Fonts vs. typefaces, explained by a designer
“What font is used on the Absolut Vodka bottles”?
“Can you identify the font used in the new Star Wars movie”?
“Do you recognize the font in the attached PDF”?
I get questions like these daily. I don't mind them. Fact is, I enjoy the challenge. What I don't like, however, is the nomenclature. It seems that just about everyone is using the word “font” when they are referring to a typeface. “Fonts” and “typefaces” are different things. Graphic designers choose typefaces for their projects but use fonts to create the finished art.
Typefaces are designs like Baskerville, Gill Sans or Papyrus. Type designers create typefaces. Today they use software programs like Fontographer or Font Lab to create the individual letters. A few still draw the letters by hand and then scan them into a type design application.
Fonts are the things that enable the printing of typefaces. Type foundries produce fonts. Sometimes designers and foundries are one and the same, but creating a typeface and producing a font are two separate functions.
A little history may help. John Baskerville created the typeface design that bears his name. Creating the design was a multi-stage process. First, he cut the letters (backwards) on the end of a steel rod. The completed letter is called a “punch.” Next, Baskerville took the punch and hammered it into a flat piece of soft brass to make a mold of the letter. A combination of molten lead, zinc and antimony was then poured into the mold and the result was a piece of type the face of which was an exact copy of the punch. After Baskerville made punches for all the letters he would use and cast as many pieces of type as he thought he would need, he put the type into a typecase. The resulting collection of letters was a font of Baskerville type.
Over the years, there have been hand-set fonts of Baskerville type, machine-set fonts, phototype fonts, and now digital fonts. Currently, there are TrueType and PostScript Type1 fonts of the Baskerville typeface. There are Latin 1 fonts of Baskerville used to set most of the languages in Western Europe and Greek and Cyrillic fonts that enable the setting of these languages. All these fonts are of the Baskerville typeface design.
Maybe it's OK for the folks that set the neighborhood church's newsletter to call them fonts; but those of us who claim to be typographers and graphic designers should refer to our tools by the correct name. So, what font is used on the Absolut Vodka bottles? I don't know. But I can tell you that the name “Absolut” is set in the typeface Futura Extra Bold Condensed.
About the Author: Allan Haley is the director of words and letters at Monotype Imaging, where he is responsible for the strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs and editorial content for the company’s type libraries and websites. Prior to Monotype, Haley was the principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation. He is an ex-officio chairman of the board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados and past president of the New York Type Directors Club.