For many non-designers this debate is irrelevant and of little or no importance, whereas for typographers and some designers it’s a distinction that needs making. I always try to use the correct terminology as in some cases using the wrong definition can lead to confusion and misinterpretation; although admittedly I’m not losing sleep over it. In an attempt to clarify the distinction between the two, I think we should start at the beginning.
The origin of the term Font
The word font originates from Middle French ‘fonte’ meaning something which has been melted and refers to the process of casting metal type at a foundry. In a manual printing house, the word font would refer to one complete set of the alphabet forged in metal with each letter the same weight and size as one another. They were stored in cases in alphabetical order; the capital letters kept in the ‘upper case’ and the others being kept in the ‘lower case’.
A typeface is a collection of fonts and is otherwise known as a font family. The typeface is the design of the collection, the overall look of the letters, and will have a name. The font on the other hand is the specific weight, style and size of the letters within the typeface.
A good example is to look at using Microsoft Word. When you select a font from the drop down menu to be technically accurate you would actually select the typeface first. If you were to select Arial then you have chosen your typeface, you would then need to select whether you wanted italic or bold and what point size you wanted; this more detailed specification is the font and gives all the information needed. Arial Bold 18pt is a different font to Arial Regular 10pt but is the same typeface.
In manual typesetting, this distinction was much more obvious but with the advent of desktop publishing it has it has become much more confusing. The processes involved in typesetting are no longer relevant in everyday use.
It’s widely accepted by experts that the terminologies font and typeface are used interchangeably and in reality it’s only in the field of typography where the distinction is important. Most people use the term font but there may be some purist designers who like to make the definition clear. Over the years I’ve come to accept language changes and in certain fields terms can be misused without it causing any problems.
In a recent Bake Off related discussion we were debating the term ‘batter’. I was under the impression that batter was something used when frying food until someone pointed out you can get muffin batter. So let’s face it, whilst Mary Berry might get her knickers in a twist if you used the wrong term, to most people it doesn’t matter. Likewise, as a designer I like to use the correct terminology but no one at artisan is going to criticise you if you use the wrong one.