Most of us know fonts from working in Microsoft Word or writing emails. And when we hear people refer to “typefaces” we generally assume that the terms are synonymous; perhaps “typeface” is just a fancy word for font. There’s a bit more to it than that; read on to learn a little bit about typography!
The Basic Difference
Put succinctly, a font is a single collection of all the characters (letters, numbers, and symbols) in a group with the same size and weigh, like Garamond Regular 16pt. A typeface, on the other hand, collects all of the fonts that are in the same family, so you would have Garamond Regular, Garamond Italic, and Garamond Bold in all the various sizes available.
A font is a single unit, a typeface is a collection.
A Bit of Typographical History
So where did this distinction come from? Like so many things in web design, this typographical distinction stems from the printing industry.
Today, when most of us think of a font, we’re thinking of a digital file. We can use that digital file on type in a document and make all sorts of changes to it. We can bold and italicize. We can make some text 16 point and some 32. This is a font to most people, but this is a very modern view.
Before digital publishing became a reality, a font was something far more complex: the set of metal printing blocks for a certain type – Garamond Regular for example. These blocks were of the same size, weight, and style. While computer fonts can scale up and down, bold, italicize, and lots of other things, typeset fonts couldn’t do that. If you wanted a different size, you had to get a new font. If you wanted bolding, you had to get a new font.
If a printer wanted to offer a few different sizes and formatting options for a particular typeface, he/she had to have a lot of different fonts on hand to support that. All those different fonts of the same type were called a typeface, or sometimes a “font family”.
Does It Really Matter?
The short answer is probably not. People, even typography experts, know what you’re talking about when you say “font” by mean “typeface”, and vice versa. Of course, there are going to be those who are stickler for proper usage, so it never hurts to know what the difference is between these two terms.