Anatomy of a Font

Like most crafts, typography has a language all its own. Knowing the correct terminology for the components of fonts and typefaces can demonstrate your expertise and give your printing business an edge when competing for assignments from sophisticated marketers.

Each letter in our alphabet is a system made up of components. Most of us haven't given much thought to letter shapes since the first grade. For font designers, the elements of the characters they form are their stock and trade.

To communicate with one another, font designers have evolved a standard terminology, beginning in the 18th century. It started by standardizing the names used for standard fonts and progressed to include the parts that make up each character.

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The foundation of the terminology used by font designers is the baseline. That’s the imaginary line, or axis, on which each character rests. We all learned to write using ruled pages to improve our penmanship.  Although there is no visible line in their finished product, font designers also build their typefaces along a standard edge.

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That standard line is critical because it allows typographers to align text with photos, illustrations and other media.  A common baseline also enables typographers to combine more than one font in a document efficiently.

Having established the baseline, the next two considerations are height and width. The cap height is the distance from the baseline to the top of most characters. Typographers measure the cap height of a font in units called points.  A point is 1/72nd of an inch.  There are twelve points in a pica, and six picas equal one inch.

The width of each character is called the set width.  The set width includes the width of the actual letter as well as the space needed between each character. A font design with a broad set width looks open while one with a narrow set width looks compact.

Of course, you can also use standard measures, and most typography applications let you work in fractions of an inch or millimeters.  Typographers who work mainly for screen display may measure their characters in pixels.

Many of us will remember that when we learned to write on ruled paper in the primary grades, there were faint center lines halfway between the rows of bolder lines.  Our teachers told us to divide our characters precisely in half along these faint lines, but font designers are far too creative to stick to that rule.

Most fonts don’t divide exactly in half.  Instead, they have what’s called an x-height. Traditionally, the x-height is the height of a lower case “x” character in a given font design.  It can also refer to the height of the main body or lower part of each character in the set.

The x-height is almost always higher than the centerline.  One fascinating thing about the x-height is that it can change our perception of the font size.  Here is an example. Although these sans serif fonts are very similar to one another, they look very different because of subtle differences in their x-heights as well as their weights.  Font designers can make their typeface seem larger or smaller than it is by changing the elements that make up the individual characters.

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The ability to discuss fonts in terms of their height, set width and x-height gives every professional printer an edge over the competition.  Comparing standard fonts and learning to recognize differences in these three primary typeface characteristics allows print professionals to make sound choices between similar fonts in ways that support a customer’s brand identity.  You can learn more at the website Typography Deconstructed.

Typography terminology goes beyond these three primary factors.  We also need to be able to describe the characteristics of individual characters.  There are terms for even the most minute aspects of how designers form letters.

We’ve covered the serif throughout this series. It is the small, decorative stroke attached to the ends of longer strokes in serif fonts.  As a reminder:

You might think that the serif font on the left (Times New Roman) is smaller than the sans serif font on the right (Helvetica) or that serifs make fonts look smaller than serif fonts. The reason for this illusion is that  Helvetica has a very large x-height. That makes Helvetica the standard choice for signage and forms design because it is effortless to read at any font size.

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The stem is the large serif at the base of a capital letter in a serif font.  The capital “A” on the left has stems, and the capital "A" on the right does not.

A descender is the part of a character that drops below the baseline. Designers need descenders with letters like "y." Conversely, an ascender is the part of an alphabetic character that continues above the cap-height. Descenders appear with letters like "h."


The bowl is the enclosed, rounded part of a lower-case character like "a," "b," or "q."  Font designers use the shape of the bowl to convey different impressions to the reader.  For example, the new Coca-Cola font uses a teardrop-shaped bowl to suggest liquid.

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The terminal is the end of a stroke with no serif.  A finial is a tapered curve at the end of a stroke.  Here is an example.


A ligature is a stroke that connects one letter to the next. Gutenberg used many of these connectors in his initial font designs because biblical manuscripts heavily influenced his approach.  Cursive text is much less standard today, but type designers still use ligatures today in certain italic character sets. Here is an example.

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Today’s marketers have a sophisticated understanding of design, including font design.  Print professionals who are conversant with the terms that typographers use to discuss fonts with each other have a competitive edge in today’s tight and competitive marketplace.

That's where Dr. FontZ and his team at COPI come in. They assist printers and mailers in providing the best in font technology for high-volume production environments.

You can learn more at their website.

Our next article will discuss the most popular fonts that top marketers rely on today and when to use them. When you understand why specific fonts are popular and where they make the most impact, you can drive new sales for your printing operation.

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