Typeface Anatomy Simplified

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“ 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

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*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.

Classic Typefaces and Their Anti-Aging Secrets

Anything labeled “Made in 1757” should be in a museum, right?

But typeface designs have defied expectations. A typeface can be both classic and modern at the same time. It can be made in 1757 and still be in use today.

In my first job in the early 2000s, I had no idea how old some of the typefaces I was using were.

Take a look at these typefaces, indicating their birthyears:

Can you identify these classic typefaces?

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Here are the answers:

TYPE Birthyears Alphabetype-02.jpg

We see these age-defying typefaces everyday—in books, magazines, newspapers. Some are centuries-old but still very active, still being tweaked and refined for modern-day use.

As design and print technology evolved, typefaces maintained both their appearance and their appeal as they evolved from actual metal pieces to pixels and codes in software.

That’s one of the most beautiful things about typography. It reflects the culture of the day, and as it evolves it stays deeply rooted in its—well, roots.

Giambattista Bodoni’s typeface, its very first version skillfully carved in metal in the late 1700s, is still in use in year 2019.

Designer influence type relevance

In the graphic design world, type designers are truly immortalised, and their work continues to be useful and relevant. Bodoni probably had no idea that centuries later, every graphic designer would know his name.

The secret is not in the type itself but in design culture. The way designers use type and reinvent design. How a typeface is used influences how it is perceived. For example, Comic sans has been terribly misused. It was intended for kiddie graphics but has been used in office documents and powerpoint presentations, and has become one of the most scorned typefaces of all time. 

On the other hand, Bodoni has been used by luxury magazines and premium brands, which has honored the design and purpose of the typeface, and allowed it to remain relevant throughout time.

Typefaces have the potential to be timeless, by being useful, and being well-used by designers of every generation.

 

Black Panther: Loved the Movie, Adored the Typeface

Typographic spoiler alert

I’m the type of moviegoer who does barely any research on a movie before I watch it. I find it more enjoyable to experience a story with no expectations.

As Black Panther unfolded, the first thing that pulled me in was the typeface — the opening credits were flashing in and out with some digital effects, typeset in a font reminiscent of the typeface Gotham, with African/tribal influences. It looked custom-made for the movie and was the first hint of what the story might involve.

As the movie unfolded and the technological landscape of Wakanda (the fictional setting of most of the movie) came into view, modern geometric shapes, mixed with linear African accents made more sense, hinting at tribal culture and tradition in a modern context.

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The typeface drew me into the movie, the perfect introduction to the story that was to unfold. And every graphic detail of the movie was a marvel. (Pun intended haha).

The costumes were a visual feast, so much so that the fight scenes were actually a delight to watch.

I won’t say any more except that it’s probably the Marvel movie that I enjoyed the most. And not just because of that typeface.

The Comic Sans Oppression

This innocent little typeface has been bullied for too long.

At church today, we had a guest preacher. She was introduced as a lady with a passion for justice, a defender and helper of the oppressed. She is the head of an orphanage as well as other mission initiatives.

She prepared some slides for her message, and one moment she was showing us Bible verses in Helvetica, and then later on in an italicized Comic Sans-like font. (Distracted by the slides I wondered, as she preached, does Comic Sans have italics? A real italics version, not just a computer-slanted Regular?)

So anyway the next slide, was, definitely, Comic Sans.

And I thought, how fitting that she would use a typeface that is, like those she cares about, oppressed. (How did she know?) Amazingly she picked Comic Sans (and its cousins). Helvetica, which she used, is also another typeface suffering constant criticism, mostly from people who have seen it too much and have been experiencing Helvetica fatigue.

So there I was sitting in church, snickering to myself, being so judgy about seeing Comic Sans (in purple, mind you — but then again, it is Pantone’s color of the year) on the giant screens.

And now, guilt-ridden, I feel the need to redeem myself from my evil thoughts by attempting to defend, and honor, the most oppressed typeface of all time.

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So here are some things I would like to remind the world about Comic Sans.

1. Comic Sans was created to solve a design problem

“Typographic Engineer” at Microsoft, Vincent Connare, could not accept that a Microsoft Bob, a very friendly software with a cartoon dog, was going to have the very formal Times New Roman as its typeface — to be used in cartoony speech bubbles. So he designed the friendly Comic Sans to fittingly replace it.

Unfortunately though, because the measurements of Comic Sans did not exactly match Times New Roman’s, and Comic Sans would be too big for the existing speech bubbles, (and I assume no one at Microsoft valued typeface choice enough to grant extra time to adjust the speech bubble sizes or type size), Comic Sans didn’t get to save the day. For that project, at least.

Instead, it became part of Microsoft’s Windows 95, and was happily adopted by hundreds of thousands of school term papers, and even corporate reports all over the world.

2. Comic Sans was inspired by the text in DC comic books

Hence the name Comic Sans (which is probably short for Comic Sans Serif, otherwise comic sans would just mean “no comic”).

Comic books’ text is handwritten, but Comic Sans was a fontified version of handwritten text, making that same text easily usable, without the time and effort of writing by hand. Using digitized handwriting of course sacrifices some organic qualities of handwritten text, which is why many designers find Comic Sans offensive. Because of its nature it doesn’t seem to belong anywhere — not as a typeface, nor as handwritten text, and is often misunderstood.

3. Comic Sans makes office people happy

“People like it because it’s not like a typeface,” says its designer Vincent Connare, as quoted by Simon Garfield in Just My Type.

Comic Sans looked different from all the other fonts in the Windows 95 package. It stood out, with its irregular shapes and fat strokes. Perhaps many found the curved stroke endings more friendly than the pointy serifs of the ancient typefaces. And people were happy to use it. Office people, bored to death looking at their corporate reports in Times New Roman, scanned the list of available fonts, and Comic Sans would be a refreshing, down-to-earth typeface in a sea of sophisticated, distinguished fonts. Not as fancy as Jokerman, nor as foreign as Papyrus, and definitely not boring like Times New Roman. Comic Sans just has what it takes to pop out of the “regular fonts” and capture the attention, and heart, of cubicle workers.

4. Comic Sans knows its purpose in life; it’s those who mis-use it who don’t

Comic Sans, like every typeface, is created to serve a communication need. Those who don’t see typefaces as tools of communication, but rather, decoration, will inevitably use it in a non-kiddie or non-comics context, and it will be disaster. But when that happens, it’s not Comic Sans’ fault. Don’t blame the typeface for the mistakes of its user.

5. Comic Sans was a pioneer

Comic Sans was born in 1994. It had no competition. Since then, so many handwriting-ish typefaces have been created, each for its own purpose. There are some Comic Sans look-alikes too. But Comic Sans was the first to be embraced then hated, and now it is probably the most unforgettable typeface of all time.