As we're collaborating with multiple authors on the FontFeed, we compiled a list of guidelines for ourselves and guest contributors. One of our concerns is that we should attempt to "speak the same language" when using typographic and related terms. Because these terms evolved over a considerable period of time and saw several transitions in technology, they can sometimes be interpreted in varying ways. This resulted in a terminology that is often perceived as at best esoteric, at worst plain confusing.
The first terminology we agreed upon was in which situations we'd use font and when typeface. Mark 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.
The exact origin of the word font isn't entirely clear. Type designer and SOTA Typography Award 2007 recipient David Berlow claimed that "it's mostly believed to have originated in France, where the idea of a spring of water (fontaine) was close enough to the ideas that spring from words, I guess, to merit the additional definition of the word…" Jim Rimmer expounded a variation on that theory. "Font sprung fom the word fount (still used today in the UK) meaning a source from which words gushed."
However another theory seems more plausible (please keep in mind I have no academic background in typography whatsoever; I'm just your average graphic designer). As Norbert Florendo explained in that same Typophile discussion:
The term font would be derived from fount and foundry going back to the manufacture of type using molten metal. The fount was the reservoir or pot of molten lead/tin/antimony which was used for casting individual type characters, and eventually complete lines of type (linecasters, Linotype contraction of 'line-of-type').
Originally – when type still were little blocks of metal or wood and thus only fit for a specific size – a font was a single point size of a complete set of characters for setting text, so for example Centaur Roman 16 point (according to living legend Matthew Carter the most beautiful size of Centaur). With the advent of film type and eventually scalable outlines the term font became size-independent.
Do you have a type-related question? Send it our way and we'll answer it in a future episode of Typography Basics.
Header image:Letterpress wokshop at the London College of Communication © Jamie Pulley