Anatomy of Type

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What is Anatomy of Type?

The anatomy of type describes the visual elements that make up the letterforms within a typeface. Each letterform is made up of individual components (e.g., spine, stem, stroke). Type designers create typefaces using components — crucial parts that contribute to the overall appearance and legibility of a typeface. 

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“Typography is an art. Good typography is art.”

— Paul Rand, Art director and graphic designer whose logos include IBM

Learn more about what type is and what it means to design.

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Copyright holder:
Mia Cinelli

Mackinac 1895, Bags to Riches, The Landscape of Love, What's Past is Prologue, Pandemic Parade Banners

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The Finer Points of Type

Your text plays a vital role in carrying the right message to your users. Not only are the words you choose important; the typographic choices you make such as font style and how you lay out your text onscreen are equally vital, too. So, it’s important to have an understanding of what goes into the type that you select. Be it for a website headline, a call-to-action button or a host of other functions, when you break type down to the anatomical level, you’ll have the building blocks to create a more legible and readable experience for your users. These are the terms to have in your “type dictionary” so you better understand how type is created and how to use it effectively in your work:

  • Aperture: The partially enclosed space of a letterform.

  • Ascender: An upward vertical stroke that extends beyond the x-height.

  • Baseline: The invisible line on which all letters rest.

  • Bowl: The generally round or elliptical forms which are the basic body shape of letters.

  • Cap height: The distance from the baseline to the top of the capital letter.

  • Counter: The white space enclosed by a letterform.

  • Cross bar: The horizontal stroke in letters.

  • Descender: A downward vertical stroke that extends beyond the baseline.

  • Dot: Also known as a tittle, is a small diacritic on a lowercase i or j.

  • Eye: The closed counter of a lowercase e.

  • Finial: A tapered or curved end on a letterform.

  • Ligature: Two or more letters tied into a single character.

  • Lowercase: A smaller form of letters in a typeface.

  • Shoulder: A curved stroke originating from a stem.

  • Spine: The main curved stroke of a lowercase or capital letter.

  • Stem: A main stroke that is more or less straight, not part of a bowl.

  • Serif: A stroke added to the beginning or end of one of the main strokes of a letter.

  • Small Capital: Short capital letters designed to blend with lowercase text.

  • Stroke: A straight or curved line that creates the principal part of a letter.

  • Terminal: A circular form at the end of the arm, leg or brow in letters.

  • Uppercase: A typecase containing capital letters.

  • x-height: The distance between the baseline and the height of the lowercase letter ‘x’.

  • Weight: The thickness of a font’s stroke.

Illustration depicting the anatomy of type

© Daniel Skrok and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Design Tips for Type

Here are some helpful points to consider with the finer points of type:

  • Kerning – This is the adjustment of space between two individual letters. An example of bad kerning is when you use a font that has the letters so close together that (e.g.) what you typed as “kerning” shows up as “keming” (the letters get mashed together). It’s better to devote time to kerning with larger text and headlines (as opposed to smaller text and body copy). Also, if you kern one headline, be consistent and kern the others.

  • Tracking – This is the adjustment of space between a whole group of letters (rather than each one, as in kerning). You can fine-tune tracking by compacting or expanding this space to optimize your text.

  • Leading – This is the adjustment of vertical space between lines of text. While the default is typically fine, you can always fine-tune leading to make text extra-comfortable to read for your users.

  • Legibility – This refers to how easy it is to distinguish one letter from another in a particular typeface. This is the most fundamental consideration because you’ll know at a glance how legible your text is.

  • Readability – This refers to how comfortably users can read your text. Although they may be able to make out each letter, a poor choice of (e.g.) small caps use and font can slow users down or turn them off completely from proceeding with your design or product.

Here is a helpful list of common mistakes to avoid when designing with type.

© Daniel Skrok and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Overall, remember that the best designs are ones where users don’t stop to think about what you’re trying to show them. That’s why your typography not only has to complement the well-thought-out wording of your messages as well as the other design elements such as your images. Text needs to present well at both the micro and macro levels, too, hence why typographic knowledge is vital to design.

Learn More about the Anatomy of Type

Take our Visual Design course.

Smashing Magazine’s piece here gives some insightful typographical advice.

This UX Collective piece offers helpful insights and fine points about presenting type to users.

Questions related to Anatomy of Type

What is the baseline in type anatomy?

The baseline in type anatomy is the invisible line upon which letters sit. It serves as the reference point for most of the characters within a typeface. Most letters rest on the baseline, ensuring a visual consistency when typeset. The descenders in letters like lowercase ‘g’ and ‘y’ are so-called because they drop below the baseline. Baselines align text to create a uniform appearance in a body of text. They anchor the design of all the letters, enabling coherent text flow and readability. 

When typesetting, designers measure the height of x-height, ascenders, and descenders from the baseline to create balanced and harmonious typography. Watch this video for a simple example of Gestalt Principles in typography.

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Carefully selecting and arranging type elements is important to convey the intended message and emotion of the text.

What is the tail in type anatomy?

In type anatomy, the tail is the descending, often decorative stroke on certain letterforms. They are decorative flourishes, as seen in the capital letter ‘Q.’ Note that tails are related to descenders but are not the same thing. Descenders are the parts of lowercase letters that drop below the baseline. Descenders are normally used in the letters  ‘g,’ ‘j,’ 'p,’ ‘q,’ and ‘y’.

Tails vary significantly in design, length, and style across different typefaces, contributing to their unique character andaesthetic. Tails can be long and elaborate or short and straightforward, depending on the typeface’s design intention.

What are the four major font types?

The four major types of fonts are

  1. Serif Fonts: Traditional and legible with small lines at ends (e.g., Times New Roman).

  2. Sans-serif Fonts: Modern, clean, without small lines (e.g., Arial).

  3. Script Fonts: Mimic handwriting, fluid, and cursive (e.g., Brush Script).

  4. Display Fonts: Highly stylized for headings, not for body text readability.

As you read more about why web fonts are critical to the online user experience, you understand the importance of choosing the right font for your website’s readability and overall aesthetic. Additionally, this video explains the importance of limiting your typography choices.

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What is a terminal in type?

A terminal-in-type design is the end of a stroke that does not include a serif. Terminals may take straight or curved forms and vary significantly in shape. It may influence the typeface’s overall feel. You can find them in letters with curved strokes, like ‘f’ or ‘c.’ They have a defining characteristic in serif and sans-serif typefaces. Terminals add a stylistic touch and contribute to the readability of a font by guiding the reader’s eye along the letterforms.

What are the numbers in type anatomy?

In type anatomy, numbers, often referred to as numerals, have distinct qualities. They come in two main styles: lining and old style. Lining numerals align with the uppercase letters’ cap height and baseline, making them uniform with the rest of the type. 

Old-style numerals come in different heights. Some go above the x-height, others drop below the baseline, like uppercase and lowercase letters. In typography, numerals have special terms like ascender, descender, and x-height. These terms define their shape and readability in a typeface and correspond to similar features in letters.

What are the holes in letters called?

“Counters” name the holes in letters, referring to the open spaces within them. These spaces include the fully enclosed areas inside letters like ‘o’ and ‘b,’ and the partially open spaces in letters like ‘c’ and ‘e.’ Counters critically influence type design by affecting a typeface’s legibility and overall look. The counters’ size and shape are pivotal in shaping perceptions of a typeface as open and airy or dense and solid. They are essential elements in typography that significantly enhance a font’s readability, especially in small or extensive texts.

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What is a curving stroke of S called in typography?

In typography, the “spine” describes the curving stroke of an “S.” This spine gives the “S” its distinctive sinuous shape and stands as the central curve defining its form. The spine’s elegance or strength adds to the typeface’s overall style and energy. Designers meticulously craft a well-designed spine to balance the “S” with the alphabet’s other characters, ensuring aesthetic appeal and readability. This feature is crucial for the dynamism and harmony of the typeface. Watch the informative video to enhance your typography skills and delve deeper into the differences between fonts and typefaces.

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Copyright holder:
Mia Cinelli

Mackinac 1895, Bags to Riches, The Landscape of Love, What's Past is Prologue, Pandemic Parade Banners

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What is a spur in a typeface?

A spur in a typeface acts as a slight projection or pointed part that juts out from the primary stroke of a letter. Letters such as ‘G’ and ‘a’ often feature spurs, providing a unique flair and assisting in character recognition. In serif typefaces, spurs stand out, adding to the font’s style and personality. While less prominent in sans-serif typefaces, they still offer letters a distinct appearance. The design and inclusion of a spur can influence a typeface’s readability and aesthetics, making it particularly important in display fonts where you focus on details. 

What is an arm in a typeface?

In typography, an arm is a horizontal or upward-sloping stroke not connected at one end. This sets it apart from a crossbar, which connects two sides of a letter. You can find arms in letters like the uppercase’ E,’ ‘F,’ and the lowercase’ t.’ The arm’s design—its thickness, length, and curvature—adds character and visual interest, influencing a typeface’s style and readability. It plays a vital role in the balance and legibility of the letterform, making it an essential element in type design.

The UX Designer’s Guide to Typography explains different typography terms, classifications, and styles in detail.  

Where to learn more about the anatomy of type?

You can take the visual design course to understand more about the anatomy of type. This course offers insights into the anatomy of type, which is essential for anyone interested in design. It guides you in selecting typefaces and effectively using them in communication. Leading experts teach this course and provide high-quality, industry-relevant knowledge. You’ll gain practical skills and create a portfolio case study, enhancing your understanding and showcasing your expertise in typography. This course is a valuable resource for grasping the complexities and nuances of type anatomy.

Literature on Anatomy of Type

Here’s the entire UX literature on Anatomy of Type by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Anatomy of Type

Take a deep dive into Anatomy of Type with our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide .

In this course, you will gain a holistic understanding of visual design and increase your knowledge of visual principles, color theory, typography, grid systems and history. You’ll also learn why visual design is so important, how history influences the present, and practical applications to improve your own work. These insights will help you to achieve the best possible user experience.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn the difference between visual design elements and visual design principles. You’ll also learn how to effectively use visual design elements and principles by deconstructing several well-known designs. 

In the second lesson, you’ll learn about the science and importance of color. You’ll gain a better understanding of color modes, color schemes and color systems. You’ll also learn how to confidently use color by understanding its cultural symbolism and context of use. 

In the third lesson, you’ll learn best practices for designing with type and how to effectively use type for communication. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the anatomy of type, type classifications, type styles and typographic terms. You’ll also learn practical tips for selecting a typeface, when to mix typefaces and how to talk type with fellow designers. 

In the final lesson, you’ll learn about grid systems and their importance in providing structure within design. You’ll also learn about the types of grid systems and how to effectively use grids to improve your work.

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design Emeritus at RIT R. Roger Remington, author of “American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960”; Co-founder of The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and leading color consultant Joann Eckstut, co-authors of “What Is Color?” and “The Secret Language of Color”; Award-winning designer and educator Mia Cinelli, TEDx speaker of “The Power of Typography”; Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA Ellen Lupton, author of “Thinking with Type”; Chair of the Graphic + Interactive communication department at the Ringling School of Art and Design Kimberly Elam, author of "Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type.”

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can go right out and use what you learn in your everyday practice.

In the “Build Your Portfolio Project: Redesign,” you’ll find a series of fun exercises that build upon one another and cover the visual design topics discussed. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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