Typeface Anatomy Simplified

IMG_2886

“ I love learning but I hate studying.” – my former boss

I echo his sentiment. Especially where typefaces are concerned.

I love learning—learning by doing. Drawing letters. Experimenting with font software.

But I, ashamedly, I don’t know the parts of the letters by heart. I didn’t study that part hard enough. I didn’t memorise them like a good student of type would.

So instead, I thought I’d learn them best the way I learn most things—by doodling.

Drawing or doodling helps me get to know something better and cement the learning in my mind. Drawing something makes you more familiar with it.

When I study typefaces, reading books are not as helpful as me drawing Helvetica, Baskerville, Rockwell on paper. Staring, observing, analysing, doodling type.  

So here are my educational doodles. Hopefully they will help you too.

Level 1: Easy/common words

  • Ascender (the part of a letter that goes above the x-height)
  • Descender (the part of the letter that goes below the baseline)
  • Crossbar
  • Stem
  • Diagonals

1

Level 2: Body part-sounding words

  • Spine
  • Tail
  • Shoulder
  • Arm
  • Leg
  • Throat
  • Ear
  • Hairline
  • Waist
  • Throat
  • Upper lobe
  • Lower lobe
  • Eye

2

Level 3: Advanced super hyper typophile words

  • Aperture
  • Counter
  • Spur
  • Link
  • Loop
  • Hook
  • Sheared terminal

3

*Most of the above terms are from Karen Cheng’s book “Designing Type,” in which she clarifies that “there is no official nomenclature for the unique structural features of type.” But “type designers, do in general use the specialized terms” she shared in the book.

Why learn names of the parts of letters?

 

They help you find the right words when discussing type

Instead of saying – “the thin thingie of the “o” is making this typeface hard to read in small sizes.” . You can say, “This typeface won’t work well in small formats because the hairline is almost invisible”

“We need to increase the leading because the descenders are hitting the ascenders on the next line.”

“Can you change it to a typeface with heavier stems?”

And when critiquing type / discussing type design

“Do you think the crossbar of the t is a little too wide?”

“The spine of the S is a little too thick.”

“The shoulder of the lowercase n could use a little more weight.”
And hopefully the more we use these words, the more they will be cemented into our vocabulary. And we won’t need the word thingie anymore.

Why I Draw (Even If I’m Not Very Good At It)

During the first decade of my design career, I avoided “real” drawing. Enthralled that I could just create graphic imagery with Adobe Illustrator, I drew with a mouse instead.

I have a natural childish drawing style (which probably mirrors my own nature).

Growing up, I was drawing all the time: portraits, caricatures, cartoons. I doodled alien-like characters in my college notebooks. And when I started working, the only time I would sketch was to create design thumbnails to discuss ideas with the team.

But a few years later, working for a signage design company, I found myself drawn to drawing again. Because we designed with a lot of type, I drew typography as part of brainstorming and internal presentations. Something about the process hooked me back into drawing.

And these are what I’ve come to love about it:

1. Drawing brings you closer to your subject

Drawing is the art of seeing, Bert Dodson reveals in his book Keys to Drawing. When you’re drawing something, you’re looking at it most of the time. Your eyes start to see things about the subject you never saw before. You come to memorize the details.

2. Drawing creates deeper understanding

In Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson tell of an artist he knows who drew parts of a dead duck to understand the duck better — such as how the legs and wings worked.

Similarly, when I started copying typefaces on the job — like drawing Helvetica as part of signage design, I began to understand how the typeface worked, and what possibly might have been the thought process behind key design decisions of the type designer. I gained more insight on the details that give the typeface its overall character and feel. I became more conscious of typefaces and their impact on legibility and large-scale production. (And that a double-story a is more difficult to internally illuminate than a regular a.)

3. Drawing gives me relief from computer screens

Drawing with pen and ink means time away from the screen, and I love that.

I felt a kinship with Paula Scher when she started to share why she got back to painting, in the Netflix design documentary Abstract.

“I used to paint my fonts by hand, when I was a young designer and I really miss it,” she said.

“When we became fully computerized in the late 90s, I didn’t touch anything and I didn’t use my hands. In the past, I cut things up I ripped things; I pasted things; I touched art supplies. The physical loss was huge for me and that’s why I started painting.”

During the signage design job, I was at the computer probably 90% of the time. So I appreciated the opportunities I had to look at paper, pencil, and ink instead.

Like Paula, I crave for that break from the screen, to use my hands. I cherish the purity and timelessness of pen and ink, and those sacred moments that make me feel human again.