This is a reference guide is adapted from a book called Love Letters I wrote and designed in 2008, when I was a design student at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Denver, CO. This was a final project in our typography class; teaching the basics of typography was a great way to actually learn them. See the full publication below via Issuu.

We’ll go over what typography is, the basics of letterform design, the anatomy—or parts—of a letter, and typeface classification.

What is Typography?

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type (letters and characters) in a way to be presented as legible, readable, and appealing. Type design—the actual design and creation of letters and characters—is sometimes considered part of typography, but not by all.

What is it not? Randomly selecting the font Papyrus from the drop-down menu to create the brand for an epic film. (Although one could argue this is still typography, just not good typography).

Letterform Design

Cap Height  The cap height of a typeface determines its point size. It is measured as the distance between the baseline to the top of the capital letter.

Mean Line  The line that marks the top of lowercase letters that do not have ascenders. (Also called waist line).

X-height  The height of the body of the letterform. This is measured by the height of the lowercase x. Usually between 50-66% of the cap height.

Baseline  The line which all letters sit on. This a crucial element for aligning text with images or with other text.

Ligature  Two or more letters joined together for practical or aesthetic reasons.

Contrast  The thickness or thinness of the strokes of a letter. Bauer Bodoni has high contrast; Univers has low contrast. For small text or reversed-out text, it is better to choose a low contrast typeface, then a high contrast one.

Weight  The thickness of the strokes that determines the overall color of the typeface. All font families usually have Light, Medium, and Bold. The mid-weight may also be referred to as Roman, Normal, or Regular (rather than medium). Univers is one of the most diverse typefaces because it has so many different variations in weight.

Serif   Serif fonts have small decorative strokes that are added to the end of a letter’s main strokes. Serifs improve readability by leading the eye along the line of type.

San Serif   Sans serif literally means “without serif.” These fonts usually have a low contrast design. They are very clean and simple and are used for headlines, as well as body copy.

Anatomy of a Letter

Ascender  The upward vertical stem on some lowercase letters that extends above the x-height.

Descender  The portion of some lowercase letters that extends below the baseline.

Arms  The horizontal stroke on a letter that does not connect to a stroke or stem at one or both ends.

Serifs  The horizontal stroke on a letter that does not connect to a stroke or stem at one or both ends.

Brackets  The horizontal stroke on a letter that does not connect to a stroke or stem at one or both ends.

Counter  The partially or fully enclosed negative space, or white space, of a letter.

Tail  A finishing stroke at or below the baseline.

Stem  The main (usually vertical) stroke of a letter.

Leg  A lower, down sloping stroke of a letter.

Beak  A type of decorative stroke at the end of the arm of a letter.

Spine  The main left to right curving stroke usually found in the upper and lowercase S.

Bowl  The curved stroke of a letter that creates an enclosed space (counter).

Spur  The small form at the end of certain curved portions of a letter. Similar to, but smaller than, a serif or beak.

The Importance of Counters

The counters are the negative spaces inside certain letters. In well-designed typefaces, these spaces are just as important, if not more important, than the letters themselves. When looking at only the counters of a typeface, the unique shapes and designs become apparent. When selecting a typeface, it is good to keep the size and shape of counters in mind. A font with large counters (usually due to a large x-height) vastly improves readability when the type is set at a small scale. Helvetica is a good example, as it is one of the most widely used typefaces in the world.

Double Story G  A lowercase g comprised of a closed bowl with an ear and a closed or partially closed loop connected to the bowl with a link.

Ear  A decorative flourish usually found on a lowercase g.

Link  The small curved stroke that connects the bowl and the loop in a double story g.

Loop The enclosed or partially enclosed counter below the baseline.

Terminal  The finishing element to a stroke.

Shoulder  A curved portion of the stroke of a letter that connects to a straight stroke.

Eye  The enclosed negative space specific to a lowercase e.

Apex  The peak of a triangle on an uppercase A.

Vertex  The downward juncture of two diagonal strokes found on a V or W.

Crossbar  The horizontal stroke on a letter. Often used interchangeably with the term arm, but differs from an arm in that crossbars usually connect at both ends to other strokes, and are not intersected by a stem.

Waist  The middle section of a letter that combines the upper lobe an lower lobe.

Lobe  A rounded projecting stroke attached to the main structure of a letter.

Hook  A curved, protruding stroke ending in a terminal. Usually found on a lowercase f.

Sheared Terminal  A type of terminal with a connecting element between the stem and the arm.

Tail  A stroke or arc of a character starting from the main stroke or structure of a letterform and extending downward, with one end free.

Typeface Classification