This is a question that has baffled the minds of designers for nearly as long as moveable lead type itself. If you Google search the question, you will come up with 100 answers and 100 more examples.
Explaining a typeface is easy enough. It is the design of the letters, symbols, punctuation, etc in a set. For example, you might look at all the weights and sizes of Bodoni and see how they all have high contrast between thicks and thins, they all have the same ratio of cap height to x-height, and so on. Therefore Bodoni is a typeface. It was designed by Giambattista Bodoni, an Itallan typographer, type-designer, and printer (1740-1830). By the way, if you’re ever in Parma, Italy be sure to stop by the The Bodoni Museum, opened in 1963 and named for the artisan and compositor. Also check out the gelato stand on the corner.
Now, back to fonts vs. typefaces. Describing a font was a very simple process. If we continue with the example of Bodoni it’s quite clear. When Giambattista took the design for his new typeface, punched it, created a mold, and poured blocks for each and every letter at a specific size, he created a font. This was the delivery method of Bodoni. When he created the next size of type he was creating a new font.
With the invention of computers and scalable type it became more difficult to separate the definitions. Now the same type size is easily and effortlessly adjusted and a new font is not required for each size of the typeface. The idea of the font still rings true though. It is the delivery method of the typeface. A century ago typemakers would send a set of metal letters at a specific size for the printer to use for a book, newspaper, handbill, etc. What he sent was the font. This practice carries over to today. If you send a file to the printer you may need to send the font. The font is the file containing all the code that becomes type on the page.
Imagine it this way. Your friend tells you about a song she heard on the radio. You’d like to hear it too, so you download an MP3 file and listen to the song on your computer. The actual song is the “typeface” created by the artist. A sound engineer then recorded the song, digitized it, and created an MP3 file for which can be downloaded for listening on a variety of devices.
The font is the unit that can be shared, transported, and saved. The typeface is the creation of the designer. It is looked at and chosen for its characteristics and distinguishing features. When someone says “I like that letter A in your logo. What is it?” They are asking what typeface it is. They like the character of it, the style, and the shape. If they said, “I like that font” they are expressing favor for the data that was used to carry the idea of the typeface creator to the computer of the designer.
If this all seems very contrived and insignificant it’s because in the end it probably is. When computers began listing typefaces under a drop-down tab called “fonts” they weren’t necessarily incorrect, but it did change the way people identified with typefaces. With changes in technology and with the passing of time words can change meaning to fit contemporary culture. For instance, take the word TV. When the television set began showing up in homes it was a box that sat in a living room and flickered black and white content. You could watch the news on your television, but you’d never say you were watching television. This would imply that you sat and watched the actual box hoping to see it move or do tricks. You didn’t watch the television; you watched the program flickering on the screen of the television. In today’s culture the idea of watching TV has changed completely.
You no longer even need a television to watch “TV.” It is the same with fonts and typefaces. Is there a correct usage of the word? Sure. As a designer should you know how to use each word in our trade correctly? Definitely. Should you feel it a professional obligation to inform each client that they are using these two terms incorrectly? No! If they ask, sure let them know. If they don’t ask, well then remember their name so in the afterlife you and Mr. Bodoni can explain it to them and set them straight…or italicized.