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006: Tomayto or Tomahto?

Updated: Jan 8


So which is it? To-MATE-o or to-MOT-o?


And while we’re at it, is it a typeface or a font? Are they synonymous or is there a difference? Can you hear that? Listen really closely… type snobs around the world are yelling in unison: “YESSSSS! Of course there’s a difference!”


I whole heartedly agree, however I confess that I have been known to use the two interchangeably. But I do solemnly swear that I will do my best to not confuse the two and use them in their appropriate contexts thus forevermore.


Let’s break down the difference between a typeface and a font.


A typeface is:

The unique design of letterforms. It’s the beauty, the creativity, the art established by the type designer. Helvetica is an example of a typeface. So is Times New Roman. So is Comic Sans (if you can call that art). Typefaces often exist in family units (ex: thin, bold, condensed, etc.) that the type designer intended to be used together.


A font is:

On the other hand, Is the technical execution of a typeface. (Ex: 12pt. Helvetica Neue Bold). It exists as a single size of single weight of a single width of a single style of typeface. In modern meaning, a font is a file that allows users to install, access and output the design - it’s the delivery mechanism for the typefaces’ letterforms (.ttf, .otf, .ps). Font files hold algorithms, or instructions, that allows a font file to be visible on-screen and processed for printing.


Imagine the various aspects of a single typeface are clothes in your closet. (Let’s call our make believe type closet “Wardrobia.otf”.) You’ve got lots to choose from - different widths (skinny jeans and track pants👖), different weights (light tees and heavy sweaters👚), different styles (casual and formal👗), and sizes (clothes that used to fit and ones that fit now👙). Although you’ve got lots to choose from, you’ll only ever wear one outfit at a time.

While your closet contains all aspects of a typeface, your outfit choice is the font.


While we're on the topic of nomenclature, let’s talk letter case; by that I mean uppercase and lowercase letters.


Back when letterpress was the primary printing technology, there were these things called type cases. A type case holds all of the little metal letterforms that make up a typeface. One typeface = one type case. This chest of drawers contains perhaps 10 to 20 long skinny drawers that pull out. Each drawer is one single size of type (ex: 10 pt or 12 pt type).


Imagine using Microsoft word or Google Docs or any other word processing software today. You have the ability to change the size of a given font on a whim. It's easy, you just choose the point size that you think will work best and then sit your computer for the next 20 minutes trying to decide whether you're going to go with 11pt that looks a little daintier on the page or the more standard 12pt size to make your essay fill up that much more room on the page, thereby making it appear meatier than it actually is. I mean, you’re only human…


But changing the size of the type in a given design when letterpress printing is not as easy, because each drawer houses all of the the type in one single size. Compositors would pull out the appropriate drawer when they began their work, and much like fast typists of today’s modern world of computing (you!), these historical typists were also very quick to pull out the letters they needed because they were arranged much like the keys on a keyboard - in the same location in every type drawer. There was a standard map to follow as where to find each letter… but sometimes there would be a mixup, especially if an inexperienced, or perhaps tired (or perhaps slowly dying of lead poisoning…) printer’s apprentice, whose task it was to put all the type back in the case after the print job was over, mixed up similar looking letters. b’s look like d’s and p’s look like q’s. In fact, the print shop is where the colloquial phrase ‘mind your p’s and q’s’ originates. (In other words ‘be on your best behaviour’ or ‘watch what you’re doing’).


As I’ve described above, there was originally one large type case for each typeface, but then “divided cases” were developed. These were pairs of cases, one containing small letters, or minuscules, were housed in the lower drawers, while one containing capital letters, or majuscules, were housed in the upper drawers. The Compositor would remove two drawers to do their work, the small letters from the lowercase and the capital letters from the uppercase… wait a second… aha! I see what they did there. This slang stuck and most of us don’t go around reminding technologically-needy co-workers NOT TO YELL AT US IN ALL MAJUSCULES when composing an email. (Maybe this would have a more lasting effect.)


Getting back to our matter at hand, yes, it ultimately does matter how you refer to a typeface versus a font (especially if you’re working on your Girl Guide Type Snobbery badge). There is a difference. But will the Type Police hand you a ticket for mixing them up once in a while? Not very likely.


If you are ever slapped with a type citation from said police, perhaps say ‘May I ask for your font-giveness while I mind my p’s and q’s?’… too much?


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