Design Development

Typeface and its anatomy

Typography is not just about playing with various fonts on Google Fonts or Adobe Typekit. Every typeface and its characters have specific anatomy composing of an array of attributes and forms that are described through a variety of different terms. This is very much the same thing as the different names for every part of the human body. If you want to understand the human body, you have to learn and understand this terminology. The same applies to typography as well. Take this post as an introduction into this subject.

Anatomy of a typeface

Apex

The point formed at the top of a character such as “A”, where the left and right strokes meet. The apex can has many forms. It can be a sharp, blunt, or rounded and is often a feature helping you identify specific typefaces.

Arm

A horizontal stroke is open at one or both ends, for example on the “T” and “F”. Another examples of upstroke can be found on “K” and “Y”. Important to remember is that the arm is not connected to a stroke or stem at one or both ends. Arm can also be called bar.

Ascender

Ascender is an upward vertical part of lowercase letters that extend above the x-height. For example, you can find ascender on letters like “h” and “b”. Ascender’s height can be another feature to identify characteristic of specific typefaces.

Axis

Imagine a line drawn from top to bottom of a glyph bisecting the upper and lower strokes is the axis. The direction of the axis of the lowercase “o” is used to measure the angle of stress. A completely vertical axis indicates a design with vertical stress. When the axis leans to the left or right it means the design has positive or negative stress. You can find that axis is also mentioned as stress.

Barb

A sharp pointed serif on some curved strokes. For example, in letters ”C”, ”G” and ”S”.

Beak

A beak is a type of decorative stroke at the end of the arm of a letter. It is connected to the arm by the terminal.

Bowl

The part of a character that encloses a space in circular letterforms such as ”d”, ”b”, ”o”, ”D” and ”B”. The bowl may be closed or open. Remember that the shape and size of the counter and bowl can affect readability of the text on the website. When the size of text is small, bowls of some letters can appear solid. Also, some heavy typefaces are prone to closing up.

Bracket

The bracket is a curved or wedge-like shape between the stem and serif present on some fonts. Brackets can have different shapes starting with deep curves and ending up with more gentle.

Chin

The angled terminal of a “G“.

Counter

In typeface, counter is the enclosed or partially enclosed circular or curved negative space (white space) of some letters like ”d”, ”o” and ”s”. Counter can also be used in case of letters ”m”, ”n”, or ”h” where the space is enclosed only in some degree.

Cross Stroke

A horizontal cross stroke is a shape that intersects the stem of a lowercase ”t” or ”f”. Although often used interchangeably, the cross stroke differs from an arm and a crossbar because it intersects or crosses over the stem. You can use its different positioning, thickness and slope of to distinguish between various type designs and to choose type for your project.

Crossbar

The horizontal stroke in letters. For example, you can find it in the middle of uppercase “A” and ”H”. Another example of horizontal stroke is enclosing the bottom of the eye of an e. In some typefaces this stroke is sloping. The difference between crossbar, arm and cross stroke is that each end connects to a stem or stroke and doesn’t cross over the stem or stroke. Crossbar is also known as a bar.

Crotch

The inner point at which two angled strokes meet. The best example is letter “V”.

Descender

The part of the letters that extend below the baseline. For example, part of lowercase letters like ”g” and ”y”. Remember that the length and shape of the descender can have an effect on the readability of text. When you find yourself in situation where the readability is poor you can try to increase the line height or leading.

Ear

Ear is a small stroke typically extending from the upper-right side of the bowl of lowercase “g”. It also appears in the angled or curved lowercase “r”. This decorative part of a letter is usually on the upper right side of the bowl.

Finial

Finial is the usually a somewhat tapered curved end on letters such as the bottom of “C” or “e” and also on the top of some variations of letter “a”. Another way to describe finial is as an ornamental flourish added as a variation to some characters in a specific typeface.

Hairline

The easiest way to find hairline in your favorite typeface is to look for the thinnest stroke. The best examples are typefaces consisting of strokes of various widths where those differences are more visible. Another usage of hairline is as hairline rule – the thinnest graphic rule or line that is still printable on a specific device. One more interesting fact … Hairline or hair is also a type of serif – the minimum thickness for a serif.

Hook

A curved, upstanding stroke or shape in a terminal. Hook is usually found on a lowercase “f”. In other words, almost anything curved or bent like a hook which limits it to letter “f”.

Leg

Imagine an uppercase or lowercase letter “K”. Next, focus on the short, descending portion of these letters. Leg is the lower, down sloping stroke present on these letters. Another examples include the same stroke on letter “R”. Interestingly, the tail you can find on letter “Q” is also sometimes referred to as a leg. Another name for leg is tail (remember “Q”?).

Ligature

Ligature is something special that can be seen in various typefaces. In certain situation two or even more letters are joined together to form one glyph or character. This method is often used to improve readability and appearance of characters in typeface. Otherwise, these character might overlap each other so it is better to join them.

Link

A small, usually curved shape or stroke connecting the top and bottom bowls of some variations of lowercase letter “g” (when both bowls are present like in Open Sans or Lato typeface). Other names include neck and terminal.

Loop

When the enclosed or partly enclosed counter below the baseline of letter “g” connected to the bowl by a link is present, it is called loop. In some cases, the small curve or hook present at the end of letter “j” and “q” is also called a loop. Unfortunately, this is wrong.

Serif

In a typeface, serif is a stroke added as a stop to the beginning and end of the main strokes of some characters. Serifs can also be described as hairline (hair), slab or wedge and can be either bracketed or unbracketed.

Shoulder

Shoulder is the curve at the beginning of a leg of a character. For example, letters like “m” and “n” has shoulder.

Spine

The main curved stroke of letter “s” and “S”. Depending on the specific typeface, the spine can be almost vertical or horizontal.

Spur

A small projection off a main stroke. Some examples include certain variations of letter “G”.

Stem

Stem is the main, vertical and full-length stroke in upright characters. It is also known as stroke.

Swash

In typeface, swash is a decorative addition used to replace a terminal or serif. In history, capital “swash” characters extending to the left were a lot of times used to begin sentences. Some swash characters were also used to begin words or to end them.

Tail

A descending stroke. It is often used in typeface for decorative purposes. Examples of tail include decorative stroke on the letter “Q” or the descending strokes on “K” or “R”. Another examples are the descenders on letters “g”, “j”, “p”, “q” and “y”.

Terminal

For terminal, there are two ways to describe it. First, it is a type of curve on the end of any stroke not including a serif. Second description includes ears, links, loops and curved pieces of tails. Additionally, we can distinguish between ball and beak terminals. The first one are a combination of a dot and the curved bit at the end of some tails and arms. The second is the beak at the end of an arm and the curved bit between the beak and the arm.

Vertex

Do you remember the crotch? Well, the outside part at the bottom and top of a character where the crotch is called vertex.

Final words

As you can see, typeface is much more complicated than it may seem at the first view. It is not just about nice letters and playing with different styles and families. In order to understanding typeface and the underlying foundation of typography itself you have to learn specific terms of typeface anatomy and what they present. I hope this post will help you achieve this goal and move your design skills to another level.

Additional reading:

Typedia – Encyclopedia of Typefaces

Thinking with Type

The Difference between Font and a Typeface

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