Fonts & Typefaces

As a graphic/web designer or a typographer it is vitally important that we learn to properly use terminology that comes with the practice. However, for many designers typographic terminology seems to be an oversight and one of the most misused terms is by far the use font and typeface.

Font Vs Typeface

The words font and typeface can’t be used interchangeably [1] because they mean to separate things. A typeface refers to the actual design of a type family, whereas a font is the device that is used to display a typeface, whether it be physically of digitally. This may still sound confusing and that’s okay, it will be explained in more detail as we go on.

To help create a clearer picture of how each should be used we can look at what is known about the origins of each word.

Johannes Gutenberg employed a scribe by the name of Peter Schöffer to help design the first typeface, this entailed the actual design of each of the 202 characters and their transformation into metal type, so we can think of a typeface in terms of it’s design and entirety of a type family.

As to the exact origin of the word “font”, no one is sure for certain but there are a number of seeming logical theories of which esteemed type designer David Berlow[2] comments that the word is most likely of french origin where the idea of a spring of water (Fontaine) was close enough to the ideas that spring from words.

Jim Rimmer also theorised that the word “font” came from the word fount which is still used in the UK, meaning a source from which words spring.

Allan Haley[3] has the following to say about distinguishing between a font and a typeface.

“Graphic designers choose typefaces for a project but use fonts to create the finished art.”

For Type & Music the typeface I chose is Kepler Std by Adobe type designer Robert Slimbach, but the font I use to display the content is Kepler Std light. Typefaces are designs like Helvetica, Georgia and League Gothic. Fonts are what we use to print these typefaces, physically and digitally. So creating a typeface and creating a font are two different things.

A deeper explanation

Hopefully the difference is starting to make more sense to you, but if it’s still confusing, and it can be, read on for an excellent section I decided to include from The Font Feed’s article Font or Typeface[4].

The first terminology we agreed upon was in which situations we’d use font and whentypeface. Mark Simonson once recapped it handsomely in this discussion on Typophile. The gist of it is that

“the physical embodiment of a collection of letters, numbers, symbols, etc. (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) is a font. When referring to the design of the collection (the way it looks) you call it a typeface.”

Nick Sherman used an interesting analogy in a comment on Typographica’s Our Favorite Typefaces of 2007:

“The way I relate the difference between typeface and font to my students is by comparing them to songs and MP3s, respectively (or songs and CDs, if you prefer a physical metaphor).”

Stephen Coles agrees:

“When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say: “That’s a great MP3”. You say: “That’s a great song”. The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work; just as in type afont is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.”

By now you should have a much more solid understanding on how to differentiate between the two and you can now keep this in mind the next time you are talking about fonts or typefaces. It can still be tricky getting it right though so I think it’s something people should take the time to think about before using either word to describe something, but over time you can be sure it will become second nature.


  1. [1]Harrison Weber, 20/05/2012, Is it a Font or a Typeface? [The Next Web – International technology news, business & culture], [online]. Available: [12/08/2013].
  2. [2]Yves Peters, 11/09/2008, Font or Typeface? [The Font Feed], [online]. Available: [12/08/2013].
  3. [3]Allan Haley, 21/10/2012, AIGA [They’re not fonts!], [online]. Available:[12/08/2013].
  4. [4] Peters.