In the digital world, we often use the terms font and typeface interchangeably. Both terms have their roots in typesetting and movable-type printing, but those roots are distinct in origin and purpose.

While movable, wooden type was invented in China a thousand years ago, many digital typography terms of today — including type, typeface, font and uppercase — trace back to the creation of metal type in Europe five hundred years ago.

Metallic type against a red background overlaid with the words

The Birth of Type

The word type is taken from the Latin typus — a derivative of the Greek typos — both of which referred to an object, form or image that was wrought of stone or metal. Hmmm…. such as a piece of movable type?

In Latin, typus also referred to the impression or mark that was made when someone struck a stone or metal object. The act of striking is the root of typing on a keyboard to cause a typewriter to strike a page and leave character impressions.

Split image of an antique typewriter showing its keyboard on the left and its type bars on the right

So how did the word typeface come about? In the early days of printing, the word face referred to the top of the wooden or metal movable type blocks that faced the paper on a printing press. Hence, the original use of typeface was physical and not conceptual as it is today.

Image of metallic founds used as settable type on early printers

Fonts Are Foundational

The original meaning of font dates back to when European type makers called foundries poured molten metal into forms to cast individual type blocks of a specific character, size and face. That craft was known as founding, derived from the French verb fondre, which means to melt, cast or smelt. A casting was known as a found, which evolved to fount and later to font. By 1700, font was used to describe a complete set of characters for a specific typeface and size.

Cases Take Their Places

Early print shops organized the type castings in trays or drawers called type cases that had compartments for each letter. At first, they stored all the type for a specific typeface in a single box, but they eventually divided the cases into majuscules (capital letters) and minuscules (small letters). At the start of projects, compositors placed cases containing capitals toward the back of their workbenches tilted steeply, and cases of small letters and punctuation in front and below it for more frequent access. The back tray became known as the upper case and the front tray as the lower case, giving rise to the upper-case and lower-case letter terminology that we still use today.

Split image of a case of movable pieces of type on the left and drawers in a type cabinet on the right

Fonts and Families in the New World

In today’s digital world, typeface is often another way of saying font family, which refers to a group of font styles of the same base style. In other words, it is common today to hear someone say that they have Regular, Italic, Bold and Bold Italic styles of a typeface or family such as Garamond.

Note that some font designers might take issue with using typeface as a family synonym, especially if they know the world of movable type. For them, a typeface refers to the overall appearance of a font — how the shapes of its individual glyphs appear and work together.

Today, a font is a complete set characters for a specific style of a typeface, delivered in the form of mathematical software that enables software applications to display type. In most cases, a font contains all the glyphs for that style including letters, accented letters, numerals, punctuation and any symbols that are included in the typeface. This is why individual styles of a typeface (regular, bold, italic, etc.) are technically separate fonts — since each style has its own unique shape.

The Role of Font Managers

Modern font managers like FontAgent® let you preview, manage and activate fonts with incredible ease and speed. They show you a font’s character glyphs, just as if you were looking at a tray of metal type years ago. Only now, you can change character strings, colors and sizes with a few clicks rather than taking hours to assemble movable type into galleys, ink up the press and print samples for evaluation.

Respect for Our Elders

While the terms we use today might sound a lot like the early days of typography, technology has propelled us light years past our predecessors and made life a lot easier. So the next time you use FontAgent or you open an application’s Font menu, consider taking a moment to appreciate how modern, digital methods have glossed over the tenacity, patience and creativity of designers, typesetters and printers of not so long ago.