Type Anatomy 101

Typeface Anatomy: 101

Sure, you know what an ‘A’ looks like, but what is an ‘A’ made of?

A couple of lines, right? It’s actually a little more complicated than that. So today we’re going to take a quick look at the varying parts that make up most of the letterforms in the fonts we use today and the logic behind them.

Computers are a very recent invention, and before they came around, all typography was created by hand. Over time, more efficient tools and systems of measurement were developed, but ultimately, everything was still done by hand. This explains the quirky little dips and strokes in a lot of humanist typefaces and fonts.

Historically these typefaces were drawn out using brushes of varying sizes, chiseling tools, or fountain pens.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the terminology for the different parts that make up the most common styles of letters:

Type Anatomy 101 Sept 2017

Type Anatomy 101 Sept 2017

A serif, crossbar, bar, aperature, ascender, descender, counter, ligature, bowl, terminal, spine, stem, and tail…

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. These are the most common and basic elements that you’ll find in any letter. You can get even more specific than this, and keep in mind that terminology will sometimes vary from foundry to foundry.

Each of these parts will also have a ton of varieties in style. For example, you may or may not already know that there are a wide variety of serifs that can be added to type.
These are generally divided into 4 main sub groups:

Type Anatomy 101 Sept 2017

As you can see, serifs started out as quite blocky, utilitarian design elements, and over time became a bit more stylized and embellished. Antique, Clarendon, Latin, and Tuscan are the 4 main categories that you’ll see serifs fall into. And then of course within each of these categories fall a ton of variations.

In the example below you can see how drastically an ‘H’ with the exact same stems and crossbar can be changed, and therefor used in a wide variety of contexts and applications, just by replacing one type of serif with another.

Type Anatomy 101 Sept 2017

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into type anatomy, and learn more in detail about all of the various elements that make up the type & fonts we all know and love there are of course a ton of resources available to you including books & blogs.

Some of the books that I would recommend on this subject are, Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton, and Designing Type by Karen Cheng. Both of which appear in our recommended book list: Top 7 Books for Type Designers.

Thanks for reading!