Module: Type Anatomy
As in any profession, there are basic foundational tools that need to be understood and appreciated before they can be used well. This module will introduce you to the tools we call typefaces.
Small caps are uppercase letterforms that are shorter in height than the capitals in a given typeface. When designed as part of a text face, they are most often the height of the lowercase (or very slightly taller), so that they harmonize with both the caps and the lowercase characters.
The term x-height refers to the height of the lowercase x in a given typeface at any given size. It provides a way of describing the general proportions of any typeface. The point size of a typeface is basically a measure of its overall height, from the top of the tallest character above the baseline to the longest descender beneath the baseline.
Weight & Proportion
Weight, proportion and texture are three main characteristics that distinguish typefaces from one another. Stroke widths range from very light to extremely heavy; letter shapes range from very condensed to exceptionally wide. Some typefaces also have distinctive surface textures.
Text v. Display
The best text typefaces are easy to read in long blocks of copy. They do not call much attention to themselves and have been designed to perform best between 6-point and 14-point. Conversely, display typefaces are used to entice a reader into text copy, to create a mood or feeling, or to announce important information.
Anatomy of a Character
How do you tell one typeface from another? If you’re trying to distinguish Helvetica from Times Roman, the difference is obvious. In other cases, however– especially between text designs having similar characteristics–the differences can be subtle and difficult for the less experienced eye to see.
Until about 800 A.D. changes in our alphabet occurred gradually. The alphabet evolved, with no clear-cut stages in the development of letterforms. This, however, changed dramatically after Charlemagne ascended the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 771. One of the accomplishments of his reign is the Carolingian minuscule – the forerunner of our modern small letters.
Points & Picas
The two units of measurement most commonly used for typesetting and design are points and picas.
The first “writing” was probably actual objects. A flower left outside someone’s hut sent a tender message, a pile of rocks along a trail foretold danger. Very gradually, these tokens and signs evolved into marks.
Most typefaces can be classified into one of four basic groups: those with serifs, those without serifs, scripts and decorative styles. Over the years, typographers and scholars of typography have devised various systems to more definitively categorize typefaces – some of these systems have scores of sub-categories.
Typefaces that are on an angle are called italic. This includes simple obliqued letters as well as designs that mimic cursive writing. Originally, italic letters were not designed to complement a Roman typeface. When introduced in the early 16th century, they were created as independent fonts.
Swash & Alternate Characters
Swash and alternate characters are not a new innovation. They have existed since the days of Johannes Gutenberg, considered by many people to be the inventor of typography as we know it. Gutenberg used over 240 alternate characters in his famous Bible to emulate the fine writing of scribes.
An initial letter is a large first letter of a paragraph, set in a decorative or graphic way. It offers a visual cue that can signify the beginning of an entire work, such as a book or article, as well as chapters or significant paragraphs within a work. Initial letters liven up a page by adding color, emphasis, and typographic interest.
Historically, a “titling font” was a font of metal type designed specifically for use at larger point sizes and display settings, including headlines and titles. Titling fonts, a specialized subset of display typefaces, differ from their text counterparts in that their scale, proportion and design details have been modified to look their best at larger sizes.