Since the majority of written words are now produced in one digital form or another, fonts and typefaces have become much more important than they used to be. And to the chagrin of graphic designers and generally nerdy people everywhere, those terms are often used interchangeably.
It doesn’t help that the technical terms for these tools, which first originated in the world of conventional paper publishing and printing presses, have been somewhat confused in the world of digital design and publishing. Let’s set the record straight, shall we?
Typeface: The Name of the Stylized Glyphs
The word “typeface” historically refers specifically to the shape and style of the letters, organized into a set based on the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation needed to completely express language. So, the collection of letter shapes that we know of as “Arial” or “Times New Roman” is called a typeface.
Font: The Specific Tool (or File) That Contains a Typeface
In the original, movable type publishing sense, a “font” was a collection of metal casts that contained letters and symbols in specific sizes—all based on the design of the typeface. To be even more precise, a specific font was a collection of glyphs in a specific size and weight (bold, italic, etc). So, the metal casts for “Times New Roman, size 12, regular” would be a different font than “Times New Roman, size 20, bold,” and the typesetter would select them as needed for specific parts of a page.
Modern printing and digital publishing doesn’t use these huge, complex collections of movable casts, but the word “font” still refers to the specific mechanism that contains those glyphs. For any kind of digital writing or publishing, the “font” is the file that contains the typeface, just like the original collection of metal casts. Things are a little more streamlined now—a single font can be sized up or down by publishing software so there’s no need for multiple files at different sizes—but we do need different files for aspects like bold and italicized letters.
To put it simply: the style of text that you select when you’re writing or designing is the typeface, the file that contains that typeface is the font. You can copy, paste, move, install, and uninstall fonts from your computer, but you don’t call what you’re selecting in your word processor a “font”—it’s a typeface when you’re using it to actually produce something.
Font Family: A Collection of Related Fonts
As mentioned above, the computer file that contains a typeface is a font, but a single file might not contain all of the different glyphs necessary for a complete set of stylistic options in that font, like bold text, italicized text, “black” (extra bold) text, rarely-used foreign characters, and so on. A collection that does include more than one specific style of font is called a font family. So, for the Arial typeface, the font family contains the font files for Arial (regular), Arial Narrow, Arial Black, Arial Bold, Arial Italic, and Arial Bold Italic.
Most modern operating systems can tell the difference between a single font and a font family, and group them accordingly. In Windows 10, the Font folder is a specific folder in the Control Panel. Simply copy font files into it in order to install them for use in any compatible program. Single font files are displayed as a single file, but font families have a stacked file icon.
Double-click that stacked icon and you’ll open up a sort of meta-folder, showing all of the fonts in that specific font family. But if you copy and paste that stacked file into any folder outside the “Fonts” directory, you’ll see all of the contents as separate files.
Confusing the Terms
Even among professionals, the terms “font” and “typeface” are often used interchangeably. And to be perfectly honest, that’s not such a terrible thing—it’s a very small distinction now that type design is so malleable in terms of design and publishing. If your boss asks you to “change the font on the slideshow,” it probably won’t do you any favors to correct her and say “I can’t change the font, but I can change the typeface.” It also doesn’t help things that at least some programs get the terminology wrong, or don’t specify that they use a “typeface” instead of a font in the user interface.
But if you’re a designer of any capacity, and you’re speaking with other designers, it’s best to get the terms right. If you were a doctor and you met a contemporary who confused a tibia and fibula, you’d probably think a little less of him. It’s also helpful if you’ve put something together that you’re going to have an actual designer take a look at. It helps to speak their language.
So just remember: typeface is the design, font is the file, font family is the collection of files.