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009: The Anatomy of Type - The Good, The Bad and The Naughty?

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

The anatomy of type is crucial to understand if you’re a designer, layout artist or type designer… but isn’t the most interesting subject. So I’ve decided to have a little fun with it.

I worked for a book printer when I started my career and I was a sales representative. I spent my days reaching out to prospective publishers (the HarperCollins type of the world) selling the printing of books. The publishers would be the ones to work with the authors, marketing experts, and designers to create a book ready to be published and we would print it. They would send us a final PDF file of the text pages and the cover and we would bring their book to life; ready for store shelves and for readers near and far to enjoy.

In my time working in sales, I for some reason began seeing the same type of work come across my desk again and again and again. There was a lot of children's publishing (which I loved) and on the other end of the spectrum, there were a lot of romance novels (which I found hilarious). There wasn’t a whole lot in between but I definitely covered the two ends of the spectrum. It wasn't uncommon to see ‘Cowboy ABCs’ along with ‘Cowboy Commando’ being finalized on the same day.

That said, I'm taking a nod from my former role to bring you today's podcast. Today you will hear about the anatomy of type through the lens of a children's book and then a slightly more racy rundown of my top three favourite indecent parts of a character, or in other words, the parts of the character that makes my 12 year old brain giggle.

Now I know this is a visual topic, so I can only convey so much meaning in an audio format. Therefore, it's great that you're here in the show notes for visuals to accompany this episode. I also recommend that you grab an old book or magazine or even cereal box to label the parts of each character to help you better understand what I’m talking about and save for future reference.

Before we get to our story, let’s do a quick run down of some of the more common parts of a character I mention. It should help you understand some of the subtle nuances I slipped into the story. This helpful rundown is from

Serif - a short stroke extending from the open ends of a letterform (this is one of the two main categories of type); long passages of text are often set in a serif typeface because the serifs add visual weight to the baseline, making lines of text easier to read

Sans Serif - literally “without line”; typefaces with no serifs; they’re typically more modern looking faces

Baseline - this is the invisible line that all the letters sit on. Serifs help accentuate or increase the visibility of the baseline to help readers more easily follow lines of text.

Cap height - the height of the uppercase letters. Sometimes ascenders (on lowercase d’s and b’s, for example) extend above the cap height.

X-height - also called the waistline, it’s the height of the lowercase letters.

Stroke - any linear (curved or straight) part of a character. So an uppercase R is made up of 3 strokes, the vertical stem, the curved bowl and the diagonal leg.

Stem - the main vertical stroke of a character; think of it like the stem of a plant; a letter’s support system

Ascender and Descender - an ascender extends above the x-height and sometimes above the cap height too. A descender extends below the baseline. Lowercase d’s and b’s have ascenders, while lowercase p’s and q’s have descenders.

Apex and Vertex - the upper most point where two strokes meet and the lowermost point where two strokes meet - it may be sharp or blunt (think uppercase A and the letter V - A for apex and V for vertex)

Arm - a horizontal stroke that connects to the stem on one side (think arms of the uppercase T waving around like human arms)

Leg - short, descending stroke (like an uppercase R or K)

Shoulder - a curved stroke extending from a stem (lowercase h, m, n)

Cross Bar - a horizontal stroke enclosed within a letter (uppercase A or H)

Cross Stroke - a horizontal stroke that extends through a letter (lowercase t or f)

Bowl - closed round or oval part of a character (a, b, d)

Counter - closed or partially enclosed area of space within a letter (ex: letter a has a closed counter, while the letter u has an open counter); the counter in the centre of the ‘e’ is called an eye.

Terminal - decorative end of any stroke that doesn’t include a serif; terminals can either be “ball terminals” (circular) or “finials” (curved or tapered)

Swash - decorative extension from a letterform; it’s typically an add on character to the main character set in a font

Let’s take a minute to chat about pangrams.

The sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” contains all the letters of the alphabet, otherwise known as a pangram. This line is therefore used when testing out different typefaces. The earliest known occurrence of this sentence dates back to 1885 when it was referenced in an article in The Boston Journal, although they used ‘A’ instead of the ‘The’.

If you head to YouTube and search “Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog” you’ll actually get to witness a 2 minute and 11 second video from 2007 of, yes, a quick brown fox who jumps over a lazy dog. (The Internet now officially contains everything there is to contain in the world.)

While the ‘quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ packs all 26 letters of the alphabet into 32 letters (33 letters if you include an ‘A’ in front, which also gives you all of the letters of the alphabet in lowercase), there are other pangrams out there. Some of my favourites include:

Five hexing wizard bots jump quickly. (31 letters)

Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs (31 letters)

The five boxing wizards jump quickly (31 letters)

Two driven jocks help fax my big quiz (30 letters)

Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow! (29 letters)

Let’s move on to story time!

Take a listen as I tell you the story of the Letter Parade…

Letter Parade!

Serif and Sans are the best of friends,

Their differences complement each style,

Like chalk to cheese, zero to thirty degrees,

They’ve been friends for a long, long while.

While serif wears heels, embellished to the nines,

Sans takes the opposite slant.

She likes minimal gear and she is very clear,

Serif hams it up when Sans just can’t.

Today’s a big day for this friendly duo,

A parade is happening downtown.

“The party of the year! The alphabet’s here!”

(Enter Serif, wearing a gown.)

As they approached the scene they couldn’t believe

All of the famous forms,

From A to Zed, all black, white and read,

The letters were here to perform.

“Here comes Big A!” standing confident and tall,

She is a sight to be seen.

With an apex on top, where her two strokes stop

“I bet she’ll be made Letter Parade Queen!”

Next came Big B with his jovial belly,

His spirit was advantageous.

His round bits (called bowls), shook when he scrolled.

His laughter was contagious.

“I can’t stress enough, C’s been through so much.

It really is no joke.

He’s the reigning king, oh what trouble fame brings.”

His stress is in thickening of his stroke.

Next comes little d for all to see

He’s reaching way up high.

A generous lender, reaching up with his ascender

He helps out because he’s a nice guy.

Big E and little e both come next,

There’s quite a difference in size.

Big’s stem is strong, arms are long.

While little keeps his eye on the prize.

Little f’s come to prove that he’s ready to move,

He’s equipped with a cross stroke.

Big F gives a wink, little could only blink,

And then stood up as tall as an oak.

Here comes little g, so round and curved,

His bottom is a loop.

He’s also got an ear to hear loud and clear,

For this reason g has all the scoop.

Big H has a presence not many possess,

He takes up lots of space,

From his bottom to his top, his cap height can’t be cropped.

His cross bar helps him to brace.

Little i may be small but she is mighty,

Don’t underestimate this one.

If you look on top, her party doesn’t stop.

Her tittle has all the fun.

Little j’s a big thinker who likes to tinker,

His descender helps him dive deep.

In his design he slips under baseline,

He stretches down in order to leap.

K comes out strong, showing off her leg,

She’s got a great one to stand on.

High kicks are her scene, she’s really a dream,

Her stroke’s greater than she planned on.

Little l’s got a lot and won’t soon be forgotten,

She ascends onto the stage.

With stem standing tall, there’s no way she’ll fall,

Oops! She’s going to be enraged.

Here comes M and his presence is felt,

but he really is quite square.

It’s a little complex, he’s got one vertex

And two apexes up in his hair.

Little n is ready for her parade debut,

She has come to play.

She looks over her shoulder, “Bring on the smoulder!”

Correction: she’s come to slay.

Oh me, oh my, O wants to say hi,

Please don’t count her out.

She’s lovely and round making an “oo-oo” sound.

Her counter’s inside, no doubt.

Little p descends onto the stage,

Carrying a bowl on her face.

From pasta to plants, this letter enchants.

Her own contains negative space.

Next comes big Q with her regal tail

That extends from her round shape.

It can cross right through or almost look like a shoe.

“I hope she remembered the tape.”

Arrrrrr says big R who looks like a pirate

Standing on one leg like a bloke.

Swash buckler’s pride, extending out from his side.

He shows off his decorative stroke.

S is all swerves, you can see his spine,

His curvature is quite sly.

If he stood up straight, he’d have a different fate…

He’s a better man than I.

Tiny t’s tenaciously tedious, but tender and tall,

He’ll need to pay a tariff.

He’s at the end of his stroke, it is no joke.

It’s terminal when it’s not a serif.

U likes to entertain, her energy never feigns,

She’s always thinking about others.

No matter which case, she’s got open counter space

For her sisters and her brothers.

V is victorious, vivacious and vexing,

No other letter quite comes close.

When seen from afar, she’s like A minus the bar.

V stands on her head, juxtaposed.

W resembles other forms,

And undercover agent of sorts.

He’s double the v, turns me into we.

A team player of every sport.

Little x marks the spot, hit the target, makes the shot.

X is a stroke times two.

Measured from the baseline, to the waistline.

X-height describes all lower cases, too.

Why should Y let out a sigh?

She’s got all the same parts.

Strokes and a tail, a vertex that scales.

This form’s got lots of smarts.

And last comes Zed (sometimes called Zee),

Showing off her famous hairline.

Thin strokes are stunning, never cunning.

But sometimes mistaken for a spine.

Each letter so different in their beautiful forms,

In various widths, weights and styles,

Each character shines through, beauty (and brains too!)

They all have reasons to smile.

Each flaunted their font in the letter parade,

They showcased their best perks.

From condensed to wide, they showed so much pride,

And all together they just werk.

“Exclamation point!” The parade didn’t disappoint.

Serif and Sans were elated.

Heavy and light, every character right.

It was worth how long they weighted.

Sans turned to Serif and kerned her in close,

“You’re the best friend there ever was!”

Away they sped, hitting the lead.

(Ensuring they upheld type laws.)

As for Serif and Sans, it wouldn’t be long

Before catching a glimpse of the alphabet.

They looked in the mirror and it became clearer...

These two forms, well, they’re typeset.

Now that the G rated version of the lesson is through, let’s move onto the… PG13 rated version (better than nothing, right?).

Here we go: the anatomy of type - the good, the bad and the naughty edition. Here’s my top 3 favourite terms for the parts of characters

3. Crotch - the space where the arms of a character meet the stem (such as in the letter v or the centre of a capital M); an acute crotch is less than 90 degrees while an obtuse crotch is greater than 90 degrees

2. Tittle - the ‘dot’ above the lowercase i and j

1. Diphthong - a glyph, or secondary compound character, comprised of two vowels in a single syllable (such as a and e together); in other words, these alphabetic symbols represent the pronunciation of a combined vowel; a diphthong is a subcategory of ligature, which is two or more intersecting letters fused into a single character; diphthongs are also called ‘tied characters’ or ‘quaints’

The next time you write something down, don’t forget to cross your t’s and tittle your i’s!


Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Music by Podington Bear: Golden Hour


Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash


Letter Parade - Diana Varma, 2020



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