Is it a font or a typeface?

If you live and breathe web design or graphic design, it’s a good idea to get a handle on the jargon. This can be easier said than done though, especially when terminology and use evolve over time. This is especially true in the world of typography, where there are two key terms that are often used to refer to the same thing.

So here’s the bombshell. “Typeface” and “font” are not interchangeable, but they certainly relate to the same thing. In this article, we break down these two terms and discuss whether the distinction really even matters today.

What is a typeface?

Typeface refers to the design of letters, numbers and symbols. The shape of the characters makes up a design of type. Arial, Helvetica and Times New Roman are all examples of typefaces, with each referring to a specific design of type. Simply put, typeface is what you see.

What is a font?

Font, on the other hand, is the digital file that contains the typeface. It’s like a piece of software that tells the computer and printer how to display the typeface. Or, back in the old days of analogue printing, instead of a digital file, font referred to the metal block letters that made up a specific weight, width and style of a typeface (e.g. Times New Roman, italicised at 24 point).

Putting it all together

A useful way of thinking about the difference between typeface and font is by comparing them to songs and MP3s. When you really like a tune you say, “That’s a great song.” The MP3 file is the delivery mechanism not the creative work.

Or, to really bring home the difference, there is only one typeface called Times New Roman and it was designed by Victor Lardent. However, almost everyone with a computer has a copy of that font.

Does the distinction ever matter?

From the perspective of millions of computer users, who are asked to choose a font as opposed to a typeface in programs like Microsoft Word, the terms have become a bit muddled. Technically speaking, Microsoft Word uses “font” correctly, as at any given time you’re using a specific size and weight of a typeface.

But, does all this really matter? There is a growing acceptance that, for most people, the terms font and typeface can be used interchangeably. Of course it’s good to know and use the correct terminology, but there are many in the industry who now see this as a minor offence. Some say it’s a generational thing, and perhaps only experts in type design really need to be concerned with the distinction.

So, we hope this clears things up a bit. And if you enjoyed this article, you may also like:

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