The terms “Typeface” and “font” are often treated as synonymous. However, there is a difference, non-designers!
To properly explain the difference between these two terms we must go all the way back to the fifteenth century, when printers laboriously hand-set type in frames with metal letters. A font was a single point size of a complete set of characters used to set text, for example Garamond Bold, 16 points. A typeface on the other hand was the complete set, describing the overall look of the characters contained within the font. It helps to think of a typeface as the creative work or design that can be used interchangeably with the term font family.
With the rise of desktop publishing and the introduction of digital computer files these terms became even more muddled. Fonts became a digital file containing various letterforms rather than the thousands of tiny blocks that previously defined moveable type. When you open up Microsoft Word or go to perfect your email signature, you’re asked to choose a font, not a typeface. This makes sense if you consider most of the time you’re working with a specific size and weight. In reality though, you’re choosing from a library containing various typefaces or font families.
According to Adobe’s type glossary: “A font is one weight, width, and style of a typeface. Before scalable type, there was little distinction between the terms font, face, and family. Font and face still tend to be used interchangeably, although the term face is usually more correct. A typeface is the letters, numbers, and symbols that make up a design of type. A typeface is often part of a type family of coordinated designs. The individual typefaces are named after the family and are also specified with a designation, such as italic, bold or condensed.”
Confused by the terms still? That’s probably because it’s confusing! Nick Sherman used an interesting analogy in a comment on Typographica’s Our Favorite Typefaces of 2007:
“The way I relate the difference between typeface and font to my students is by comparing them to songs and MP3s, or songs and CDs…”
With the MP3 or CD your focus is more on the product, the item or package that can be purchased, downloaded or stored in a box, this is the same as if you were talking about a font. On the other hand, the song or the creative work is the typeface, where your focus is on the end result or appearance. The font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.