Typography Glossary – Design Terms

Old metal blank printing press typeset all stacked up

It helps to have an appropriate language to talk about typography.  The following is a glossary of some of the words and their definitions that are used to describe typography.

Ampersand

A symbol used to replace the word “and” in copy.  It comes in many shapes.  Most commonly &.  It began as a ligature of the Latin word “et.”

Ascenders and descenders

The antennae and tails of lowercase letters such as “d”, “b” or “g” that rise up or descend below the main body of type.  Different fonts have different lengths of their ascenders and descenders.

Axis

The angle of the change from thick to a thin line in a letter, which mimics the angle a pen is held when writing.

Baseline

The imaginary line that letters sit on.

Body size

The height of a letter in a typeface, including its ascenders and descenders, usually measured in points.  It is the height of the space in which the letters sits, and not just the letters itself, and derives from the metal block on which type used to be cast.

Chancery

Fancy looking type, including swash figures and ligatures.

Colour

The overall darkness of a mass of type, including the thickness of letters, their spacing and leading.

Contrast

The difference between the thick and thin parts of a letter.

Dingbat

A picture glyp – i.e.© ♥︎ ☞

Drop cap

A large capital letter at the beginning of a page, chapter or paragraph.

 Fleuron

A dingbat in the shape of a flower or a leaf.

Font

A matching set of letters and numbers, including all its variations, such as boldface and italic.

Glyph

A printed shape, whether a letter, number or dingbat, seen as its shape, so that a Roman “a” and an italic “a” are two different glyphs.

Gutter

The empty space between columns of type.

Hierarchy

The use of typography to separate and clarify sections of text, keeping chapters and subchapters, headings and subheads identifiable through their own consistent point size, font or weight.

Justify

To keep both sides of a column of text parallel, as opposed to ragged right or ragged left.

Kern

To squeeze two letters together to eliminate extra space between them, as when an A and a V sit side by side.

Leading (rhymes with wedding)

The vertical space between lines of type, as between floors of a building.  So-called from the former use of lead spacers in hard type.

Ligature

The tying together on a single piece of type of letters frequently found in the language, either for decorative purposes or to reduce the amount of space in setting the type.

The use of lettering or symbols as shorthand for corporate id.

Numerals

In text, numbers have traditionally included graceful ascenders and descenders; in a column, the numbers are usually consistent size resting on the baseline.  The former is often called “old-style” and the latter “lining” figures.

Octothorp

The official name of the so-called “pound sign,” or numeral marker – i.e.; #.

Pilcrow

The funny backward sort-of “P” that indicates the beginning of a paragraph i.e. (¶).

Point

A unit of measure in typography.  One point is 1⁄72 of an inch, making the body size of 72 point type 1-incl high.

River of White

The accidental shape in a page of type, where spaces between words line up vertically across several lines of type.  Considered a fault.

Serif

A letterform’s “feet”: the small stroke at the beginning or the end of the main stroke in the formation of a letter, such as the flat lines at the bottom of a capital “A.”  The font without them including the font you are reading is called a ‘san serif.’

Slope

The tilt of a letter, usually in an italic typeface.  It is different from the axis of a letter.

Small caps

The use of large and small versions of capital letters in place of upper and lower case letters.  This is often distinctive looking in titles, chapter headings or logos.

Swash

The fancy capital letters in some fonts add a long tail toa Z, and R or an S that seems more calligraphic than mechanical.

Typeface

It is the same now as a font.  But before digital typography, a typeface referred to the design of letters and numbers while a font was mostly used to describe the actual pieces of metal, arranged in cases and sold or a manufactured as a family.

Virgule

The slanted line, now most commonly used in web-site addresses and called a slash – i.e.; /.

Widow

A single word, or fragment of a word, at the end of a paragraph ending a page then starting the top of the next page or column.

X-height

The height of a lowercase “x” in a typeface, which is usually the height of the bowl of a “d,” not counting its ascender.

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