What is the difference between typeface and font?

Last year, I hosted a Fireside Chat with the Data Visualization Society on Typography for Data Visualisation. You can see the full discussion below – I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and emerged with a new enthusiasm and determination to learn more about how I could make the right font design decisions in my data visualisations.

Part of this determination was to buy the highly recommended Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton. Billed as a “critical guide for designers, writers, editors and students”, my first concern might have been that the book might be text-heavy (understandably for a book about fonts and typefaces), and somewhat dry. The front cover promises more principles, examples, exercises, type crimes (sic), fonts, factoids and fun. A bold claim, but does it deliver?

Straight away, the first page of the introduction talks about changes since the first version (inevitable due to the increasing transition from print to online), including when to say “typeface” instead of “font”. Instantly I was reminded that I made that common mistake during the discussion above, and the very first paragraph I read pointed me to page 81 to find the answer to that particular question. Since I’ve posed that as the title question to this blog post, I’ll answer that here using the response from the book, which is to say that a typeface is the design of the letterforms, and the font is the mechanism. In short, many of us, myself included, use the word “font” when the correct term is “typeface”. But you can see from the page layout below, this is a far from conventional book, and it poses this as one of three embarrassing situations around the use of commonly misused terms.

This is one of many such pages that makes this a great book to browse. Dip in to most pages and the chances are you won’t see a full page of standard textbook prose, but a much more graphic picture-based example. Though it’s a well-structured book, every element feels like a bite-sized chunk of information and inspiration to add to your design knowledge.

I started the Fireside Chat (and, indeed, also my reading of this book) as a total typography novice. A devotee of Helvetica Neue who can never remember what a Serif font is, or what to do about kerning. So this book also works as a well-structured reference, divided into three sections:

  • Letter
  • Text
  • Grid

This structure takes the reader from the basic formation of each letter, through the organisation of letters to words into the arrangement of text into coherent bodies. Every chapter starts with the illustrated essay-style examples, followed by dozens of illustrated and explained examples and an exercise for the reader. It always feels light-hearted – often the top right hand corner will offer a light-hearted word of advice or summary of the page, with the book full of such quirky moments and observations.

Big bottoms are an effective use of resources

The first sentence within the “Letter” section is capitalised: “THIS IS NOT A BOOK ABOUT FONTS.” and is followed by “It is a book about how to use them”. If that sounds like what you’re looking for, to increase your data visualisation design awareness, then I thoroughly recommend this book – it feels informal and enjoyable while at the same time imparting specialist knowledge that can really take your understanding to the next level.

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