Typography rules and terms that every designer must know

We explain the fundamental concepts and terminology in words that you can understand.

The glossary (A-L)

What is typography

A visual guide to some common typography terms - see key below

Key to image: 1. Bowl; 2. Stem; 3. Counter; 4. Arm; 5. Ligature; 6. Terminal; 7. Spine; 8. Ascender; 9. Apex; 10. Serif; 11. Ear; 12. Descender; 13. Crossbar; 14. Finial; 15. Ascender height; 16. Cap height; 17. X-height; 18. Baseline; 19. Descender line

Aesc (phonetic: ash)

A ligature of two letters – 'a' and 'e'. The aesc derives from Old English, where it represented a diphthong vowel, and has successfully migrated to other alphabets including Danish and Icelandic.

Aperture

The constricted opening of a glyph, as seen in the letter 'e'. Varying the size of the aperture has a direct effect on the legibility of a letterform and, ultimately, readability.

Apex

The point at the top of a character where the left and right strokes meet. The example shown here is the top point of an uppercase a.

Arm

A horizontal stroke that does not connect to a stroke or stem at one or both ends – such as the top of the capital T.

Ascender

The part of a lower case letterform that projects above the x-height of the font. Ascenders are important for ease of prolonged reading, though the combination of too much ascender-height and not enough x-height can cause problems.

What is typography

The ascender projects above the x-height of the font

Baseline

The baseline is where the feet of your capital letters sit. Below this line are descenders and loops.

Bowl

The shapely, enclosed parts of letters such as 'p' and 'b'.

Beak

The beak-shaped terminal at the top of letters such as 'a', 'c', 'f' and 'r'.

Bicameral (as opposed to Unicameral)

Bicameral refers to alphabets that have upper and lower case letterforms, such as Roman and Cyrillic – as opposed to the likes of Hebrew and Arabic.

Bracket

A wedge-like shape that joins a serif to the stem of a font in some typefaces.

Cap height

The height of a capital letter above the baseline.

Copyfitting

The job of adjusting point size and letter spacing in a bid to make text occupy its allotted space in a harmonious fashion.

Counter

The enclosed – or partially enclosed – portion of letterforms such as 'c', the lower part of 'e' and 'g'; easy to get mixed up with the bowl.

Crossbar

The crossbar connects two strokes, as in 'H'. Not to be confused with the crossstroke that cuts through the stem of letterforms such as 't'.

Cursive

These are typefaces that imitate handwriting. Ever popular with Joe Public, the design community is often less than thrilled by these sometimes flowery fonts.

Descender

The part of the letterform that falls below the baseline. In lowercase terms, this means 'p', 'y' and 'q', and sometimes applies to uppercase 'J' and 'Q'.

Diacritical

Is it so critical that you might die? No. Diacriticals refer to accents applied to letterforms by languages including French, Czech and German in a bid to enhance the function of the glyph.

Dingbat

Once known as printer's flowers, dingbats are decorative elements that can vary from simple bullets to delicate fauna and flora often formed into themed collections.

What is typography

Dingbat are decorative elements such as bullets

Display fonts

Any typeface intended to be used in short bursts can be defined as a display font. They're often created just for use at large point sizes, as with headlines and titles.

Drop cap

An oversized capital letter often used at the start of a paragraph that 'drops' into two or more lines of text, but can also climb upwards.

Ear

A small stroke extending from the upper-right side of the bowl of lowercase g, as shown in the example. It can also appear in a lowercase r.

Ethel

A ligature of the letters 'o' and 'e'.

Em

Often referred to as 'Mutton' to distinguish it from the very similar-sounding En, Em is a horizontal space equal to the current point size of text.

En

'Nut' to its friends, the En is a horizontal measure one half the size of an Em. That being the case, 'lamb' might have been more appropriate.

Eye

The eye is similar to a counter, but instead refers specifically to the enclosed part of the letter 'e'.

Finial

A tapered or curved end, which appears on letters such as e and c.

Fleuron

A subcategory of, or the precursor to, the dingbat. Fleurons are floral marks dreamed up by printers of the past to help decorate text.

<font-face>

The HTML5 tag that brings typography to the internet with typefaces directly embedded in web pages.

Glyph

Any singular mark that makes part of a font, whether a letter, number, punctuation mark or even a dingbat. Glyphs are the building blocks of typography.

What is typography

Glyphs are the singular parts that make up a font

Grapheme

Very similar to glyph, but possibly a bit broader. A grapheme is a fundamental unit of language, such as a Chinese pictogram, an exclamation mark or a letterform. Still with us in our guide to what is typography? Great! Because we've got more terms coming your way!

Gutter

The spaces between facing pages of, and very often columns of text.

Justified

In a paragraph of justified text, the contents are arranged so that there is no white space at the end of a line: each begins flush left and finishes flush right.

Kerning

The art of adjusting the proximity of adjacent letters to optimise their visual appeal and readability.

Leading

Leading describes the vertical space between each line of type. In olden times actual strips of lead were used to separate lines of text vertically; the naming convention persists.

What is typography

Leading describes the vertical space between each line of type

Legibility

The ease with which one letterform can be distinguished from the next. It feeds into but is not the same as readability.

Loop

The lower part of the letter 'g' is known as its loop or lobe. Sometimes called the tail – a term that also takes in the lower portion of letter 'y'.

What is typography

The lower part of the letters 'g' and 'y' are known as the loop or lobe

Logotype

The lettered part of any marque or identity. The logotype can be taken separately from its graphic companion.

Ligature

The conjoined but non-identical twins of the typographic universe. Ligatures pull two forms together to produce a new glyph.

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