Do you know your spurs from your spines? Typographic terminology explained.
Updated: Jan 14
As a marketing manager have you ever looked at a commissioned piece of creative and wondered why if just isn’t resonating with you or your customers? Alternatively, are you a young or mature designer that thought spurs were the thing you get on a pair of cowboy boots? Whether you’re a client or designer this article is a great introduction into the basic terms of typography and the more obscure ones.
What the font?!
Whether it’s Proxima Nova, Museo, Source Sans or good old Helvetica typography is all around us. It’s in our everyday lives in the form of packing, point of sale (POS), brochures, leaflets, digital apps, social media, news feeds, signage, information posters, books and all types of printed material which use fonts to convey a message or story by setting the tone, mood, or personality of a brand. The average person wouldn’t know the difference whether the kerning is too tight, the leadings incorrect or if there are too many weights of a particular font in design. However, they intuitively know what they like. So, it’s important to understand the basics of good typography to be able to create an outstanding design that resonates with customers and peers alike or to be able to critique a piece of commissioned work and further champion the cause for good design.
The word, typography, is derived from the Greek words τύπος typos "form" or "impression" and γράφειν graphein "to write. Fonts historically were used in metal typesetting, a font was a particular size, weight and style of a typeface. Each font was a matched set of type, one piece (called a "sort") for each glyph, and a typeface consisting of a range of fonts that shared an overall design.
In today’s modern digital world a ‘font’ is frequently synonymous with ‘typeface’ and comes in many different families;
serif (e.g. Times)
sans-serif (e.g. Helvetica)
cursive (e.g. Zapf-Chancery)
fantasy (e.g. Western)
monospace (e.g. Courier)
A great example of a font is Helvetica which is a neo-grotesque or realist design, one influenced by the famous 19th-century typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk and other German and Swiss designs. Its use became a hallmark of the International Typographic Style that emerged from the work of Swiss designers in the 1950s and 60s, becoming one of the most popular typefaces of the 20th century.
As a sans serif font, Helvetica has a simple straightforward form and as a result, has been used in information graphics and numerous high-profile brands.
Size really does matter
Each font is set at a specific size measured as point size, abbreviated as ‘pt’ size. Digital applications measure in pixels, abbreviated as ‘px’ size. For example, the body copy within a brochure could be set to 8.5pt on 13pt. That’s 8.5pt in size with the leading set to 13pt (leading is the spacing between lines of copy).
Make it shout, make it bold
The font can also come in extended and condensed in various weights and italic. Below are a few of the most popular weights used in modern typography. The font example used is Helvetica Neue.
Understanding your spurs from your spines
Below is a comprehensive list of terms used to describe the various parts of a font. Some are obscure and are not normally referenced, for example, spur. The most popular terms used in a design studio are serif, sans serif, kerning, leading, x-height, cap height ascenders, and descenders along with the font name and reference to weight.
A portion of a letter that extends downwards, attached at one end and free at the other.
A straight or curved portion of a letter that extends upwards or outwards, attached at one end and free at the other
The small stroke that extends outwards from a lowercase g in some typeface styles.
The stroke that curves downwards and to the right of the lowercase h, m and n.
The spine is the main curved stroke inside the upper and lower case S.
The decorative curved descender of a capital Q, R and K. The descenders of the lower case g, j, p, q, and y are also sometimes called tails.
The x-height isn’t exactly a part but rather a measurement. It measures the height of all lowercase letters that are part of the same typeface. It’s called x-height because the letter x of each typeface is what determines the measurement.
The cap height is a measurement of all capital letters in the same typeface. The most accurate measurement is found in flat bottomed characters like the letter E.
An ascender is a vertical stroke that extends upwards over the x-height.
A descender is a vertical stroke that extends downwards below the x-height.
The stem is the main vertical stroke in upright characters. When a letter has no verticals like a capital A or V, the first diagonal stroke is considered the stem.
A stroke is the main vertical diagonal line in a letter.
A bar is a horizontal stroke in letters like A, H, e and f.
A serif is a short line at the beginning and the end of strokes. Serifs are what make a typeface a serif or a sans serif. Serifs can have different shapes: hairline, square/slab, wedge. They can all be bracketed or unbracketed, meaning that their connection to the stroke is rounded or perpendicular.
When a letter doesn’t have a serif, the end of the stroke is called a terminal.
A bowl is a stroke that creates an enclosed curved space, as in the letters d, b, o, D and B.
The counter is the enclosed space in letters like o, b, d, and a. Counters are also created by bowls.
A link is a stroke connecting the bowl and loop of a two-story lowercase g.
A swash is a fancy or decorative replacement to a terminal or serif in any capital letter used at the beginning of a sentence. Swashes are also used at the end of letters to decorate the composition. Calligraphy is full of swashes of all kinds; at the beginning, at the end and even in the middle, extending from ascenders.
A spur is a small projection that veers off the main stroke on many capital G’s
Use your fonts wisely
The right choice of font can make or break a design. There are thousands of font available from numerous foundries, notably Adobe fonts, Da Fonts, MyFonts, Monotype, and linotype. The sensitivities around font size, kerning, leading and position can give your designs that contemporary cutting edge feels or a classy established professional look. The wrong font can quickly date design or brand which can be costly in the long run losing the confidence of customers or followers.
There are many design companies Bristol, Cheltenham, Swindon and Cirencester from experience that talk-the-talk but wouldn't know a Spur from a Spine. We pride ourselves on our craft and our ability to implement good design solutions that create impact and cut through – in essence we Think. Create. Connect.
If you would like to take your creativity to the next level then contact us today.
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