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Anatomy of a Letter

Typography: Anatomy of a Letter

The key to understanding typography and type design is to understand what characteristics make each typeface similar or different. The differences can be glaringly obviously or quiet and subtle, but they all lie in each typeface’s unique anatomy. But before we start dissecting the letter, we want to correct a common typographical misconception.

Font versus Typeface

Many people incorrectly use the words “font” and “typeface” interchangeably. A font and a typeface are not the same thing, and chances are when you say “font”, you really mean “typeface”.

A typeface is really more like a font family. “Font family” is technically an HTML term so it only applies to digital design, but both terms refer to a set of one or more fonts composed of characters that share common design features. A “font”, then, refers to the individual style of a particular typeface. It helps to visualize it:

Font vs. Typeface

Think of these design features like members of your own family – there are certain common characteristics that set your family apart from others’. A typeface is like your family name, while fonts are more like each individual member of your family. For example, Helvetica is a typeface, but Helvetica in 8 pt. is a different font than 16 pt. Helvetica, and bold Helvetica is a different font than italic Helvetica. Make sense?

Body Parts

Just like people, letters have different body parts. It’s the minor differences in how these body parts are designed that gives us different typefaces. Here are some of the most important components:

ApertureAperture

The opening at the bottom of a character.


ApexApex Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The point at the top of a character where two strokes meet.


Arm Leg Anatomy of a Letter TypographyArm/Leg

A horizontal stroke not connected at one end. Arm strokes are on the top half of the letter, while leg strokes are on the bottom.


AscenderAscender Anatomy of a Letter Typography

An upward vertical stroke that extends above the x-height of lowercase letters. Not sure what x-height is? Keep reading.


BaselineBaseline Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The line on which characters sit, like invisible lined paper.


BowlBowl Anatomy of a Letter Typography

A curved stroke that creates a fully or partially enclosed space.


CounterCounter Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The technical name for the enclosed space created the bowl (the ones you used to color in as a kid).


CrossbarCrossbar Anatomy of a Letter Typography

A horizontal stroke.


DescenderDescender Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The opposite of an ascender – a vertical stroke that travels below the baseline.


FinialFinial Anatomy of a Letter Typography

A tapered or curved end.


HairlineHairline Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The skinnier strokes seen in serif typefaces.


SerifSerif Anatomy of a Letter Typography

“Feet”, or extended strokes, located at the end of vertical or horizontal strokes in serif typefaces. Sans serif typefaces lack these feet.


ShoulderShoulder Anatomy of a Letter Typography

A curved stroke extending from a stem.


SpurSpur Anatomy of a Letter Typography

A small projection from a curved stroke, similar to a serif but not originating at the end of a stroke.


StemStem Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The primary vertical stroke of a letter.


TailTail Anatomy of a Letter Typography

A commonly decorative descending stroke.


TerminalTerminal Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The end of a stroke that does not end in a serif.


X-HeightX Height Anatomy of a Letter Typography

The height of a lower case letter.


Study Up!

If you want to design your own typeface, understanding the tiny components of each glyph is essential. If you’re not a typeface fanatic, understanding the minor differences can help you identify the perfect typeface for your project, from the simplest wedding invitation to the most complicated graphic design project.


Sources

Anatomy of Type“. Typography Deconstructed. 2010.
Learn: Anatomy of a Typeface“. Typedia.

Steph Schinkel
Steph Schinkel

Steph is an avid crafter, DIY enthusiast, and regular contributor to The Paper who loves to handmake all of her cards. Above all else, Steph is a die-hard foodie with a massive sweet tooth and a deep, soul-consuming love for chocolate.