Typography Terms: A Definitive Guide For Non-Designers

As a non-designer, it’s not easy to handle the big words coming your way while working solo on your project or with your designer. Maybe you’ve heard the word but can’t quite place your finger on what it exactly means. Maybe you have assigned a wrong meaning to a term you thought you knew so well. All in all, it tends to get frustrating. 

So in this blog, we will be covering some typographical terms that you need to know in order to overcome this frustration.

Typography is super important in delivering a successful design. Wherever there is text it’s important to make sure it’s presented in a way that a reader can see and understand it without hindrance. 

A good knowledge of some need-to-know typography terms can help you make the most of your design. If you don’t know them, you don’t know what good things can be done in your design typographically. 

So without further ado let’s learn some typographical terms!

Typography Terms Every Non-Designer Needs to Know

1. Typography

This is no. 1 on our list for obvious reasons. So typography is basically the arrangement of the letters and words in any text-based work. Most of the other terms that we will learn educate us on how to successfully achieve a typographically correct text structure. 

2. Typeface 

A typeface is a collection of letters sharing similar design features and characteristics. It’s a collective term for a family of fonts. In case you’ve heard people using these 2 typography terms interchangeably, they were in the wrong. A typeface is not a font. 

3. Font

Then what is a font? A font is a variation in a typeface. This variation happens in its weight and size. So a font is a suboption under a typeface with a difference in its appearance. 

4. Font Family

A font family is a collection of fonts that belong to a particular typeface. These fonts share the same characteristics but differ in size and weight. 

Confused? Have a look at this:

5. Stroke

A stroke refers to the lines used to form a letter. It can be either straight or curved. Also, a letter can have vertical, horizontal, and diagonal strokes. In letters with straight strokes, most of the time a vertical stroke will accompany horizontal or diagonal strokes. 

For example, the letter ‘k’ has 3 strokes.

6. Stem

The “stroke” and “stem” can be confusing because both typography terms refer to the same part of some letters at times. While the stroke can be straight or curved, the stem of a letter is mainly the vertical stroke of a letter. Observe the illustration below. The purple portion in the letter L refers to the stem in this instance.

7. Serif

A Serif is the little feet-like characters you find at the end of strokes in letters. Serifs fonts are also a major classification of typefaces. All fonts in this typeface will therefore have serifs at the end of strokes in their letters as circled below.

8. Sans Serif

Sans in French means “without” so it’s obvious what Sans Serif means. Simply that the strokes in these letters come ‘sans’ (without) serifs as shown in the below image. These letters do not have those little tiny feet extending beyond the stroke as pointed out in the image. This is another major classification of typefaces.

9. Slab Serif

The fonts belonging to the Slab Serif typeface have rather thick and heavy serifs at the end of the letter strokes. These are preferred for bold logos and titles and were introduced in the early 19th century.  

You can see in the image below that the serifs (feet) are quite chunkier as opposed to the “little feet” we looked at a moment ago.

10. Script

The main characteristic of fonts belonging to the Script typeface is that they look like handwriting. The script typeface can be further classified into 2 categories called casual scripts and formal scripts. The former looks more informal and ordinary as the word itself denotes and the latter looks more like handwriting from the 16th and 17th centuries which works well in formal settings. 

Here are examples that showcase the two classifications.

11. Italic

Italics are typefaces that are slanted to the right. There are ways to manually italicize fonts that are built into certain software. They are typically used for decorative purposes or to emphasize something.

12. Backslant

A back slant is when the letters slant in the opposite direction from an italic. We learned that italic typefaces lean forwards (towards the right) so back slant typefaces lean backward (towards the left). Backslant typefaces are not visually appealing in design because it’s against the reading direction and therefore aren’t very commonly used. 

13. Blackletter

Blackletter is a typeface also known as Gothic or Old English typeface. The font families in this typeface can be found in old books from the 12th and 17th centuries. It was popularly used in Europe. The striking characteristics of blackletter fonts are the mixture of thick and thin strokes with elaborate and decorative serifs at the end of them. These are best for vintage brand logos. 

Below is an example of a blackletter typeface called Engraver’s Old English BT.

14. Baseline

The baseline is the invisible line where letters or words rest as shown below. The baseline is also a point from which other measurements in typography are determined. 

15. Caps

“Caps” is basically the informal shorter version word for capital letters. It is primarily used in casual speech. Capital letters are the bigger and taller versions of letters. We also use all caps for emphasis. 

16. Cap Height

So the cap height is basically the height of a capital letter measured from the baseline to the top of that letter as seen in the image below. The cap height of letters with vertical strokes can be easily measured as opposed to letters with curved strokes. 

17. Lowercase

Lowercase letters are the smaller shorter version of letters. These letters are the ones used in the middle of a sentence.

18. X-height 

The x-height is the height of a lowercase letter as illustrated below. It’s measured from the bottom of the baseline to the top of that particular letter. 

19. Point

Point is the unit in which font sizes are measured. The actual size of one point in printing has changed over the course of time but it has been deemed equivalent to 1/72nd of an inch since the mid-1980s.

20. Bowl

The bowl is the curved portion of a given letter with an enclosed space inside. We’ve already spoken about strokes so the bowl is basically a curved stroke with a space within. We call this space, the counter. The negative space in letters with an opening that’s partial is called the aperture. 

The below image would help you understand it better.

21. Double Story

Double story is when a letter has 2 counters. The letter ‘g’ in the Times New Roman typeface has a double story as indicated below.

22. Spine

This typography term is reserved only for one letter; the letter S. In the letter S, the left-to-right curving stroke is called the spine as shown below. The curvature of the spine can vary from typeface to typeface.

23. Legibility

Legibility is when the characters in any given text can be individually recognized from the other. It’s not the same as readability although it contributes to it

24. Readability

This typographical term means that a text is comfortably read by a reader. In other words, readability is measured by how easy it is for a reader to comprehend a given portion of text. 

25. Tracking

Tracking is the adjusting of the distance/ spacing between letters. In tracking, the adjustment makes the space between all the letters in a single word the same as shown in the image below. This comes in handy when a font needs to be reduced in size but the individual letters seem to appear too close to each other. 

26. Kerning

Kerning is also helpful when you want to adjust the space between letters. But there is a slight difference. Kerning is when you adjust the distance between 2 specific letters only. It wouldn’t be applied to the entire word but exclusively to the letters you select. This is very helpful for manipulating the distance between certain letters in a word that seem too close or too far apart as is the case in some fonts. Kerning helps make a text portion legible and readable.

The indication below will help you understand this adjustment. 

27. Monospaced

Monospaced typefaces are typefaces with fonts that have letters equally spaced. It’s widely used by code editors

Below is a typeface called Courier Prime.

28. Leading

We learned the meaning of the typographical term baseline before. So as shown below, leading is the line height between multiple baselines where words sit. The kind of typeface you use will determine how much leading needs to be adjusted in order to make the text legible. 

29. Terminal

The terminal is the end stroke of a letter without the presence of a serif.  The terminal usually looks like a curve. In letters like ‘a’, ‘c’, ‘f’, and ‘r’ this terminal is called a beak owing to its beak-like appearance. 

The circled part in the letter ‘f’ below is its terminal. 

30. Apex

The apex is the point at which 2 strokes in a letter meet. Like the apexes in the letters ‘A’ and ‘W’ as circled in the illustration below.

31. Arm

The arm is the horizontal stroke that does not connect to another stroke or stem. The top horizontal stroke in the uppercase T is therefore called its arm. 

32. Ascender/ Descender

The ascender and descender are 2 features in a letter with opposite meanings. The ascender is the stroke in lowercase letters that extends above the x-height. And the descender is the stroke of a lowercase letter that descends below the baseline in which it sits. In some letters, the descender is referred to as the tail. 

33. Tittle

The tittle is the dot above the lowercase letters ‘i’ and ‘j’ in typography terms. 

34. Orphan and Widow

A widow in typography terms is a single line of text appearing at the start of a column. An orphan is a single word that sits at the bottom of a paragraph on its own. Both are typographical errors that need to be avoided in design.

35. Drop Cap

A drop cap is an oversized capital letter typically used at the beginning of the first part of a text portion. They’re mostly used for decorative purposes. 

36. Logo Type

A logotype is the text part of a logo design. It could be the name of the company or its initials. It is a favored logo design type among others

37. Lorem Ipsum

Lorem Ipsum is a placeholder text used in design. It’s used to determine the overall look of a certain typeface in a design setting before applying actual text copy. 

Fun fact: Did you know that the Lorem Ipsum text is a corrupted version of a Latin text from 1st century BC by Cicero? 

Let’s see some of these together

typography terms

The typography terms that we’ve looked into are the most commonly used ones in a design setting. Some of these you may have heard before and some of them may be new to you. Some of these words can be strenuous to remember and recall when you need them but going through them a couple of times more might help. 

Another way that you can remember these are by actually using them in your projects. That could help broaden your understanding of them. 

The fact of the matter is that knowing these typographical terms can open up so many design possibilities to you. Whether you’re doing solo projects or you’re instructing your designer you will know how to go about it. There are typography rules that you need to follow in order to deliver a good design. Once you become thorough with these typography terms you will feel like you understand the overall concept of design a lot more than you did. 

Latest Posts