A partial definition of typography is, “The art of printing with type.” Certainly the design of type fonts is an art of itself.

Our alphabet (at least its capital letters) comes directly from the Romans, who borrowed heavily from the earlier Greeks and Etruscans. However, scholars can trace our alphabet even further back, to the Phoenicians, more than 3,000 years ago. Much later, toward the end of the first milleneum A.D., Charlemagne’s court standardized on a written form which included most of the features of our lower case alphabet.

Then, some 500 years later, with the invention of movable type—first as letters carved on wood blocks, later as metal castings—typography sprang to life as an art. It has developed unabated ever since. Today it is also a science, with type designers concerned not only with the appearance of new fonts, but with their psychological impact on readers and with their incorporation into new and broadening fields of type reproduction. A few basic facts about typography are worth knowing.

A font is a complete set of characters in one size and typeface. 12-point Courier is one font. The same set of characters in another size constitutes another font. Fonts are identified by their size, typeface family, weight and style. For 12-point Courier bold italic, 12-point is the size, Courier the typeface family, bold the weight and italic the style. Where the weight and style of a font are “normal,” their terms are usually omitted.

Font size is usually expressed in a number of “points.” A point is a printer’s measurement, equal to 1/12 a pica, or 1/72 of an inch. Point size is the approximate distance from the top of a font’s tallest character to the bottom of its lowest character. Approximate because some fonts are designed to be taller. 11-point Helvetica may appear as tall, or taller than 12-point Times Roman.

Point size does not describe the width of characters. They will vary. Obviously, the letters “i” and “l” do not occupy the same horizontal space as “m” or “w.” Moreover, many font families have compressed or expanded variants. Fonts for typewriters and daisy wheel printers are quite limited in number, and the width of their characters is determined by the mechanical means used to advance type across the printed page.

In such cases, fonts are not measured by point size, but by characters per inch (cpi), referred to as pitch. A 10-pitch font will produce 10 characters per inch, each occupying its discrete 1/10-inch of space (monospacing.) Virtually all typewriters of a few decades ago used 10-pitch Courier. More modern printing devices— including some electronic typewriters—are capable of producing proportional spaced fonts. In this case, advancing the type across the paper is determined by the relative width of each character in the font. Hence, the results when comparing 12-pitch Courier (mono) and 12-pitch Roman (proportional):
abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz (mono)
abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz (proportional)
Note: If your computer does not have these fonts loaded, you may not be able to tell the difference between those lines.

The difference between mono and proportional spacing becomes most obvious with the examination of spaces between letters h–l on the two lines.

Serif and sans serif are terms used to describe the forms into which most type falls. Serifs are the little “finishing strokes” that appear, for example, at the bottom and at both ends of the crossbar on this letter “T”, printed in 12- point Times. Printed in 12-point Helvetica, the “T”clearly lacks any trace of serifs. Serif fonts are generally considered more suitable for printed text. The more modern appearance of sans serif fonts is better suited for advertising, headlines and computer applications such as spread sheets.

Style and weight refer to the variants possible in most fonts. Style is commonly available in two variations: roman (upright) and italic (slanted to the right.) Weight is an approximate measure of thickness for the various stroke elements that make up each character in a font. Added weight is usually expressed with the term “bold”.

Kerning is another term that crops up in discussions of typography. Basically, kerning is the discrete adjustment of spaces between printed characters beyond that usually provided by the printing equipment and the type font. It is useful for improving appearance of such things as very large fonts in display ads and the like. Kerning is a feature of many typesetting systems and computer programs, but will not be discussed further here.


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