Font of a font, font of a font

Font of a font, font of a font
What is a typeface, what types of fonts exist and who designs them, from lead to pixelsCos’è un carattere tipografico, quali tipologie di font esistono e chi li disegna, dal piombo ai pixel


A typeface is a set of formally consistent characters. We should not only think of the letters of the alphabet, but also of punctuation marks and symbols, such as asterisks, parentheses, currency symbols and even the snail mail. They are, in fact, the constituent elements of printed text, regardless of the message, its purpose and the chosen medium.

Font or typeface?

Often "typeface" and "typographic font" are considered synonymous, but they are not. A font is in fact the digital version of a given typeface: its file, to be clear, that can be loaded on your computer and selected by any text editor or graphic designer to apply that particular typeface to a title or text.

Although we might think of it as a term of English origin (as with all computer terms), "font" actually derives from "fonte," a word from medieval French that originally meant something that has been melted." Its Latin root is in fact the same as that which generated our " fuse", and not by chance: the movable type printing press invented by Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century used metallic characters made by fusion.

Glyphs, weights, italics, bold...

Each font (we use this digital term only for convenience) consists of a family of typefaces, more or less extensive. In addition to its normal version (called Roman or Regular) there is always in fact also the italic variant (Italic), the compressed (Condensed) or expanded (Extended), as well as numerous variants in which what changes is the weight of the font, or its thickness, which can range from Extra Light (very thin) to Extra Bold (very thick). If, instead of focusing on the typeface (Garamond, Calibri, Bodoni, Helvetica...), we focus our attention on the single character (the letter A, for example), we discover that it has several glyphs, or variants: A, a, a, a….

Types of characters

With the terminology in order, let's get to the interesting part of the story: the types of characters that can be identified.

In graphic design schools, it is taught that typefaces are divided into two categories, "serif" and "sans serif", two terms (also French) that mean "with serif " and " sans serif ". To tell the truth, these are two macro-categories ("sticks" and "graced") that contain several other types of fonts (lapidary, bodonian, written, ornate, medieval, fantasy...), each of which can be ascribed hundreds if not thousands of fonts with very different personalities. The fact that there are so many is easy to explain if we think that they were born in different eras, with different stylistic sensibilities and different technological possibilities.

Who designs fonts?

For a long time the inventors of typefaces were typographers, publishers, manufacturers of printing machines or foundries and goldsmiths. Today there are figures specialized in font design, with a specific graphic preparation. There are many Italian names of international standing: alongside almost mythical figures (such as Luca Pacioli, Aldo Manuzio, Francesco Griffo, Panfilo Castaldi and Giambattista Bodoni), it is worth mentioning Aldo Novarese (1920-1995) for his creativity and prolificacy. To him we owe about 200 font families, about thirty of which were created for the Nebiolo Foundry in Turin, between 1880 and 1978 the only Italian foundry of European importance. Here, together with the lead alloy typefaces, the printing presses that used them were also produced.

Another name worth mentioning is that of Francesco Simoncini from Bologna, owner of a typographic workshop. After World War II, he started manufacturing matrixes for Linotype printing machines, which enjoyed international success. Simoncini continued to enrich (self-taught) his system with new fonts, proving to be a great innovator in the field of typeface design. Among the fonts he created, which passed under the eyes of millions of readers for over forty years and are still appreciated all over the world, are the Garamond Simoncini, used by Einaudi and which has become an iconic font of Italian publishing, and the Delia, designed for telephone directories.

An exhibition held in Bologna in 2017, curated by Elisa Rebellato and Antonio Cavedoni, was dedicated to him. The latter, Sassuolo-born, is the type designer who created for Apple the family of characters that goes by the name of San Francisco, intended for the Apple Watch launched in 2015, when the Cupertino giant (of which Cavedoni was then an employee) needed a font that was easily readable on the small, high-resolution screens worn on the wrist.

This brings our attention back to the functions of a font. In addition to readability, which is conditioned by the medium and the context (think of how different it is to read on paper or on a screen, a billboard rather than a bugiardino), it should be taken into account stylistic aspects related to aesthetic sensitivity and cultural influences of each era.