The heart of tech is coming to the heart of the Mediterranean. Join TNW in València this March 🇪🇸

This article was published on May 20, 2012

Is it a font or a typeface?

Is it a font or a typeface?
Harrison Weber
Story by

Harrison Weber

Harrison Weber is TNW's Features Editor in NYC. Part writer, part designer. Stay in touch: Twitter @harrisonweber, Google+ and Email. Harrison Weber is TNW's Features Editor in NYC. Part writer, part designer. Stay in touch: Twitter @harrisonweber, Google+ and Email.

When it comes to the sophisticated world of typography, some people are purists, while others have a laid-back, do-whatever-looks-good mentality. No matter what side you’re on, it’s important to learn the language of design, especially type — this applies to all designers, curious commoners and even some developers, so buckle up! You’re about to learn something…

Here’s a bit of information that I never knew until two days ago while working with Typecache for our list of 30 alternatives to Helvetica:

“Font” and “typeface” are not interchangeable.

“Typeface”  should be used when referring to the design, while “font” should be used when referring to the file, copy or file-type. For example, there is only one Times New Roman typeface designed by Victor Lardent, but nearly everyone with a computer has a copy of that font. A font is what you actually use.

To dig deeper into this slightly confusing terminology crisis, I’d like to direct your attention to a 2008 article written by FontFeed. Note: the MP3 analogy is particularly important:

The first terminology we agreed upon was in which situations we’d use font and whentypefaceMark Simonson once recapped it handsomely in this discussion on Typophile. The gist of it is that:

“the physical embodiment of a collection of letters, numbers, symbols, etc. (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) is a font. When referring to the design of the collection (the way it looks) you call it a typeface.”

Nick Sherman used an interesting analogy in a comment on Typographica’s Our Favorite Typefaces of 2007:

“The way I relate the difference between typeface and font to my students is by comparing them to songs and MP3s, respectively (or songs and CDs, if you prefer a physical metaphor).”

Stephen Coles agrees:

‘When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say: “That’s a great MP3”. You say: “That’s a great song”. The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work; just as in type a font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.’

Update, Nov. 12 2008 Norbert Florendo commented with this concise explanation:

“font is what you use, and typeface is what you see.”

Of course, some people out there aren’t picky about this sort of thing, but it’s still a good idea to know the terminology. From here on out, I am personally going to make an effort to always use the correct terms, but there will be designers that couldn’t care less.

If you’re still confused about when to use which term, you’re not alone, and this subject is not without controversy. Some believe that “font” or “font family” refers to a collection of typefaces as well as the file, while others argue that “type family” is the proper term. For more, it’s worth exploring these articles by AIGA, Inspiration Bit and Jon Tangerine.

What do you think? Has this become a non-issue, or is the debate still relevant?