Typography: Anatomy of a Letterform

Understanding the fundamental principles and concepts of typography is the first step to being a successful typographer. The most basic component of typography is the letter, and each letter of the alphabet is distinguished by its unique shape, or letterform.

Primarily the design classes which I took in college were based on anatomy and terminology of type. It’s not difficult to recognize serifs, descenders, ascenders but simultaneously it’s true that for one class one has to learn nearly 100 definitions and terms. Undoubtedly it’s necessary to possess some basic knowledge of the terminologies before we step into the arena of type. It can be puzzling if we discuss about type using informal terms like thingies, slants and squiggles.

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1. Baseline

Majority of the characters sit on this imaginary horizontal line.

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2. Cap height
The capline or cap height is another imaginary line wherein the heights of all the capital letters are marked in a typeface. However one has to keep in mind that the cap height is below the maximum height of the typeface.

3. Crossbar
Crossbar is a stroke that connects 2 lines in capital letterforms of “A” and “H”. Again a cross stroke implies a horizontal stroke that does not connect two lines for example the lower case of “f” or “t”.

4. Serif

It is the name assigned to the finishing strokes at the tops and bottoms of some typefaces. There is a lot to discuss about serifs when we would learn about typeface distinctions.

5. Mean line
The mean line better known as midline is another imaginary horizontal line that marks the top edges of the lower case letters. You go wrong if you go by the literal definition of the term “mean line” because it actually doesn’t imply the central line between the base line and the cap height.

6. Bowl
It is nothing but the rounded curve that covers the negative space in a letter form. Consider for example, it can be easily viewed in the following letters “I”, “e”, “D”, “o” and “g”.

7. Descender

Descender happens to be the bottom part of the lowercase letter (like “g”, “j”, “p”, “q”, “y” etc) that usually goes below the baseline of a typeface. Some other features that particularly extend below this baseline comprise of the old style numerals typefaces. These specific numerals were basically thought to mix appropriately with the lowercase roman numbers. If used within the body of the text they really look good and beautiful.

8. Counter
Counter refers to the negative space within a letter, particularly if you consider letters like “A”, “o” and “P” etc where the counter is fully enclosed. In letters like “G”, “u” and “c” the non enclosed negative space is reflected and they are also called counters.

9. Stem
The main vertical or diagonal stroke depicted in a letterform is known as Stem. They consists of the vertical parts of the letters like “I” and “H” and also simultaneously all the strokes in the letter “W”.

10. Tittle
Title is defined as the dot above the lowercase “j” and “i”.

11. Terminal
Terminal is the culmination point of the stroke or stem that has no serif.

12. Ascender
It is an extension that goes above the meanline and is generally found in some lowercase letters. These letters are, “b”, “d”, “f”, “h”, “k”, “l” and “t”.

13. Leg
Legs are the lower angled strokes which you can see in the letters “K”, “R” and “Q”. They are also known as tails.

14. Ligature
This addition of two characters to create another character is called ligature. They are commonly seen in serif faces .It is present to give space between certain characters and give the characters an aesthetic imprint.

15. X-height
The space that exists in the vertical direction for the lowercase “x” in any typeface is known as X-Height. It is the distance the baseline and mean line of the body of characters in lowercase form. The X-Height is very important in the context of font shapes as the fonts with greater X-heights are easier to read.

Typographic parts of a glyph: 1) x-height; 2) ascender line; 3) apex; 4) baseline; 5) ascender; 6) crossbar; 7) stem; 8) serif; 9) leg; 10) bowl; 11) counter; 12) collar; 13) loop; 14) ear; 15) tie; 16) horizontal bar; 17) arm; 18) vertical bar; 19) cap height; 20) descender line.

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3 Comments
  1. Jenn Staz Sep 3, 7:13 pm

    This is one of the most descriptive yet succinct posts on typo anatomy. Thanks for this!

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  2. damienfaivre.fr Sep 4, 11:25 pm

    very interesting ! I share the post :)

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  3. Lina Jul 14, 6:45 am

    Could you please explain why in the word “Typography” under paragraph 7. Descender the first “y” is taller than the second one? Is it possible that inside one typeface two letters have different size?

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