Typeface, fonts, glyphs . . . unless you’re a pro graphic designer, these typographic terms can sound eerily similar (and understandably confusing!). What is typeface? What is the difference between font and typeface? And does it even matter?
The short answer is yes and no. A solid understanding of these terms can certainly help you navigate the world of design—super helpful if you’re DIYing your brand. But, at the same time, it’s not something you need to lose sleep over! Just check out the guide below for all the essentials:
- Typeface vs. font?
- Other key typography terms defined
- Why typography is helpful to understand
- Common typeface classifications + 25 examples
The Basics: Typeface vs. Font
Today, the words “typeface” and “font” are basically used interchangeably, even among designers. That’s because while a difference technically exists, it’s not one that often causes confusion. Whether you call it a typeface or a font, most everyone will know what you mean. (Po-tay-to, po-tah-to!)
There is a difference though, so here it is.
What Is a Typeface?
The word typeface refers to a set of typographic design features that characterize a set of letters or glyphs. These features might include serifs, stroke weight, ligatures, balance, descenders, ascenders, etc.—basically anything that distinguishes one set of letters from any other set of letters in the world.
Even if you don’t use the word “typeface,” you know them! Common typefaces include Arial, Times New Roman, Roboto, and Helvetica. But wait, you might be saying. Aren’t these fonts? Nope!
What Is a Font?
Even though we all call Times New Roman a font, it’s actually not. Times New Roman is a typeface—but Times New Roman Bold? Now that’s a font.
Essentially, a font is a specific instance of a typeface. Arial Italic, Roboto Bold, Helvetica Heavy . . . all of these are fonts belonging to their corresponding typeface.
You can think of the typeface as the family and the font as the individual family members. (Some very large typefaces even have multiple sub-families, but let’s not overcomplicate things.)
Other Key Typography Terms Defined
Now you know the difference between a font and a typeface. But what about all those other font-ish words out there?
Here are a few of the most common typography terms that may be helpful to know:
- Glyph: The word “glyph” refers to any meaningful typographic mark. A glyph could be a standard letter, an italicized letter, a punctuation mark, a special character, a number, etc.
- Ligature: A ligature is a special combination of two adjacent glyphs, usually designed to make text look more unique or appealing. For example, an f and an i might be connected.
- Kerning: Kerning refers to the spacing between two consecutive letters within a word.
- Tracking: Tracking refers to the spacing between all letters in a word. (Somewhat confusingly, both kerning and tracking can be used at once!)
- Leading: Also called “line spacing,” leading refers to the vertical spacing between lines of text and is important for keeping text legible.
Why Does Typeface Matter?
If you’re a professional graphic designer, understanding typeface is just part of the job. It’s a foundational piece of knowledge that you’ll need to work effectively. But, even if you aren’t a pro designer, typography is still handy to understand!
Why? Definitely not so that you can get into a heated debate about fonts vs. typefaces . . . but because typefaces and fonts have a tangible impact on how people feel.
If you’re a solopreneur, for instance, choosing the right font for your logo can mean the difference between a brand that resonates and one that feels amateurish or incomplete. Same goes for anything you create: Facebook cover photos, business flyers, presentations, and more.
Typography forms an instant first impression—so shouldn’t it be the right one?
5 Common Classifications of Typefaces + Examples
Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear that there are four basic kinds of typefaces. Or maybe five, or six, or seven. The exact number depends on how granularly you want to divide typefaces. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll go with the standard answer of five.
So here are the five most common types of typefaces with practical examples of each. (By the way, if you ever find yourself asking, “What typeface is this?” try out handy font identification tools like What the Font.)
1. Serif Typefaces
Serif typefaces are defined by the presence of a serif, a slight jutting-out at the end of each stroke in a letter. Generally speaking, serif typefaces tend to feel more:
A common subset of serif typefaces is something called “slab serif,” which has thicker, chunkier slabs that often give off a more casual or retro vibe.
2. Sans Serif Typefaces
Translating to “without serif,” sans serif fonts have no serif. Easy, right?
Sans serif typefaces are some of the most commonly seen today, especially across the web. There’s a whole lot of wiggle room in a classification this broad but, in general, sans serif typefaces tend to feel more:
3. Monospaced Typefaces
Monospaced typefaces (sometimes called “monospace” or “fixed-width”) are those in which each glyph takes up exactly the same amount of horizontal space.
Monospaced glyphs originate from the age of the typewriter, where each metal key took up the same width. They were also commonly used in early computing since the grid-based letter system was easier for machines to render.
Monospaced typefaces are not as commonly used, but when they are, they tend to feel:
- Computer code-ish
4. Script Typefaces
Script typefaces are those that mimic the organic shapes of handwriting and calligraphy. Depending on the characteristics of the particular font, script typefaces tend to feel:
- Traditionally feminine
Scripts are often further subdivided based on their characteristics. Typefaces mimicking old-style fountain pens, for example, might be called calligraphic. More casual and contemporary scripts might be called cursive or handwritten.
5. Display Typefaces
Display typefaces aren’t as cohesive as the other typeface classifications on this list. Their main identifying feature is the fact that they’re made to be used at large sizes.
Because they aren’t meant for body text, display typefaces can be quirkier and more unique. Less emphasis is placed on legibility and more on personality.
Display fonts can also be categorized into the classifications above—you could have a display font with serifs, for instance. But again, the main difference is that this typeface style is generally too ornate or unusual for setting long pieces of paragraph text.
Find the Perfect Typeface in Shutterstock Create
So that’s all the must-know theory behind typeface and fonts—now it’s time to get practical! There’s only one way to truly understand typeface and its implications for your personal projects or professional brand, and that’s to give it a try for yourself.
Jump into the Create editor to try out hundreds of different fonts in all the classifications above. When you find one you love, use it in a design and download the file for free.
License this cover image mockup via Tartila, VectorPlotnikoff, and Bukhavets Mikhail.