As a student, you may have had teachers require you to type your essays in a certain font—think Times New Roman or Arial. But as it turns out, those fonts aren’t fonts at all: Instead, they’re what’s known as “typefaces.” And while the terms are often used interchangeably, they mean two different things. While it may seem like a trivial matter, if you’re interested in graphic design, then learning the distinction between the two can help you better understand typography and improve your design skills.  

Here, we’ll delve into the definitions of both typeface and font, explore their historical roots, and discuss whether it’s essential to differentiate between them. By the end, you’ll have a clearer grasp of these fundamental concepts in typography, and be a more knowledgeable designer for it.

Defining Typeface and Font

A person’s hand holding a pen and drawing on white paper on top of a dark-colored table. They’re using the pen to draw the letter A, which they’ll then use to form the first letter of their own typeface. 
In the Skillshare class “Type Design Basics: Design a Unique Decorative Grid-based Typeface,” teachers Evgeniya & Dominic Righini-Brand demonstrate the process of turning pen-and-paper sketches into a versatile digital typeface. 

Before we take a deep dive into the differences between typefaces and fonts, it’s important to establish a basic understanding of these terms:

  • Typeface: A typeface is the overarching design or style of a set of characters, letters, and symbols. It encompasses the entire family of fonts within a particular design, sharing a common aesthetic. Think of it as the visual identity of the text, defining its look and feel. One common example is Arial, a typeface designed in 1982. 
  • Font: The term “font” refers to the specific variations within a typeface. Fonts specify the size, weight, style, and spacing of the text. In essence, a font determines how the typeface appears in practice. For the typeface Arial, for instance, some of the available fonts include Arial Black, Arial Narrow and Arial Bold. 

Clarifying the Font and Typeface Distinction

The user interface of a software called Glyphs Mini. It displays a white background that’s been filled with two sets of the alphabet from A to Z, with one being uppercase and one being lowercase. 
In the Skillshare class “Building a Custom Typeface With Just Enough Personality,” teacher Harbor Bickmore shows students how to fine-tune their original typeface. 

To further clarify the difference between a typeface and a font, consider these points:

  • A typeface is a whole family of fonts: A typeface encompasses all the variations of a design, like bold, italic or regular, and can even include different character sets and scripts.
  • The term “font” is often erroneously used to refer to the entire font family: People often refer to a typeface as a “font,” which is technically incorrect but widely accepted in everyday situations. 
  • Specific font details matter in various contexts: In the field of design and typography, selecting the right font for a specific purpose is crucial. Factors such as legibility, style and mood are all influenced by the font choice.
  • Brand guidelines and regulations affect font choice: Many brands and organizations have specific guidelines regarding which fonts should be used to maintain a consistent and recognizable identity. This prevents mistakes such as the bold version of a typeface being used in some places, while the regular version is used everywhere else.
  • A typeface provides a common aesthetic, while a font specifies size, weight, style, and character set: Typefaces give your text its distinctive look, while fonts dictate the specific appearance of the text, including its size, weight, style, spacing and the characters it contains.

The History of Typeface vs. Font: Explained

A white screen titled ‘Unit 01—What is a Typeface / Wood Type Specimens.’ Beneath that title are photographs of typefaces created from wood carvings. 
In the Skillshare class “Introduction to Typeface Design,” teacher Alonzo Felix explains the history of the typeface, which includes typefaces carved into wood like those shown. 

As a modern designer who’s accustomed to using digital tools, it can be hard to understand why the terms “typeface” and “font” are different to begin with. That’s why learning about the words’ historical roots can help shed light on the enduring difference, even if you’ve never touched a printing press:

  • The distinction between typefaces and fonts has historical roots in printing: It originates from the days of traditional printing technology, namely the printing press. The first printing press in the Western world can be traced to the late middle ages, specifically the mid-15th century. 
  • “Font” is often used when discussing typefaces: The common use of “font” in place of “typeface” is not new and has persisted over many decades. Some designers and typography enthusiasts blame the popular computer software offered by Apple and Microsoft for conflating the two terms sometime in the 1980s, though confusion may have existed before then. 
  • “Font” originally referred to casting metal type, while “typeface” encompassed design and variations: In the era of manual typesetting, which lasted from the 15th century through much of the 20th century, metal type was cast for each letter. These individual letter blocks were organized and stored separately in metal cases. Fun fact: The word “font” can be traced to the Old French “fondre,” which means “melt” and refers to the melted metal once poured into type molds. 
  • The distinction remains, even in web typography, but is less practical today: With the advent of digital technology, the practical need for this distinction has diminished. Nonetheless, knowing the difference between the two can help you quickly distinguish between a family of fonts and a specific font. 
  • In the digital age, it’s easy to scale a typeface to generate different fonts with a simple click: Modern digital design tools make it a breeze to manipulate and adapt typefaces to create various fonts, so the distinction between typeface and font may seem less pertinent today. For graphic designers of all skill levels, though, it remains as relevant as ever.

Is it Important to Differentiate Both Terms?

A person’s hand holding an Apple Pencil over an iPad on a white tabletop. They’re using the Apple Pencil to draw the letter B in a graphic design application Fontself. 
In the Skillshare class “Design a Hand Drawn Font on Your iPad and Sell on Creative Market,” teacher Maja Faber creates a unique typeface, though in this class it’s referred to as a font.

Whether or not you should prioritize differentiating between typefaces and fonts depends on your design context:

  • Mastering the terminology is optional for great design: While understanding the difference between typeface and font is valuable, it’s not the sole determinant of design success. In other words, you can be a great designer without knowing the technical difference between “typeface” and “font.”
  • Effective communication is key to avoiding confusion: When it comes to ensuring clarity and avoiding confusion, though, precise language and clear communication about design elements (including typeface and font) are essential.
  • Prioritizing typography in graphic design matters more than language: The choice of typeface and font, along with other typography considerations like spacing and hierarchy, significantly impacts the overall design and user experience.
  • A bit of vocabulary knowledge can be beneficial but not paramount: Ultimately, what matters most is the visual result and how well it communicates your message.

The takeaway? If you aim to use your graphic design skills in a professional environment, you should get familiar with the difference between typefaces and fonts. But if you want to create designs for your own enjoyment, there’s no need to sweat it. 

Use Typefaces and Fonts to Upgrade Your Design Skills

While the terms “typeface” and “font” are often used interchangeably, understanding the distinction between them can enhance your design expertise. A precise grasp of typography concepts, typefaces and fonts included, allows you to make more informed design choices, maintain brand consistency and effectively communicate your message. 

So, the next time you’re working on a design project, remember that the typeface sets the tone, while the font details shape the final appearance. By mastering these nuances, you can elevate your design skills and create visually compelling and effective content for any application. 

But since typography is just one element of design, be sure to sharpen your other skills too. And with its vast library of graphic design classes, Skillshare is the best place to do so. 

Written by:

Carrie Buchholz-Powers