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Graphic Design: What Do Font Terms Mean?

Georgie is a certified book nerd and has been known to put down five novels a week. Her favorites are post-apocalyptic dramas.

For the record, the fonts used here are Fournier MT (block type) and Feathergraphy Decoration (script).

For the record, the fonts used here are Fournier MT (block type) and Feathergraphy Decoration (script).

Graphic design is a serious business, and one of the most important aspects of the industry is fonts. No one knows just exactly how many of them there are, and more are being added to the barrel every day.

A font, essentially, is the lettering that graphic designers use to put text on their images and videos. They come in all shapes and sizes, and there is likely one for every imaginable use.

A good image paired with a great font gives your work an edge and helps you to better convey your message. A font that doesn't fit well with your photo or design can make the work fall flat. Worse yet, a badly placed or incorrectly used font could be completely illegible.

Some fonts are free for personal use, some for commercial use, and some must be bought for either personal or commercial use. For some companies who make fonts, this can be pretty big business—especially if the work they do is quality. Then it will likely become very popular.

Some fonts are so over-used, however, that just the sight of them makes some people grimace—Comic Sans, Papyrus, and Scriptina, anyone?

With so many thousands of fonts, how do you know which to chose for your project or how to use it? I've compiled a short list, mostly for beginners, to help you figure out how to choose and use fonts for your next graphic design project.

Where to Find Fonts

If you are hunting for free fonts for digital or print use, try these sites:

  • DaFont: Pretty much the definitive source for free fonts!
  • FontSquirrel: Original and interesting fonts that you don't often find at the big font sites. This collection is free for commercial use as well.
  • 1001 Fonts: Though their site name suggests there are only 1001 fonts here, there are actually many more. Their front page gives a list of what's new in case you are looking for something fresh.
  • Google Fonts: There is a great selection of free, open-source fonts here.

Two things you should be careful of if you are downloading fonts:

  • If you are going to be using a font on an image that will be making you money (i.e., websites you are building for commercial purposes, book covers or album covers, or just plain old graphics you are selling), some fonts are not able to be used for this purpose. You will have to buy a license from the creator of the font or the font foundry in order to use the font for your business.
  • If you are downloading fonts from the internet, only download .ttf, .otf, .zip or .rar files. Some sites have their visitors download .exe files that can contain viruses.

Different Types of Font Files

When it comes to fonts, there are essentially three different file types that you will encounter. Most can be used with any type of word processing or graphic design software. Though they are very different, especially in the mechanics of making them, these three font types can often be used for any lettering project.

  • True Type Fonts: These guys are, by far, the most widely used font type. You can spot them by their extension—.ttf. For example, my favorite font is called Decker, and it is a True Type Font, so its file name is Decker.ttf. True Type fonts are basically a combined font—this means that everything you need to create digital and print work is included in the original file. The fonts that are included on your computer when you buy it are usually True Type. This is true of both MAC and PC computers.
  • Open Type Fonts: These fonts are actually trademarked by Microsoft, and they are primarily used for graphics and web design. The file type for Open Type Fonts is .otf. One of my favorite of these types of fonts is called HoboSTD (not a disease, I promise!), so its file name is HoboSTD.otf.
  • PostScript Fonts: Rarely seen in today's digital graphic design elements, this font is technically a split font. There is one typeface for printing and another for digital use. They were created by Adobe, the company that makes Photoshop and Acrobat Reader, and were originally designed for use with Adobe's programming language called PostScript that is fairly difficult for the average computer user to understand. It is rare to come across any of these fonts in regular font searches. YOu may see this one with the extensions of .pfb, .pfm, or .cff, and your computer will likely have no idea what to do with them!
Some of the different types of fonts.

Some of the different types of fonts.

Basic Font Terminology

There are so many things to think about when it comes to using fonts as a design element. For instance, if you want big, blocky letters but don't know what specific type of font you are looking for, you could waste a lot of time on a font hunt. This is the basic font terminology and how it applies to your work.

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  • Typeface: This is, essentially, the name of the font.
  • Font Family: Basically a collection of multiple font types within a specific typeface. For example, the font Trade Gothic LT is part of a font family. The other designs have essentially suffixes, like Bold, Condensed, and Bold Oblique. They are all the same font; however, they have different appearances.
  • Font Foundry: This is a company that makes fonts, my favorite being P22. Sometimes the font's creator or foundry will put their name or initials into their font names or file names.
  • Serif Fonts: You may see a font with a name that includes this word. This means that the lettering is somewhat embellished with a little bit of a curl on the bottom of the letters. They are somewhat easier to read than other fonts. Times New Roman is a good example of a serif font.
  • Sans Serif: This is the reverse of a serif font. The lettering does not have the little embellishment and often looks boxy. One of the most popular sans serif fonts is called Arial.
  • Script Fonts: These fonts are pretty much what they say they are. They're cursive letters. There are subcategories that include calligraphy, brush (that look like brush strokes), and handwriting.
  • Gothic Fonts: These are the old-timey fonts that bring up images of Dracula and the Dark Ages. Some are highly stylized, and others are fairly plain.
  • Dingbats/Wingdings/Webdings: These are fonts that are pictures instead of letters. A lot of folks who scrapbook use these kinds of fonts because they can make very pretty images.

These are not nearly all of the types of fonts available. If you're looking to expand your font library, take a look around the internet at the different kinds of fonts and picture how you can use them in your work.

Note: Arial does not come with a shadow or outline style, I made these with filters in Photoshop for examples.

Note: Arial does not come with a shadow or outline style, I made these with filters in Photoshop for examples.

Bold, Italics, Black, Oblique—What?

Now you pretty much have a handle on the basics of a font, now is the time to understand what they look like in their different forms.

  • Bold: Bold is simply a thicker style for your font, and it looks like this.
  • Italics: Italics is slanted font, usually to the right, like this.
  • Bold Italics: Bold italics is a combination of, well, bold and italics.
  • Black: Black font style is like bold but even thicker. In many cases where a font is labeled as black of if a font family comes with a black style, the font will be very bold, sometimes with rounded edges. See the illustration at the right.
  • Oblique: Oblique fonts are italicized slightly differently than the regular italics fonts; however, they do not follow the same rules of creation. For the most part, they will still slant with the top part of the letter pointing to the right, but occasionally you will find one that slants left.
  • Shadow: This is a font that comes with its own "drop shadow," which makes the lettering stand out a bit more. Many font foundries do not make shadow fonts because most graphics-editing software (like Photoshop, Gimp, and Paint Shop Pro) come with drop shadow filters that are easy to apply.
  • Outline or Open: These fonts are pretty much what they say they are—they are simple outlines of letters.

Now that you have a basic grasp on the different kinds of fonts, get out there and make some art!

Cool Video About Identifying Different Fonts

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Georgie Lowery


Debra Allen from West By God on July 31, 2014:

Wow this is great. I knew of some of them, but you give much information for others out here in the computer world. Thanks for the links to those places to get fonts.

Georgie Lowery (author) from North Florida on July 30, 2013:


Thanks! Graphic design is one of the things I really enjoy and I like helping people with it!


Thank you!

Larry Wall:

I love true type fonts. I find them very versatile. I never knew they were that important!

Sherry Hewins:



Believe it or not, that font is Janda, not Fanda. I'm glad you called it that, though, made me realize it isn't as easy to read as I thought it was. My brain plays tricks on me when I know what it was supposed to say! That's an actual "J" though it sure does look like an "F!"

Thank you all for stopping by, I really appreciate it! :)

moonlake from America on July 30, 2013:

I love fonts I use to collect so many fonts on my computer I would get a message saying I had to many. Oh, oh I don't have Fanda Elegant I have to go get that. I also enjoy collecting wingdings and dingbats. Voted up.

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on July 30, 2013:

Nice overview of fonts basics.

Larry Wall on July 29, 2013:

As a old news reporter who started when Hot Type was being phased out, I watch the font industry develop. The introduction of True Type fonts revolutionized the industry. The only problem we have today are people who have no eye for design and will try to use 20 different fonts on one page--distracting, not appealling.

Excellent Hub. Voted up and useful.

Bercton from United Kingdom on July 29, 2013:

Very informative information!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on July 29, 2013:

Hi my friend great article on fonts was a very interesting read !

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