The Typography Terms Every Beginner Should Know In The World of Lettering

 
 

The world of lettering has an incredible array of specialized terms that get thrown around, and at times you might find yourself lost in this new language of letters.

But now, thanks to the illustrated translation guide for all terms hand-lettering that we’ve created for you below, you are sure to fit right in with the language of the lettering natives!

This guide will help you as you move through various lettering resources and start creating your own compositions.


Classifications of Type

First up, let’s talk about different “classifications of type” or defining characteristics of letters that place them into different categories. While these terms are traditionally used to describe typography and fonts, the same terms hold true when applying a certain class of type to your lettering pieces.


Serif

Serif refers to the “bar” that’s sometimes attached to the ends of strokes on letterforms. This can sometimes create a more traditional or more serious tone across a word.

 
 


Sans-Serif

“Sans Serif” means there are no bars attached to the letterforms. (An easy way to remember the difference is that “sans” means “without.”) This often creates a more modern and clean look across a word.

 
 


Script

Script refers to fluid style where the letters are typically connected (think like your third-grade “cursive” but where you're drawing/sculpting these connected letterforms!) This style is often used to add a feminine and fluid feeling to a lettering piece, or it can be used to add an unexpected and creative edge.

 
 

Lettering Terminology

The Positioning of Letters

Now that you’ve got some basic categories down, let’s talk about terms referring to a lettering composition and how letters interact with one another.

 

baseline

The baseline is the invisible line that the bottom of your letters sit on. Think back to your school days -- this is the blue line on your notebook paper meant to keep all your lines straight! In lettering, you’ll see artists adjust or make changes to the baseline to create whimsical or quirky effects with their lettering.

Cap Line

This is the imaginary line that marks the top most height of the capital, uppercase letters.

ASCENDER LINE

The ascender line marks the top most height of any lowercase letters with vertical extending forms. Sometimes the Ascender Line and Cap Line are one in the same, but sometimes they're different, like the f and h in the piece above. 

Descender line

The descender line refers to the bottom most boundary of your lowercase letters that may extend below the baseline, letters like y or g.

x-height

This refers to the distance between the baseline and the top of the main body of a lowercase letter. (Imagine a lowercase x sitting on your baseline -- the distance from the bottom of that letter to the top is your x-height.)

cap height

My guess is you’re probably getting the hang of this now! Yes -- the cap height is the distance from the baseline to the Ascender Line/Cap Line.

 

Leading

Leading is the term used to describe the describe the vertical spacing between letters and words that reside on multiple baselines. The farther the lines are vertically spaced apart, the greater the "leading." Also, the term line height is used when referring to the specific distance from baseline to baseline.

 

 

Kerning

Kerning is the term used to describe the horizontal spacing between two characters, like you see in the T and h.

 

Tracking

Tracking is similar to kerning in that it refers to the horizontal spacing between letters, but it is applied across multiple letters uniformly.

 

The Anatomy of Letters

STROKE

Refers to the lines that make up various letters. Strokes can be straight or curved.

TERMINAL

Refers to the end of a stroke. This is where you would place a serif on a letter. A "ball terminal" refers to the place where certain terminals take on a more round shape, most often seen on letters like r, c and a.

SPINE

Refers to the stroke in the middle of an s curve.

STEM

Refers to the main vertical straight stroke of a letter.

ASCENDER

Refers to the part of a letter that rises above the boundary of the x-height.

DESCENDER

Refers to the lower portion of some lowercase letters that extend below the baseline.

shoulder

Refers to the arching stroke of a letter is called a shoulder, seen in letters like n and m. 

cross-stroke

Refers to the horizontal bar that is used to cross a vertical stroke, as seen in the letter t. The term "crossbar" is sometimes used interchangeably though more often to specifically refer to a horizontal bar connecting two strokes in capital letters like H and A.

Counter (closed/open)

Refers to the areas of open space formed by letters. Closed counters are found where letters form a complete shape (like o, e, d, etc.) Open counters are found in letters that do not form a complete, closed shape (like c, h, u, etc.)

EMBELLISHMENT/FLOURISH

Refers to an additional design element that could be exaggerated on a letter or a standalone shape/stroke with a lettering piece to add visual interest. 

Swash

Refers to a flourish connected to a letterform, using with fluid and curved lines. 

Ligature

Refers to a combination of two letters being connected and combined to form one letter shape.


Specific Terms For Types of Hand Lettering

Now that you have the typography terms nailed down, there are a few final terms that might be helpful for you to know in the world of lettering, terms that specifically refer to styles of lettering.

 

Brush Lettering

Brush Lettering refers to a style of lettering that is specifically meant to look like it was created with… you guessed it… a brush!

This could be a brush pen (like the TomBow Dual Brush Pen* seen here), a water brush or even a paintbrush. This fluid style is usually characterized by a slight differentiation in the upstrokes and downstrokes, as well as a tapering off of each stroke at the ends.  

Don't be afraid to start with a brush tool to capture this look, but then clean up the edges and build out your letters as I've done here with a Sharpie. Remember, lettering is all about drawing letters and building on those letter forms. Don't feel too much pressure to make brush lettering look like calligraphy (unless you're into that look!)

 

Bounce Lettering

The defining characteristic of "bounce lettering" is an uneven baseline. By choosing to make each of your letters sit at a different height off your baseline, it gives your letterforms an overall playful style and you can more easily bend your letters around one another to fill the negative space. I love varying up my baseline so most of my natural style ends up having a slight "bounce" to it!

 
crayoligraphy lettering terms for beginners
Lettering-Terms-for-Beginners-Crayolograhpy.png

crayoligraphy/Crayligraphy

Did you know Crayola markerS* make great lettering tools? If you use them at an angle, you can actually get a variation in stroke size similar to that of a brush pen. I believe the term "Crayligraphy" was dubbed by artist Colin Tierney, but I've also seen quite a few people using the hashtag "Crayoligraphy" as well. These terms refer to stylistic lettering specifically using a Crayola marker. This is still one of my favorite tools to use so I definitely recommend giving it a shot!


That's it! You're officially fluent in lettering!

Even though I don't believe it's necessary to know the "official" terms in order to create great lettering, I always think it's helpful to be able to communicate effectively when you're learning a new skill. It might also help you search and seek out more lettering resources on search engines like Google, Pinterest and YouTube. 

Ready to put your lettering knowledge in action? Don't forget to check out the Better Lettering Course and get started with your own lettering practice today for just $20!