Typographic Terminology



Cross bar: A horizontal stroke connecting two stems as in A, H, or a simple stroke as in f and t.

Counter: The white space enclosed by a letterform, whether wholly enclosed, as in d or o, or partially, as in c or m.

Arm: Short horizontal strokes, as in E, F, L, T.

Ascender: The part of a lowercase letter that rises above the x-height, as in letters ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘f’, ‘h’, ‘k’, ‘t’ and ‘l’.

Bowl: The generally round or elliptical forms which are the basic body shape of letters such as C, G, O in the uppercase, and b, c, e, o, p in the lowercase.

Descender: Part of a lowercase letter projecting below the baseline.

Ear: The stroke attached to the bowl of the lowercase g. Some typographers use the same term for the lowercase r.

Stem: A main stroke that is more or less straight, not part of a bowl. The letter o has no stem; the letter I consists of stem and serifs alone.

Shoulder: The curved stroke aiming downward from a stem. The curve at the beginning of a leg of a character, such as in an “m.”

Serifs: serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols.

Sans Serif: a typeface that doesn’t have serifs.


Height: Nowadays, the point system is considered the standard method used to determine the measurement of type. One point is equal to inch or .35mm. 12 points are equal to 1 pica, the unit commonly used to measure column widths. Type can also be measured in inches, millimetres or pixels; most software applications let the designer choose the preferred unit.

Width: Letters also have a horizontal measure, called the set width. This is equal to the body of the letter, plus a sliver of space that protects it from other letters. The width of a letter is essential to the proportions and the visual impression of a typeface. Some have a narrow set width and some have a wide one.


Scale is the size of design elements in comparison to other elements in a layout, as well as to the physical context of the work. Scale is also relative, for example, 12pt type of a 32 inch screen can look very small, but 12pt type on the page of a book can appear too heavy. Changes in scale can create visual contrast, movement and depth and can express a hierarchy of importance.

Type Families

Roman: Plain/regular, standard upright version of a typeface.

Italic: Used for emphasis, often employs shapes and strokes distinct from its roman counterpart.

Small Caps: Designed to integrate with a line of text where full sized capitals would stand out awkwardly.

Bold: Added in the 20th century to meet the needs for emphatic forms.

Bold Italic: When designing italic and bold italic, the typeface designer tries to make the versions feel similar in comparison to the roman without making the overall form too heavy.

Mixing Typefaces

When mixing typefaces on the same line, the point sizes need to be adjusted so that the x-heights align. On separate lines, a contrast in style or weight often works well and creates a better impact. Mixing typefaces that are too close in weight or appearance often doesn’t work well as there isn’t enough contrast.


Lining Numerals: take up uniform widths of space and line up when used in columns. However, they can look big and bulky in running text as they are the same size as capitals.

Non-lining Numerals: have ascenders and descenders like lowercase letters and integrate visually in running text.

Examples: Text designed for extreme conditions, such as Retina, designed by Tobias Frere-Jones for use in the Wall Street Journal’s financial pages; include notched forms to prevent ink from filling in the letterforms when printed at tiny sizes.

Widows and Orphans

Widows and Orphans are stray words at the ends of paragraphs or the tops of pages that create visual holes in the flow of text.


Kerning is the adjustment of space between two letters. Some letter combinations look awkward without special spacing considerations. Gaps occur around letters whose forms angle outward or frame an open space (e.g. W, Y, V, T.) In metal type, kerned letters extend past the lead slugs that support them, allowing letters to fit together more closely. In digital fonts the space between the letter pairs is controlled by a kerning table that is created by the type designer. It specifies spaces between problematic letter combinations.

Metric Kerning: Uses the kerning tables built into the typeface. It is the spacing that was intended by the type designer.

Optical Kerning: Executed automatically by the page layout programme. It assesses the shapes of all characters and adjusts the spacing wherever needed.

The subtle differences between metric and optical kerning become more apparent at larger sizes.

Classification of Typefaces:

Old Style: The roman typefaces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries emulated classical calligraphy. Sabon was designed by Jan Tschichold in 1966, based on the sixteenth-century typefaces of Claude Garamond.

 Modern: The typefaces designed by Giambattista Bodoni in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are radically abstract. Note the thin, straight serifs; vertical axis; and sharp contrast from thick to thin strokes.

Transitional: These typefaces have sharper serifs and a more vertical axis than humanist letters. When the fonts of John Baskerville were introduced in the mid-eighteenth century, their sharp forms and high contrast were considered shocking.

Egyptian: Numerous bold and decorative typefaces were introduced in the nineteenth century for use in advertising. Egyptian fonts have heavy, slab-like serifs.

 Sans Serif: The first sans serif typefaces date from early in the 19th century. As the name implies these typefaces are characterised by the absence of serifs. Helvetica, designed by Max Miedinger in 1957, is one of the world’s most widely used typefaces.


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