Do you know the difference between a font and a typeface? How about the purpose of a drop cap, ellipsis or descender? There’s much more to typography than just the size, weight and color of the fonts you use in graphic design and word processing.
This list of typography terms covers the basics of modern typography, from simple misunderstandings like the difference between typefaces and fonts to the meaning of important typography terms like bullet point, ellipsis, kerning and more.
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Alignment is the positioning of copy within a page’s margins. Common alignments include left, right, centered and justified. A justified alignment modifies the spacing between words so that they extend across the entire width of the page.
Some lowercase characters, such as b and t, extend higher than others. The ascender is the part of the letter that extends above the standard x-height of other lowercase characters.
Have you ever heard the phrase “reading between the lines?” The baseline is the line that all characters rest on, allowing for easy readability. Characters with descenders drop below the baseline, although the body of the character still sits on the baseline.
Bullet (and Bullet Point)
Bullets are characters that sit to the left of text to divide items in a list. Bullets can be a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from points to symbols. The most well known bullet character is the bullet point.
Cap height is the height of a font from the baseline to the tallest part of an uppercase letter. Some ascenders on lowercase characters may extend above the cap height of a certain font.
Some lowercase characters, such as j and p, extend below the baseline of a font. The descender is the part of the character that extends below the baseline. Certain fonts also include uppercase characters, such as J and Q with descenders.
Drop caps are uppercase characters that are aligned to the top of a line of text rather than the baseline. Drop caps are typically used for the first character in a chapter or news article.
An ellipsis is an expressive character used to show that some text has been left out of a quote or copy. It consists of three periods in a row. Ellipses are commonly used in fiction to indicate a silence or unfinished thought.
An em space is a typographic measurement consisting of the width of an uppercase M character. Em spaces are used to calculate the width of characters such as the em dash – a character used to punctuate and divide a sentence.
Font (and Font Family)
A font is a single width, weight and style of a certain typeface. Fonts typically come in families of similar fonts designed to be used together. For example, a font family may include a Roman, Italic, Bold and Semi-Bold style to be used with each other.
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A headline is a line (or multiple lines) of text that introduces an article, chapter or other form of body text. Most font families include a headline font designed to look good at a large size. There are also specific headline typefaces available.
An italic font is a slanting version of a specific font. Italic fonts are typically included in a font family. Italic text is used to specify a quote, important detail, or to add more emphasis to a passage of text.
Justified text is spaced so that it extends from the left margin all the way to the right margin. Although rarely used online, justified text is frequently used in newspapers, magazines and other print media for a more formal, authoritative appearance.
Margins are the blank spaces that surround headlines and body text on a page. The margin of a document serves several purposes: it frames the text to make it easier to read, and allows it to more easily be printed by a commercial printer.
Raised caps are large uppercase characters that are aligned to the baseline of a line of text. Like drop caps, they are typically used to emphasize the first letter near the start of a chapter or news article.
Sans serif typefaces do not have serifs (decorative strokes) at the end of their main strokes. Typefaces such as Arial and Helvetica are do not use serifs. Sans serif tends to be used in headings and in digital publishing for improved readability on digital screens.
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A serif is a light stroke that extends from the main strokes of a letter. Typefaces like Georgia and Times New Roman include serifs. Serifs improve readability and tend to be used in body text to separate letters and help readers understand text.
A typeface is a collection of letters, numerals and symbols that create a face. Several typefaces can often make up a type family. Typefaces differ from fonts in that a font is a specific form of a typeface, whereas a typeface is the design of the text itself.
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Weight is the thickness of letters and other characters within a typeface. Typefaces come in varying degrees of weight, such as bold, light, and black. Each weight has a different application within typography, such as a heading of subheading.
White space is the sections of a page in which there is no text or content. Elements of formatting such as margins are white space. White space is an important design aspect, since it improves readability and makes pages easier to print.
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X-height is the height of the main body of a lowercase letter. The x-height of a letter excludes the ascender and descender. For example, the lowercase letter b is made of two components: the body x-height section and the ascender.
Learn more about typography
Typography is one of the most important elements of graphic design, playing a role in visual art since the days of Ancient Greece. Learn more about the importance and history of typography in our blog post on typography’s history and modern usage.