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Typeface Anatomy

There are a number of features of any font that are used by typographers to study fonts. The classifying of fonts, which we’ll do later, can be done in a various of ways. The two most common methods are historically, by following their development over time, and stylistically. No matter the system employed for  classify typefaces, certain measurements or typographic features are used to compare them. The following image will provide us a means to look at different features.

  1. SERIFS  — The presence or absence of serifs is one identifying characteristic of a typeface. Serifs—the marks finishing off the main stroke of a character—come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some typefaces have no serifs. Other typefaces come in both a serif and san serif (without serif) style. The third example above is a san serif typeface but because there is no serif version of Frutiger, the suffix “san serif” is not necessary as a part of the font’s name.
  2. RELATIVE LOWERCASE SIZE — The x-height of a font or typeface is the height of the body of the lowercase letters, excluding ascenders and descenders (the arms of the b, d, p, etc.). The x-height line, shown in the image as a light gray line, based on the Times New Roman font, is an imaginary line drawn at the top edge of the lowercase “x”. As you can see in the sample, the Times New Roman font’s x-height is higher than the corresponding x-height line of the Garamond font and lower than that of the Frutiger font.
  3. STOKE VARIANCE — The stroke contrast between the thick and thin lines of a letter is another feature of a typeface. In some more modern fonts there is no contract between strokes as can be seen in the third sample above.
  4. STRESS — Typefaces have what is referred to as stress which is somewhat related to the stroke contrast discussed on point three. In fonts with stroke contrast one can measure this stress. That is done by drawing a line through the thinnest points in the lowercase “o” and seeing how far off of the perpendicular that line is. Stress is said to be oblique (at an angle other than 90 degrees from the baseline) or upright. It is worth noting that we are not referring here to italic fonts but rather to roman fonts.
  5. DARKNESS — Overall darkness of the font is another characteristic used to differentiate between typefaces. In modern parlance we would speak here of the toner-to-white space balance on the page. How heavy is the typeface? Does it leave a lot of toner on the page? Then it is a dark typeface. Of the three in our sample, Frutiger 55 Roman is the darkest.

All three samples in our graphic are what are known as Roman fonts. Three broad categories of fonts are Roman, Italic, and Script. Complications arise right away when we get into categories like these because  many roman fonts also have italic versions whereas script fonts tend to stand alone. And then there are the postmodern fonts, and a whole category of fonts called grunge… but, we’ll get into all of that in the next post.

For now, a few words from one of America’s foremost type designers, Frederic W. Goudy.

The Hypothesis that there is an ideally correct form for each letter of the alphabet is just as erroneous as Geofroy Tory’s simple assumption that there is a relation between the shapes of letters and the human body; erroneous, because the shapes of letters have been in constant process of modification from their very beginnings. Indeed, the shapes of the letters now in daily use are due entirely to a convention, so that in preferring one form to another our only consideration need be for the conventions now existing and the degree to which each satisfies our sense of beauty.

F.W. Goudy, The Alphabet and Elements of Lettering, pg. 30, Dover Publications Inc., 1963 (Original edition, 1918)

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One Response

  1. This does not refer to the above topic, but today I feel impelled to comment on one of my two most favorite essayists, Verlin Klinkenborg. V.K.’s writings appear more or less weekly on the NYT’s Opinion page under Editorial Notebook. Today’s essay “Some Thoughts About E-Reading” concerns an earlier topis on this blog.

    In it V.K. confesses to “love e-reading” but admits, at the end the sentence, to “prefer printed books.”
    While reading the listed reasons he gives for this preference, I felt myself nodding and smiling. Yes, yes, yes — reading a printed book requires concentration, quiet, patience, and thoughtfulness; all too often hard to find and very easily interrupted…”in a world where interactive can be too tempting to ignore.” When I read the sentence : “The e-book often seems to be merely the text,” it struck me as something more than a mere fact.

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