Typefaces vs. Fonts: What’s the Difference? 📝

  • Design & Creative
Contra Tips
· 6 min read

We’ll compare a typeface versus a font to help you enhance your design vocabulary and deliver premium services.

Pro graphic designers know the smallest detail (such as the text’s appearance) can make or break a deliverable. They also know precise language is essential for communicating with clients and inspiring their confidence.

That’s why independent designers must understand the difference between fonts and typefaces. When discussing branding and design, professionals and their clients often use “font” and “typeface” interchangeably. Although these two typography concepts are closely related, they carry distinct meanings vital to executing effective design work. Join us to gain a deeper understanding of typeface versus font, from the historical roots and nuances of these terms to how to use them in your work.

What is a typeface? ✍️

You may be surprised to learn that Times New Roman and Arial aren’t fonts but typefaces. A typeface is the collection of design features that characterize a type of lettering, including serifs, spacing, letter width, and more. This unique design gives a distinct feel and style to a text.

To illustrate their wide variety, here are some broad classifications and specific examples of typefaces:

Serif typefaces 🏛️

Serifs are subtle, decorative strokes extending from the ends of each line in a character. Popular serif typefaces include the following:

  • Times New Roman. A classic, widely used typeface that most people recognize. 
  • Georgia. A charming serif typeface designed by Matthew Carter for legibility on small screens.

Sans serif typefaces 😐

These typefaces lack the decorative strokes that serif typefaces are known for. You may recognize these famous examples: 

  • Helvetica. A versatile sans serif typeface widely used in print and digital design.
  • Arial: A readable sans serif typeface often used as an alternative to Helvetica.

Script typefaces 💬

Script typefaces emulate natural handwriting. Although they have a time and place, they’re often mocked for seeming overly casual. Here are a couple of the most well-known examples: 

  • Brush Script. This flowing typeface mimics handwritten brush lettering.
  • Comic Sans. Despite its poor reputation, this typeface is shown to increase info retention. 

Decorative typefaces 🤠

These fun typefaces are ornamental and best used for titles and headings. Here are a couple of examples: 

  • Morris Troy. This medieval-inspired typeface is a product of the Art Nouveau movement.
  • Outlaw. This exciting typeface is designed to invoke Wild West wanted posters.

Didone typefaces 🪧

Didone typefaces are a subset of the serif genre. They’re characterized by thin and unbracketed serifs, thick vertical strokes, ball terminal endings, and strong contrast. Here are two popular examples: 

  • Didot. This sophisticated serif typeface is often used for luxury branding.
  • Bodoni Poster. This “fat face” typeface adorned countless advertisements in the early 1900s.

Old style typefaces 📜

Old Style typefaces replicate classical Latin calligraphy. They often employ serifs and subtle differences in line weight. Examples include the following: 

  • ITC Berkeley Old Style. This typeface was designed by Frederic Goudy in 1938 especially for the University of California. It remains popular in academia. 
  • Bembo. This Old Style typeface took inspiration from a printed travelogue by Pietro Bembo, a writer of the Italian Renaissance. 

What is a font? ⌨️

If a typeface is a collection of design ideas, then a font is its execution. A font is a particular instance of a typeface, including factors — such as size and weight — which adapt the typeface for a specific use.

For example, Helvetica Neue 25 Ultra Light and Helvetica Neue 35 Condensed are different font types within the same typeface. Although they don’t look exactly alike, they share key design aspects.

This distinction dates back to the era of manual typesetting, but in modern usage, “font” refers to the specific program or set of instructions that tells a computer how text should look. Some of the ways a typeface can be altered to create new font examples include:

  • Size. Designers often adjust the font size to fit different design contexts, such as headlines and body copy. Two different sizes of the same typeface are considered distinct fonts.
  • Weight. Increasing the weight of the characters (aka bolding) results in thicker strokes, producing a different font in the same typeface. 
  • Kerning. Adjusting the space between individual characters or the width of each letter can enhance readability. Different letterform widths include narrow, condensed, normal, and extended. 
  • Italics. Italicizing a typeface produces a font that is slanted to the right. Italics are typically used to emphasize or differentiate words within a text.

Understanding the differences between typefaces and fonts 🔤 

If you’re an Independent offering design services, understanding the differences between a typeface and a font is crucial for delivering high-quality work. Here are three main differences to distinguish them:

  • A typeface is what you see; a font is what you use. As noted above, a typeface refers to a set of characters' visual appearance and style. A font lets designers apply that style in their work. 
  • A typeface is the idea; a font is the file. If the typeface is the creative concept, the font file is the digital file that allows it to come to life. It’s a real-life, usable manifestation of the idea of the typeface. 
  • A typeface can’t be copyrighted; a font can. U.S. law does not allow one to copyright the abstract shapes that make up a typeface, although it’s possible (but uncommon) to protect them with a design patent. The digital instantiation of a typeface as a font can be copyrighted.

Why do these differences matter? 💡

The success of a designer’s work depends on an eye for detail. Sometimes, this simply means grasping the different applications of typefaces and fonts. These distinctions have several implications for design work.

Recognizing the differences between typefaces and fonts helps explain how visual elements impact a brand’s identity. Designers can make informed decisions when customizing text to suit specific projects.

So much can be communicated via a simple font change. Understanding typefaces and fonts helps designers convey the unique image of a company as accurately as possible. With it, they can understand and articulate a client’s vision, adapting their designs to different contexts and mediums.

Elevate your design career with Contra ✨

If you’re an independent designer, understanding the differences between typefaces and fonts is essential for honing your craft. Another critical component is finding clients who need your services. That’s where Contra comes in!

Contra is designed to support your growth as a freelancer. Our online platform helps Independents effectively manage their businesses commission-free. We also curate excellent networking opportunities and clients you’ll actually want to work with.If you’re a client in need of design services, use Contra to hire a graphic, web, or brand designer. While you’re here, check out our blog for tips and tricks on everything from social media marketing to enhancing your writing skills.

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