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Dissecting the Intricacies of Typography Anatomy (with Infographic)

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You’re a creative professional. You’ve been peering into a laptop all day, and while your eyes and mouse-fingers are fitter than ever, the rest of your body feels like a crumpled can of cola. So, you head to the local gym, shuffle over to the free-weights, and encounter a conversation between some muscle dudes:

MD1: “Sup, bro. What’re you working today?”

MD2: “Delts, traps, and tris. You?”

MD1: “Dang, bro. It’s leg day. Quads and glutes.”

MD2: “Go get it!”

To the uninitiated, this exchange might as well be uttered in an Elvish tongue, but for those with prior exposure to the world of bodybuilding, it’s understood that these brawny gentle-bros are discussing which parts of the physical anatomy they plan to sculpt.

In like fashion, designers have their own obscure nomenclature related to letter anatomy. Letter anatomy? Yes, the characters used to construct our written languages have anatomical features and classifications. In fact, letterform composition can be quite complex.

Still, some may wonder, “If letters have anatomy, is there any practical value that comes with knowing what all the little parts are called?”

There certainly is. Here are four examples that show how knowledge of letter anatomy is useful to professional designers:

1. Conversations with Clients

Most clients won’t have a clue what to call different letter parts. Instead, they’ll say things like, “That little arch connecting the ‘c’ and ‘t’ looks weird to me.” Because you’ve learned letter anatomy, you’ll know exactly what they’re referring to—Gadzook!

Type anatomy gadzook

Gadzooks come in a wide variety of styles, as evidenced by typefaces Geneva (left), Hoefler Text (middle), and Palatino (right).

2. Diagnosing Design Issues

Letterforms are responsible for all kinds of confounding design issues. Whether in logotypes, section headers, or navigation menus, sometimes letters just don’t look right. Knowing letter anatomy will allow you to quickly pinpoint the problem, understand why it exists, and find a solution. “That ‘e’ looks bad because the finial is too thick. Let’s add a bit more taper.”

3. Enhancing Legibility

Letter anatomy can actually hinder or improve legibility. For instance, fonts with ample counters (the negative space inside of letters like ‘p’ and ‘o’) and a tall x-height (the height of lowercase letters) are typically considered easier to read.

Typeface anatomy: parts of a letter affect legibility.

This example compares the legibility of Poplar Std Black (left) and Muli Regular (right). Thanks to large counters and ample x-height, Muli is much easier to read at a smaller size.

4. Letters are Everywhere

If you’re a designer, there’s no escape—letters dominate our physical and digital environments. With ample letter knowledge, you’ll have access to more solutions when attempting to solve a wide array of visual design problems.

Learning Lesser-Known Typography Anatomy

In actuality, there are a ton of letter anatomy terms, and unless you’re a type designer, you probably don’t need to learn them all. Some are obscure and rarely implemented in the letters we encounter on a regular basis (ball terminal, diacritics, gadzook, etc.), and others are almost universally recognized (x-height, ascender, descender, etc.).

With that in mind, we present a collection of commonly used—yet lesser known—letter parts that every designer should be aware of.

Infographic showing typography anatomy and the anatomy of a letter

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the Basics

What is the white space inside letters like O and P called in UI?

The white space (or negative space) inside letters like ‘o’ and ‘p’ is called a counter. Counters are an important part of typography anatomy because they affect legibility. In general, type styles with larger counters are easier to read, especially at small sizes.

About the author

Micah Bowers, United States
member since January 3, 2016
Micah uses brand design and illustration to tell stories on behalf of his clients. He believes that design must identify a need, stir a desire for change, and shed light on a path that is uniquely helpful, hopeful, and human. [click to continue...]
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What you describe is X height, not midline, a commonly repeated mistake. Midlne is 50% between baseline and cap height. Usually, x and mid are same but not *always*.
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About the author
Micah Bowers
Micah uses brand design and illustration to tell stories on behalf of his clients. He believes that design must identify a need, stir a desire for change, and shed light on a path that is uniquely helpful, hopeful, and human.