Basic Lettering Terms

When learning a new skill or craft, sometimes technical terms are thrown about, leaving you to wonder ‘What the heck does that mean?’ 

As a graphic designer and photographer, I used to be tripping over technical terms for one thing or another. Believe me, sometimes it’s hard to remember them all but that’s okay as long as you know the basics. For the rest? Let Google be your friend and over time you’ll realise that you’ve learnt more than you thought. So, let’s look at lettering. There are plenty of techy terms for those beautiful letters which you’ll go on to create!

Let’s start with the basics…

Basic Lettering Terms

CAP LINE

The invisible line which marks the top of uppercase letters.

CAP HEIGHT

The height of uppercase letters and is the distance from the cap line down to the baseline.

BASELINE

The invisible line on which lowercase letters sit on. However, some letters can ‘break the rules’ to dip below the baseline for a more creative and interesting style.

X-HEIGHT

The height of the main part of a lowercase letter. Think of the letter x. The x-height would be the distance from the baseline, where the letter sits, to the top of the x.

STROKE

The straight or curved lines which form letters.

STEM

The main vertical stroke of letter. 

ASCENDER

The part of a lowercase letter which appears above the x-height. Find them on letters like b, d and h.

DESCENDER

The part of a lowercase letter which appears below the baseline. Think of y or g.

LIGATURE

This is where two or more letters are combined to form just one letter shape. They tend to be used when certain letters don’t work well together.

COUNTER

The enclosed space which is formed within a letter. Closed counters appear in letters like o, e and d. Open counters appears in letters like c, h and u.

CROSS-STROKE

The horizontal line which goes across the main stroke of a letter, usually t and f. Sometimes, it may be confused with the term ‘crossbar’ which actually connects two different stokes of the same letter. Seen in A and H.

TERMINAL

The end of a stroke which doesn’t include a serif (a small line or stroke which is attached to the end of a larger stroke of a letter). ‘Ball terminals’ refer to a more circular shape which may appear on the end of letters such as a, c, f and r.

SHOULDER

The arching stroke of a letter. You’ll find them in letters like h, m and n.

SWASH

A flourish which is connected to the end of a letter to make it more decorative.

FLOURISH

An additional design element added to letter or used on its own to make lettering appear more decorative.

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