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What is a Font? – Part 1

typeface exampleEvery time we sit down at our computers to write something, we use a font, probably the default font for whichever program we’re working in. We don’t even think about fonts. We just type away. The letters become words, then sentences, then paragraphs. That’s a font in action and we’re totally oblivious to it.

So just what is a font? According to, a font is a set of printable or displayable text characters in a specific style and size.

Okay, fine. What does that mean? It means that just as your handwriting doesn’t look like anyone else’s handwriting, fonts don’t look alike either. The individual letters, numbers, and/or characters are shaped differently. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but font letter shapessometimes they’re quite obvious. For example, look at this graphic. Same set of seven letters, both sets in the same size, but what a difference between the Americana font and the Century Gothic font. The a and the g are shaped completely differently! Not only that, the seven Century Gothic letters take up more horizontal space than the seven Americana letters because Century Gothic letters are “fatter” and there’s slightly more white space between them.

Fonts are an absolutely fascinating subject, at least to me. For starters, where do they come from? Well, some come with your computer’s operating system, some come with the various software programs installed on your computer, and some come with your printer. In my case, I wind up with 428 available fonts! And if that’s not enough, I can buy even more and install them on my computer. (I actually had to do that once when my old printer died. After installing the new one, I discovered to my horror that one of my favorite fonts that I’d been using extensively for years didn’t show up on my fonts list. Yikes! I hadn’t realized that it was a printer font or I wouldn’t have used it so much. Thank goodness I remembered its name and was able to buy it online.)

Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen; you’re about to learn more than you ever wanted to know about fonts.


The foundation of any font is its typeface, meaning the design of its entire set of characters (letters, numbers, and special characters like # and ? and %) that we type from our keyboards.

Typeface families

typeface family

Often a typeface isn’t a stand-alone thing, but a whole family of variations of the same basic typeface design, each with its own name. Take our friend Americana. It has five family members. Personally I think Roman and Bold must be identical twins. I can’t see any difference whatsoever between them. Oops! And by the way, the word “Roman” in a typeface’s name means “regular;” i.e., it’s the base typeface without any changes such as bolding, italics, condensing, etc. etc. etc.

Serif vs. sans-serif typefaces

font serif v sans-serifNow there’s a couple of words I’ll bet you never heard of before! Some typefaces have serifs, a little extra stroke at the top and/or bottom of each letter. Other typefaces don’t have these little strokes, so they’re called sans-serif, literally meaning without a serif. You might need to look closely at the graphic in order to see Belwe’s serifs, but they’re there.

Serif typefaces are considered to be easier to read because each letter’s serif draws the reader’s eyes, subtly and unconsciously, to its neighbor, thereby gluing the letters together into a word. That’s why most text-heavy documents use a serif typeface. In addition, a lot of people, including me, think serif typefaces feel “friendlier” to the reader, which is why informal, conversational-voice documents (like this blog post) generally are written in a serif typeface. Sans-serif typefaces, on the other hand, are considered to be more legible and more businesslike. They’re often used in headings, subheadings, and other places where a more stark feel is desired.

Monospaced vs. proportional spaced typefaces

font monospaced v proportional spacedIn a monospaced a/k/a fixed typeface, each letter, number, and character has the same width. Actually, that’s not technically true. There’s no way that a skinny i is the same width as a fat w, let alone a capital W. Nevertheless, in a monospaced typeface, an i takes up the same amount of horizontal space as a w. Why? Because there’s more white space around the skinny i than around the fat w.

Not surprisingly, monospaced typefaces take up a lot of room because of all that extra white space “padding” around the skinnier letters, numbers, or characters. Old-fashioned typewritten documents were always monospaced because there was no choice in the matter for decades on end. You used Courier. Period.

Hmmm. My font list can call it Courier New all it wants to, but it still looks like a typewriter to me! And yes, both of those fonts are the same size.

Nowadays the vast majority of typefaces are proportionally spaced, meaning that each letter, number, and character takes up only the amount of horizontal space it needs. It’s a blow for equality, but certainly easier to read.

Continued on page 2.



Kitty Price

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