Font

Font

[font]
In typography, a font (also fount) is traditionally defined as a complete character set of a single size and style of a particular typeface. For example, the set of all characters for 9-point Bulmer italic is a font, and the 10-point size would be a separate font, as would the 9 point upright.

Since the introduction of computer fonts based on fully scalable outlines, a broader definition has evolved. Font is no longer size-specific, but still refers to a single style. Bulmer regular, Bulmer italic, Bulmer bold and Bulmer bold italic are four fonts, but one typeface.

However, the term font is also often used as a metonym for typeface.

Font characteristics

Besides the character height when using the mechanical sense of the term, there are several characteristics which may distinguish fonts, also depending on the script(s) that the typeface supports. In European alphabetic scripts, i.e. Roman, Cyrillic and Greek, the main such properties are the stroke width, called weight, the style or angle and the character width.

Most typefaces are focused on the roman script and hence the regular or standard font is often labeled roman, both to distinguish it from bold or thin and from italic or oblique. The keyword for the default, regular case is often omitted for variants and never repeated, otherwise it would be Bulmer regular italic, Bulmer bold regular and even Bulmer regular regular.

Different fonts of the same face may be used in the same work for various degrees and types of emphasis.

Font weight

The weight of a particular font is the thickness of the character outlines.

There are three basic categories of weights: light, normal, bold. There can be less weights in a typeface on the one hand and there can be finer differences, but there are never more than a total of nine font weights per typeface, three per group. Many computer fonts for office, Web and non-professional use come with a normal and a bold weight. If even this is not provided many renderers (browsers, word processors, graphic and DTP programs) support faking a bolder font by algorithmically increasing the stroke width.

The base weight differs among typefaces, that means one normal' font may appear bolder than some other normal'' font. For example fonts intended to be used in posters are often quite bold by default while fonts for long runs of text are rather light. Therefore weight keywords in their names may differ in regard to absolute position, e.g. bold usually is at the seventh of nine (virtual) positions, but sometimes at the sixth. The standard, regular font weight for most typefaces is slightly lighter than medium, i.e. it commonly is the fourth.

The ideal of nine font weights has lead to a numerical classification first used by Adrian Frutiger with the Univers typeface, although therein only ranging from 3 to 8. Later typographers introduced a larger scale from 100 through 900, available for instance in CSS, where virtual values 0 and 1000 can be assumed to represent no-ink and all-ink.

There are several keywords used to describe the weight of a font in its name, differing among type foundries and designers, but their relative order is usually fixed like this:

  • thin
  • ultra-light
  • extra-light
  • light
  • semi-light = semi
  • book
  • normal
  • regular
  • roman
  • plain
  • medium
  • demi = semi-bold
  • bold
  • extra-bold = extra
  • heavy
  • black
  • extra-black
  • ultra = ultra-black

The terms normal, regular and plain, sometimes also book are being used for the standard weight font of a typeface.

Font style

In todays European typefaces, especially roman ones, the font style is usually connected to the angle. When the normal, roman or upright font is slanted – usually to the right in left-to-right scripts – the character shapes change slightly too. They are approaching a more handwritten, cursive style then. In this italic type character edges may even connect and ligatures are more common. Although rarely encountered, a typographic face may be accompanied by a matching calligraphic face, which might be considered a further font style of one typeface.

In many sans-serif typefaces the characters of the italic fonts are only slanted (oblique), which is often done algorithmically, without otherwise changing their appearance. On the other hand there are typefaces with upright characters that take a more cursive form without a change in angle. For example the Cyrillic minuscule т may look like a smaller form of its majuscule Т or more like a roman small m as in its standard italic appearance; in this case the distinction between these styles is also a matter of local preference.

In Frutiger’s nomenclature the second digit for upright fonts is a 5, for italic fonts a 6.

The relation of the two Japanese Kana styles, called Katakana and Hiragana, is similar to European upright and italic difference, although their application is basically reverse, the cursive Hiragana being the standard to accompany Chinese ideographs (Kanji). Nevertheless they are not considered typographic variants of each other but separate character sets mapping to the same syllabary and sharing the same source, manyogana. The case of traditional and simplified Chinese glyphs is a different one, on the other hand, the latter being derived from the former and them not being used together in the same text.

Cursive-only scripts like Arabic also have different styles, in this case for example Naskh and Kufic, although these often depend on application, area or era.

There are other aspects that can differ among font styles, but more often these are considered immanent features of the typeface. These include the look of the minuscules, which may be smaller versions of the capital letters (small caps) although the script has developed characteristic shapes for them. Some typefaces do not include separate glyphs for the cases at all, thereby abolishing the bicamerality. While most use uppercase characters only, some exist that choose either the majuscule or the minuscule glyph at a common height for both characters (unicase).

Font width

Some typefaces include fonts that vary the width of the characters.

Narrower fonts are usually labeled compressed, condensed or narrow. In Frutiger’s system, the second digit of condensed fonts is a 7. Wider fonts may be called wide, extended or expanded. Both can be further classified by prepending extra or the like.

These separate fonts have to be dinstinguished from techniques that alter the letter-spacing to achieve narrower or smaller words, especially for justified text alignment.

Font application

Some professional electronic typefaces include fonts that are optimised for certain sizes. They are referred to by the applications those are typically used for:

  • Caption
  • Display
  • Subhead
  • Small text (SmText)

Corporate fonts

Serifness

Although most typefaces are characterised by their use of serifs, there are superfamilies that incorporate serif (antiqua) and sans-serif (grotesque) or even intermediate slab serif (egyptian) or semi-serif fonts with the same base outlines.

A more common font variant, especially of serif typefaces, is that of alternate capitals either with swashes to go with italic minuscules or of a flourish design for use as initials (drop caps).

Proportion

Just like serifness most typefaces are, if the script provides the possibility, either proportional or monospaced (typewriter-style), but there are superfamilies covering both.

Etymology

The term font, a cognate of the word fondue, derives from Middle French fonte, meaning "(something that has been) melt(ed)", referring to type produced by casting molten metal at a type foundry. English-speaking printers have used the term fount for centuries to refer to the multi-part metal type used to assemble and print in a particular size and typeface.

References

  • Blackwell, Lewis. 20th Century Type. Yale University Press: 2004. ISBN 0-300-10073-6.
  • Fiedl, Frederich, Nicholas Ott and Bernard Stein. Typography: An Encyclopedic Survey of Type Design and Techniques Through History. Black Dog & Leventhal: 1998. ISBN 1-57912-023-7.
  • Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, Princeton Architectural Press: 2004. ISBN 1-5689-8448-0.
  • Macmillan, Neil. An A–Z of Type Designers. Yale University Press: 2006. ISBN 0-300-11151-7.

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