Typography Glossary – Design Terms

Old metal blank printing press typeset all stacked up

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

Ampersand

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

Ascenders and descenders

The antennae and tails of lowercase letters such as “d”, “b”, or “g” rise up or descend below the main body of the 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 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, is usually measured in points. It is the height of the space in which the letters sit, not just the letters themselves, 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 glyph – 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, is 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

Using typography to separate and clarify text sections, keeping chapters and subchapters, headings and subheads identifiable through their 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 a 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 type of letter is 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 the text, numbers have traditionally included graceful ascenders and descenders; in a column, the numbers are usually consistent in 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” 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 72 point type 1-inch high.

River of White

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

Serif

A letterform’s “feet” is the small stroke at the beginning or the end of the primary stroke in forming 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 to a Z, and R or an S 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. At the same time, a font was mainly used to describe the pieces of metal arranged in cases and sold or manufactured as a family.

Virgule

The slanted line, now most commonly used in website 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 at the top of the next page or column.

X-height

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

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