Simple questions: What is a font and what is a font family?
Have you ever wondered what fonts are? What makes them special in the world of computers or what makes them unique from one another? Why are there some people claiming that writing a sentence in italic means that you are using a different font from when you write without using italics? Do you want to know more about fonts and where to find them in Windows or on the internet? In this guide, we try to answer all these questions and explain the different little things that, together, make a font and a font family. Let's get started:
What is a font?
A font is a set of characters, usually letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and other symbols. Fonts are characterized by their size, weight, and style. Fonts can be larger than others, or they can be bolder or more italic than others.
All these characteristics apply to the fonts we use today, except we now usually use and see fonts displayed on screens of all kinds. At the same time, we rely less and less on paper and similar materials. Fonts used on computers, in web browsers, in office applications or any other apps, are still defined by the same characteristics: size, weight, and style.
Let's take these three main characteristics one by one and see what makes them significant. Probably everybody has heard about the Arial font, so we use it as an example.
What is the font size?
Font size is usually defined in points which are often equivalent to pixels on computer displays. For instance, an 18 points Arial font means that the font you use is named Arial and that its characters (letters, numbers and other symbols) have a size, or height if you wish, of 18 points at most. A sentence written in 18 points Arial looks like this:
What is the font weight?
Fonts are also characterized by weight. The weight of a font refers to how thick the characters it contains are, or more precisely how thick the strokes of the characters are. For instance, a font can be regular, bold, light. A regular weight means that the characters of that font are standard. A font with a light weight means that its characters are thinner than its similar standard or regular font. Also, a bold font means that the characters are much thicker than the regular form of that font.
There are also more weights a font can have, like lighter, semi-bold, or bolder. Sometimes, the font weight can be specified in numbers, like for instance, a font can be 100 light or 600 bold. However, the regular computer user is going to deal with regular, standard font weights, and with bold weight fonts. Below, you can see an example of an Arial bold font, alongside the regular 18 points Arial. It's clear which is the bold version.
What is a font style?
Finally, the third essential characteristic of a font is its style. Fonts can be italic (or oblique), condensed (or narrow), compressed, extended (or expanded), and so on. For instance, the characters from an italic font have a distinct slope. The characters from a condensed or narrow font have a narrower spacing than the standard spacing between them, while an extended or expanded font has wider spacings between its characters. Here's an example of fonts with different styles:
In addition to the three main aspects that define it (size, weight, and style), a font is also characterized by other things like the design, the method through which their characters are represented (through dots or by using vectors), or their orientation. For instance, the Arabic fonts are designed for right-to-left reading instead of left-to-right, like the fonts used for European languages.
What is a font family?
A font family is also referred to as a typeface, and it represents a collection of all the fonts that share the same similar characteristics in design. The fonts that are part of the same family can vary in size, weight, and style, but have the same essential design.
For instance, when people think about Arial, they think about the Arial font family, not about all the fonts it contains. For instance, the Arial font family contains a lot of different fonts like Arial Light, Arial Regular, Arial Italic, Arial Medium, Arial Bold, Arial Black, Arial Condensed, Arial Narrow, Arial Monospaced, Arial Rounded, Arial Cyrillic, Arial Greek, and others.
Although they all differ from each other, they all have the same design that makes them look similar. Letters, for instance, may have different weights or have a higher slope or inclination, but in the end, they all look similar.
Fonts as files on your computer
Fonts are stored as files on computers with Windows and other operating systems. That means that each of them has a name, an extension, size and so on. Just as executable files almost always have the ".exe" extension in Windows, fonts have a few specific commonly-used extensions. The most common extensions for fonts are ".ttf" and "otf."
".TTF" is an acronym for TrueType fonts, a font format created by Apple and licensed freely to Microsoft in the 1980s. Because of that, this format is now the most widely used on Windows computers. You can find more details about this type of fonts and a bit of history about it, here: TrueType.
"OTF" comes from OpenType, and it's a font format built on TTF or TrueType. OpenType is also a child of Microsoft, but this time it came to fruition with the help of Adobe instead of Apple. OpenType fonts are used on Windows computers, as well as on websites on the internet.
On Windows computers and devices, the fonts are stored, like everything else, in files. These font files are all found on your system partition - the one on which Windows is installed - in the Fonts folder. In other words, they're in "C:\Windows\Fonts."
If you want more details on how to work with fonts on a computer running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, read: How to work with fonts in Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. For Windows 10, read How to view, install, and remove fonts in Windows 10.
If you would like to find fonts on the internet and download them on your computer, read: 7 best locations where you can download safe free fonts.
Hard to read at low resolutions
Reading fonts at low resolutions was a problem with the first fonts used on computer screens. Instead of smooth lines, the fonts produced a ragged line that made reading texts difficult. TrueType fonts have introduced a significant improvement using a technology called hinting. Later on, anti-aliasing was added and finally subpixel rendering. Microsoft implemented the latter under the name ClearType. ClearType can be turned on or off in Windows depending on user preferences.
Subpixel rendering takes advantage of the technology used in LCD screens. For every pixel on the screen, there are three actual pixels on an LCD screen for each of the basic colors (red, green, blue). The color white is obtained by firing up all three pixels at maximum intensity. Subpixel rendering displays different information on each pixel of color to smooth out the edges.
Some people are bothered by this technology because the fonts appear to them colored instead of black. The effect is worsened if the background on the screen is not white. If you have this problem, you can turn off this feature in Windows.
A brief history of the font
Historically speaking, the word font, or fount, meant a set of different characters that were either carved from wood or shaped from molten metal in a mold. The first font probably appeared when the first printing technique was developed. That took place in East Asia, somewhere during 206 BC - 220 AD, when the Chinese people started to use woodblock printing on cloth and paper. By the 11th century, East Asia had already seen the invention of moveable wooden type, and by the 13th century, Korea had developed metal moving type. Chronologically, the next important step was the invention of mechanical moving type printing by Johannes Gutenberg in Europe, around 1450. It was the moment when Gutenberg hired a scribe to help him design and create the first Western World font. According to Wikipedia, it had only 202 characters, but it served to print the first books in Europe. Not long after that, Gutenberg created a second font with 300 characters, which he used to create the first printed Bible in the world. It's known as the Gutenberg Bible, or the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42. Regardless of the name it bears, it marks the start of the age of the printed book in Europe and generally in the Western World.
Many different types of fonts were developed after that, but the period for the rise of the fonts was during the 20th century when printing became an industry, and industrial printing machines became common. It was the period of the wide spread of printed books and newspapers, and it was thus the time for the birth of many different fonts.
Finally, starting from the last part of the 20th century, people shifted from reading on paper to reading on screens. Because of the rise of the internet, reading the news and finding written information, in general, has become increasingly popular on computers, tablets, smartphones and other similar devices. People not only started to pay a lot more attention to what fonts look like when displayed on screens, but more people than ever before have started to create fonts. Thus, today, it's probably almost impossible to know how many different fonts exist.
What fonts do you prefer?
We hope that, in this article, we managed to shed some light on what fonts and font families are. Let us know which fonts you prefer to use. If you have any questions on this subject, don't hesitate to ask in the comments below, and we'll do our best to answer them. Happy font hunting!