What's The Difference Between A Font And A Typeface?

And does the distinction even matter anymore? We ask design experts Gary Hustwit, Eddie Opara, and Tobias Frere-Jones to weigh in.

One of the major traps, when talking about type, is mixing up fonts with typefaces or treating them as synonymous. Many a typographic expert has haughtily corrected a beginner for mistakenly using the word font when he or she should have said typeface. To those of us who think about fonts only when choosing one in Microsoft Word, the distinction between the terms can seem confusing, esoteric, and even arcane.

In brief: A font is what you use, a typeface is what you see.

Font vs. Typeface

Back in the good old days of analog printing, every page was laboriously set out in frames with metal letters. That was rolled in ink, and then it was pressed down onto a clean piece of paper. That was a page layout. Printers needed thousands of physical metal blocks, each with the character it was meant to represent set out in relief (the type face). If you wanted to print Garamond, for example, you needed different blocks for every different size (10 point, 12 point, 14 point, and so on) and weight (bold, light, medium).

Image: Metal type via Flickr user Malene Hald

This is where we get the terms typeface and font. In the example above, Garamond would be the typeface: It described all of the thousands of metal blocks a printer might have on hand and which had been designed with the same basic design principles. But a font was something else entirely. A font described a subset of blocks in that very typeface—but each font embodied a particular size and weight. For example, bolded Garamond in 12 point was considered a different font than normal Garamond in 8 point, and italicized Times New Roman at 24 point would be considered a different font than italicized Times New Roman at 28 point.

The distinction between the two terms, and the processes they encapsulated, got muddied with the rise of desktop publishing. Fonts were no longer thousands of tiny blocks of movable type; they became digital computer files that scaled themselves up or down dynamically to whatever size or weight users wanted. So the distinction between process and end result disappeared in a puff of binary magic for most people.

Open up Microsoft Word and you're asked to choose a font, not a typeface. From the perspective of Microsoft's designers, this makes perfect sense. At any given time, after all, you're working in a specific size and weight of a typeface. This is the proper term. But from the perspective of millions of computer users who have never given a thought to type—outside of deciding what they want to use for their email signature or homemade birthday card—the word font has come to represent the look, not the mechanism.

Does It Even Matter Anymore?

Even among type professionals, there's a growing acceptance that for most people, the terms font and typeface can be used interchangeably. Only experts really need to worry about it.

"For most people in most situations, those terms can swap around without any trouble," Tobias Frere-Jones tells Co.Design. "The distinction would matter in type design, obviously, but also contexts which involve engineering, like app development or web design."

Gary Hustwit, director of Helvetica, agrees. "Most people other than type designers just say 'font,'" Hustwit says. "Among graphic designers, though, I'd say it's a generational thing. A lot of the older designers I've met, like Massimo Vignelli, always say 'typeface.'"

And Pentagram's Eddie Opara puts it even more succinctly: "I think it's the latter, a distinction for experts," he says. "I know it certainly pisses experts off."

In A Nutshell

Even type experts agree: Typeface and font can be used interchangeably at this point. But if you come across an annoying pedant who cares deeply about maintaining the distinction for the masses, just remember this: The difference between a font and a typeface is the same as that between songs and an album. The former makes up the latter. Remember that and you're good to go.

[Image: Metal type via Flickr user Luke Dorny]

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  • Terrence Chouinard

    As I learned in the composing room, a font (a physical package of metal type) was ordered from the foundry, which needed to know what size, style & typeface you wanted. So a font was a specific typeface in a specific size in a specific style. 24-point Walbaum Italic, for instance. Good article!

  • Nádia Sofia Rodrigues

    I think I understand now the diference, I'm studying graphic desgin and is so many things that is confusing sometimes, but I'm lovin' it.

    So a typeface is everything and a font is a part of the typeface, is like the typeface is the text and the font are the sentences.

    So for exemple if i want to talk about the Times New Roman, I would say: ''This type of font of the Times New Roman typeface is really beautifull'' I would be correct? or incorrect?

    So, as I understand, the typeface would be everything about the Times New Roman, and the Font would be a particular size and variation of the Times New Roman?

  • you

    "The difference between a font and a typeface is the same as that between songs and an album. The former makes up the latter. Remember that and you're good to go."

    I'm not good to go at all. That's an incredibly confusing way of summarizing it. I also think it's wrong. Based on the discussion, the font corresponds to the album and the typeface to the songs. Call me "pedantic," but "the former and the latter" should never be used in such a confusing construction.

  • tom

    A font is a computer algorithm that describes shapes on behalf of an output device such as a printer or screen. For convenience sake, a font assumes the name of the typeface it is designed to describe to the device - but that's where the similarities end. Sorry, authority figures don't get to decide what is real and what is imagined. Real: Fonts and typefaces are not the same thing. End of story.

  • Annie Gunn

    "The difference between a font and a typeface is the same as that between songs and an album. The former makes up the latter."

    No. Fonts don't make up a typeface. Typefaces make up a font.

    This instead:

    "The difference between a typeface and a font is the same as that between an album and songs. The former makes up the latter."

    "Album" here is analogous to "font", while "typeface" is analogous to "songs," not the other way around.

    Right?? Or am I confused?

  • Keith Wood

    It's an OK analogy. Think of The Beatles White album. It has a unique identity (typeface), but it's identity really comes from the individual songs that make it up, that you've heard so many times, like Back in the USSR and Helter Skelter (fonts).

    How about... Oneida Classic Flatware (typeface) : Oneida Classic Salad Fork (font). You buy Flatware, you eat with a fork.

  • James

    It's a really bad analogy, so it's not your fault that it's confusing.


    Every possible variation of a font makes up a typeface. Font is the specific (Times New Roman, 14pt, "normal" (not bold or italic)), typeface is the general (Times New Roman, and all of its variations).

    Person:Humanity::Font:Typeface (probably still an imperfect analogy, but better than song:album)

  • Nice article, but two big omissions:

    1. Phototypesetting. We did not go from hot metal to desktop

    2. That the CSS workgroup split the difference with @fontface

  • "The difference between a font and a typeface is the same as that between songs and an album."

    I think a song and mp3 should be the right comparison here.

  • Tony T-Bone Colombini

    As a typophile, I like ALL letterforms, typefaces, fonts and characters.

  • Patricia Childers

    when to we start the discussion on the difference between a logo and a symbol?