manual printing (letterpress) house the word "font" would refer to a complete set of metal type that would be used to typeset an entire page. Unlike a digital typeface it would not include a single definition of each character, but commonly used characters (such as vowels and periods) would have more physical type-pieces included. A font when bought new would often be sold as (for example in a Roman alphabet) 12pt 14A 34a, meaning that it would be a size 12-point font containing 14 uppercase 'A's, and 34 lowercase 'A's. Given the name upper and lowercase because of which case the metal type was located in, otherwise known as majuscule and minuscule. The rest of the characters would be provided in quantities appropriate for the distribution of letters in that language. Some metal type characters required in typesetting, such as dashes, spaces and line-height spacers, were not part of a specific font, but were generic pieces which could be used with any font. Line spacing is still often called "leading", because the strips used for line spacing were made of lead (rather than the harder alloy used for other pieces). The reason for this spacing strip being made from "lead" was because lead was a softer metal than the traditional forged metal type pieces (which was part lead, antimony and tin) and would compress more easily when "locked-up" in the printing "chase" (i.e. a carrier for holding all the type together).
In the 1880s–90s, "hot lead" typesetting was invented, in which type was cast as it was set, either piece by piece (as in the Monotype technology) or in entire lines of type at one time (as in the Linotype technology).
In addition to the character height, when using the mechanical sense of the term, there are several characteristics which may distinguish fonts, though they would also depend on the script(s) that the typeface supports. In European alphabetic scripts, i.e. Latin, Cyrillic and Greek, the main such properties are the stroke width, called weight, the style or angle and the character width.
The regular or standard font is sometimes labeled roman, both to distinguish it from bold or thin and from italic or oblique. The keyword for the default, regular case is often omitted for variants and never repeated, otherwise it would be Bulmer regular italic, Bulmer bold regular and even Bulmer regular regular. Roman can also refer to the language coverage of a font, acting as a shorthand for "Western European."
Different fonts of the same typeface may be used in the same work for various degrees of readability and emphasis, or in a specific design to make it be of more visual interest.
The weight of a particular font is the thickness of the character outlines relative to their height.
A typeface may come in fonts of many weights, from ultra-light to extra-bold or black; four to six weights are not unusual, and a few typefaces have as many as a dozen. Many typefaces for office, Web and non-professional use come with just a normal and a bold weight. If no bold weight is provided, many renderers (browsers, word processors, graphic and DTP programs) support faking a bolder font by rendering the outline a second time at an offset, or just smearing it slightly at a diagonal angle.
The base weight differs among typefaces; that means one normal font may appear bolder than some other normal font. For example, fonts intended to be used in posters are often quite bold by default while fonts for long runs of text are rather light. Therefore weight designations in font names may differ in regard to the actual absolute stroke weight or density of glyphs in the font.
Attempts to systematize a range of weights led to a numerical classification first used by Adrian Frutiger with the Univers typeface: 35 Extra Light, 45 Light, 55 Medium or Regular, 65 Bold, 75 Extra Bold, 85 Extra Bold, 95 Ultra Bold or Black. Deviants of these were the "6 series" (italics), e.g. 46 Light Italics etc., the "7 series" (condensed versions), e.g. 57 Medium Condensed etc., and the "8 series" (condensed italics), e.g. 68 Bold Condensed Italics. From this brief numerical system it is easier to determine exactly what a font's characteristics are, for instance "Helvetica 67" (HE67) translates to "Helvetica Bold Condensed".
The TrueType font format introduced a scale from 100 through 900, where 400 is regular (roman or plain), which is also used in CSS and OpenType. The first algorithmic description of fonts was perhaps made by Donald Knuth in his Metafont and TeX system of programs.
There are many names used to describe the weight of a font in its name, differing among type foundries and designers, but their relative order is usually fixed, something like this:
- Normal / regular / roman / plain
- Demi-bold / semi-bold
- Extra-bold / extra
- Ultra-black / ultra
The terms normal, regular and plain, sometimes also book, are being used for the standard weight font of a typeface. Where both appear and differ, book is often lighter than regular, but in some typefaces it is bolder.
In European typefaces, especially roman ones, a slanted style is used to emphasis important words. This is called italic type or oblique type. These designs normally slant to the right in left-to-right scripts. Oblique styles are often called italic, but differ from 'true italic' styles.
Italic styles are more flowing than the normal typeface, approaching a more handwritten, cursive style, possibly using ligatures more commonly or gaining swashes. Although rarely encountered, a typographic face may be accompanied by a matching calligraphic face (cursive, script), giving an exaggeratedly italic style.
In many sans-serif and some serif typefaces, especially in those with strokes of even thickness the characters of the italic fonts are only slanted, which is often done algorithmically, without otherwise changing their appearance. Such oblique fonts are not true italics, because lower-case letter-shapes do not change, but are often marketed as such. Fonts normally do not include both oblique and italic styles: the designer chooses to supply one or the other.
Since italic styles clearly look different to regular (roman) styles, it is possible to have 'upright italic' designs that take a more cursive form but remain upright; Computer Modern is an example of a font that offers this style. In Latin-script countries, upright italics are rare but are sometimes used in mathematics or in complex documents where a section of text already in italics needs a 'double italic' style to add emphasis to it. For example the Cyrillic minuscule ‘т’ may look like a smaller form of its majuscule ‘Т’ or more like a roman small ‘m’ as in its standard italic appearance; in this case the distinction between styles is also a matter of local preference.
In Frutiger’s nomenclature the second digit for upright fonts is a 5, for italic fonts a 6 and for condensed italic fonts an 8.
The two Japanese syllabaries, katakana and hiragana, are sometimes seen as two styles or typographic variants of each other, but usually are considered separate character sets as a few of the characters have separate kanji origins. The gothic style of the roman script with broken letter forms, on the other hand, is usually considered a mere typographic variant.
There are other aspects that can differ among font styles, but more often these are considered immanent features of the typeface. These include the look of digits (text figures) and the minuscules, which may be smaller versions of the capital letters (small caps) although the script has developed characteristic shapes for them. Some typefaces do not include separate glyphs for the cases at all, thereby abolishing the bicamerality. While most of these use uppercase characters only, some labeled unicase exist which choose either the majuscule or the minuscule glyph at a common height for both characters.
Some typefaces include fonts that vary the width of the characters (stretch), although this feature is usually rarer than weight or stroke.
Narrower fonts are usually labeled compressed, condensed or narrow. In Frutiger’s system, the second digit of condensed fonts is a 7. Wider fonts may be called wide, extended or expanded. Both can be further classified by prepending extra, ultra or the like.
Some professional digital typefaces include fonts that are optimised for certain sizes, for instance by using a thinner stroke weight if they are intended to be printed larger, or by using ink traps if they are to be printed at small size on poor-quality paper. This was common in the metal type period for most typefaces, since each size would be custom-cut, but declined as the pantograph, phototypesetting and digital fonts made printing the same font at any size simpler.
There are several naming schemes for such variant designs. One such scheme, invented and popularized by Adobe Systems, refers to the variant fonts by the applications those are typically used for, with the exact point sizes intended varying slightly by typeface:
- extremely large sizes, usually larger than 72 point
- large sizes, typically 19–72 point
- large text, typically about 14–18 point
- usually left unnamed, typically about 10–13 point
- Small Text (SmText)
- typically about 8–10 point
- very small, typically about 6–8 point
Font metrics refers to metadata consisting of numeric values relating to size and space in the font overall, or in its individual glyphs. Font-wide metrics include cap height, x-height, ascender height, descender depth, and the font bounding box. Glyph-level metrics include the glyph bounding box, the advance width (the proper distance between the glyph's initial pen position and the next glyph's initial pen position), and sidebearings (space that pads the glyph outline on either side).
Although most typefaces are characterised by their use of serifs, there are superfamilies that incorporate serif (antiqua) and sans-serif (grotesque) or even intermediate slab serif (Egyptian) or semi-serif fonts with the same base outlines.
A more common font variant, especially of serif typefaces, is that of alternate capitals. They can have swashes to go with italic minuscules or they can be of a flourish design for use as initials (drop caps).
A typical font may contain hundreds or even thousands of glyphs, often representing characters from many different languages. Oftentimes, users may only need a small subset of the glyphs that are available to them. Subsetting is the process of removing unnecessary glyphs from a font file, usually with the goal of reducing file size. This is particularly important for web fonts, since reducing file size often means reducing page load time.
- Blackwell, Lewis. 20th Century Type. Yale University Press: 2004. ISBN 0-300-10073-6.
- Fiedl, Frederich, Nicholas Ott and Bernard Stein. Typography: An Encyclopedic Survey of Type Design and Techniques Through History. Black Dog & Leventhal: 1998. ISBN 1-57912-023-7.
- Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, Princeton Architectural Press: 2004. ISBN 1-56898-448-0.
- Headley, Gwyn. The Encyclopaedia of Fonts. Cassell Illustrated: 2005. ISBN 1-84403-206-X.
- Macmillan, Neil. An A–Z of Type Designers. Yale University Press: 2006. ISBN 0-300-11151-7.