Join Ina Saltz for an in-depth discussion in this video Anatomy: Parts and shapes of type, part of Foundations of Typography.
When I was a little girl first learning the alphabet, I remember daydreaming about the letters above the blackboard. The little A, the big A, the little B, the big B, I loved all the shapes of the letters. Each one seemed to have its own personality and story. In my imagination, the big B was someone struggling to carry two overflowing bags of groceries home from the store. The big I was a soldier standing at attention. The little S was a small child rolling in the grass, perhaps with a puppy.
We have known names of the letters since we were children, but the parts of those letters have names too. And the environment in which letters exist has its own descriptive language. This is useful knowledge for any design professional. It makes it easier to communicate about typefaces and their characteristics. It also helps to educate your eye about the differences between typefaces and to understand the underlying structure of a typeface. First, let's look at the little world where type lives in.
We say that type sits on a baseline. The next important term is based on the height of the lowercase X, that is called the X-height. Its Body width is the invisible boundary around the shape of the letter. The parts of the letters that rise above the X-height are called Ascenders. The parts that extend below the baseline are called Descenders. And together these are called Extenders. So the invisible boundaries of the Extenders are called the Ascender Line and the Descender Line.
The Cap height will vary based on the typeface. It might be the same as the Ascender Line or shorter. Now let's talk about letter parts. Remember, Serifs are the little feet or extensions that are the finishing strokes of the letterforms. Here are some other common names for the parts of letters. All the rounded letters have Bowls. Look at this B, the rounded part is called the Bowl. The tall vertical stroke is the Stem.
Strokes that extend from the stem are called Arms. We can see in an example on this E. A lot of the letters are like body parts. See how the Ear of the G sticks out like a real ear. Your Spine has a curve in it just like this S Spine. And just like your shoulder, the Shoulder on the M curves. The Leg extends to the baseline and at the base of the Leg is the Foot. Just like a cat's tail, the Tail of the Q often hangs below the baseline.
A Crossbar is a horizontal stroke in the middle of a letter like this one on the A. A Cross stroke crosses over a stem like this F. But on the E, we have what's called a Bar. Any enclosed space in a letter is called a Counterspace. On some letters, you'll see a Spur like a cowboy's spur on a boot. Over the J and the I, the dot in typographic terms is a Jot.
The end point of a letter is called the Terminal. And the Terminal of this F is also known as a Beak. The g has a nice Loop and a connecting stroke is called a Link. When two strokes come to a point like in this A, it's called an Apex. Here you can see the M has two Apexes. I also want to point out common names for the forms of the lowercase A and G. They can be single-story or double-story.
One more term relating to letter parts is Ligature. A Ligature is the connection between a specific pair of letters or in some instances, three letters. A ligature smoothes the connection to improve legibility. This might seem like a lot to learn, but it's useful to communicate using the same language as other design professionals. If you want to familiarize yourself with additional type terminology, you'll find resources in this course's exercise files. Most typed terminology makes commonsense.
The terms are pretty descriptive of how they appear. Did you notice how many of those terms are the names of parts of our bodies, which remind me how much like people, letters are, just as I daydreamed so long ago.
- What is typography?
- Differentiating type characteristics
- Using ornamental and decorative type
- Combining typefaces
- Using contrast and scale
- Kerning and kerning pairs
- Choosing the optimum line length
- Aligning and spacing characters, words, and paragraphs
- Understanding factors affecting legibility
- Working with three-dimensional type
- Putting type in motion