NEED HELP: Text texture descriptions/terminology

Norbert Florendo's picture

In one of the sessions during Thursday's "Type and Design Education Forum" at TypeCon, I will be sharing an exercise aimed at improving design students' awareness of and sensitivity to type color.

One of the many components that effect the 'color' of text blocks is texture.

Most of the terms used in describing text texture that I am aware of sound closer to the expressions used in classifying the varying sensations of wine tasting -- fruity, dirty, hearty, nutty, rustic, woody, etc.

Of the texture "expressions" I have used, here are a few of the key ones:
- Sparkle, Dazzle, Spikey, Flowing, Weak, Thin, Heavy, Staccato, Contrast, Even, Flat...

(Some of these expressions I learned from "old type composers" during my formative years.)

Questions --
Is anyone aware of a resource (like a Wine Terminology glossary) that ellaborates on actual type texture terminology/descriptions.

dezcom's picture

My wine experience is limited to bottles still in brown paper bags with screw-off caps but maybe there is a wino version of the book you seek :-)

Seriously though, smokey, woody, tannic, unfinished, and fruity are words I have heard regarding wine. I don't know of a book but maybe Google does?


Norbert Florendo's picture

Thanks, Chris,
same for me... If I don't gag on the wine it's OK by me.

> fruity, dirty, hearty, nutty, rustic, woody, etc. What I meant is the terms used in wine are "warm/fuzzy - cold/prickly" terms, much as in type we use "spikey, sparkle" kind of expressions for texture.

I'm looking for a list of commonly used "type texture" descriptions.

William Berkson's picture

Dark and light are obvious ones referring to texture. 'Dance' is a useful one I have seen people use on typophile, and is particularly relevant to italics. There is also the 'picket fence' effect, which is generally to be avoided, though not in some display types.

Here is Tracy on ascender height: "For my own taste, if x to h is a proportion of about six to ten a face will look refined and be pleasant to read. If the x-height is much less than that the face may be stylish but will be unsuitable for a long text. A larger x-height conduces to dullness."

Very well said, I think.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Dwiggins had several different words which he used. I'll go search for these.

This is very interesting and useful. Can't wait for the Education forum. :^)

Norbert Florendo's picture

So, William, there seems to be few if any "globally accepted" or used and recognized terms describing texture of type blocks.
Most seem to be based on generalized expression of visual/physical experiences:

-- it dazzles the eye.
-- it's spikey.
-- it's dull in appearance.
-- it feels too harsh and rough
-- it's uneven and lacks flow.

fontplayer's picture

I have seen some grunge fonts that could be called FUBAR (screwed up beyond all recognition)
; )

Norbert Florendo's picture

Tiffany --
that would be great having Dwiggins' descriptions.
I don't need these immediately, so don't disrupt your schedule or workflow.

After TypeCon, I will expand the Color entry on Typowiki with whatever we find for generally accepted terms.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Sounds good, Norbert. I will get them for you soon.

jupiterboy's picture

I think the wine terms might be like the faces (a varietal grape equivalent to a class of type), and the setting and color of the type might be more like how a wine is paired with food—the whole meal.

So a heavy face tightly leaded with narrow margins might be highly concentrated, like a Bordeaux with a ribeye, basalmic vinegar on strawberries, and a sweet potato salad with scallions and cranberries.

A Didot with airy leading and big margins might be effervescent and steely, like a champaign or Friuli Pinot Grigio with goat cheese and melon.

With wine and food, you can complement or contrast. Maybe the same is true of type faces and color.

This is really kinda essoteric. Have a look at the wine wheel link. I wish I could hear this talk.

Here's a better link:

Alessandro Segalini's picture

Out of curiosity, check this chart, it’s in Italian, tho :

jupiterboy's picture

And if you think all wines taste the same, hit up Alessandro for a good year Salice Salentino and try it with some Pasta Puttanesca.

Norbert Florendo's picture

Obviously wine aficionados keep expanding descriptive terms for taste and aroma. The lack of expressions for the tactile/textural visual quality of text blocks is sort of amazing since all type designers and typographers agree that there are discernable differences between text faces.

And according to the Wine Wheel link, most anyone can tell the difference between a fruity wet dog and a nutty burnt skunk ;-)

jupiterboy's picture

I'll watch for a page of type that looks like a Bandaid smells. (Where's that eye-rolling emoticon?)

George Horton's picture

Is anyone aware of a resource (like a Wine Terminology glossary) that ellaborates on actual type texture terminology/descriptions.

This is the Mouth-feel Wheel developed for red wine by Gawel, Oberholster and Francis:

dezcom's picture

Maybe we need a numeric system like Frutiger's Univers where the first number is darkness of text, the second is relative x-height, and the third is proportion of leading!

Example: 961 might be Cooper Black set solid and 348 might be Bodoni set well leaded?


jupiterboy's picture

That sounds smart. A P-shop filter that would analyze the K pixels vs. the white could be nice as well. A simple black to white ration that included the margins.

dezcom's picture

I think the problem with a greyscale value is that it may not tell you enough about the variables. An 18% grey may be achievable by both a light weight set solid or a bold weight set loose.
With the numeric system above, you could add another digit for letterspacing if needed. An example might be Helvetica, with tight letterspacing might be a 1 and a very open letterspaced font might be a 9. This would give us a 4 digit number. You could also add letters or substitute them for a number. The letter could stand for degree of slant or any other important variable. I guess what I am getting at is that we first need to define each variable that we consider important and then give it a value scale. I think esoteric descriptive words can be very vague. It seems trying to emulate the Pantone matching system is a better idea to me than trying to emulate colors used in car paint--Zombie red, Caribbean Blue, Bahama Yellow say less than PMS396.


Norbert Florendo's picture

While categorizing or developing a greyscale value system for text blocks might be useful (and in fact the more common awareness of what affects type color), my focus on this topic thread is about expressions for texture and not density or value of text blocks.

An example of what I mean would be this --
(the LAST place one should evaluate type color is on screen, so I've used exaggerated examples here.)

The characteristic sharp wedged serifs of Benguiat Condensed are still prominent enough at text sizes of 8--12 points to create a "Spikey" look. It is the intrinsic nature of the face, and can either be emphasized or diminished by adjusting spacing/leading.

In Basilia Regular, the rounds are slighly narrow yet the counters feel open. The straight-to-round and round-to-round character combos unless given adequate space will tend to darken quickly but in contrast the counters create open holes creating a block of text that Dazzles (a term that may not really exist, but expressed to me by several "type directors" of yore). To decrease the dazzle you need to open letter spacing.

There are many characteristics in blocks of text that you may or may not want presented. The very reason why one text face may work "better" than another for the intent of the printed piece is based on these subtle and intrinsic apects of a given typeface. As you can see, this has less to do about the lightness or heaviness of a text block, but more about the texture or flavor one might say.

dezcom's picture

Whoops, sorry I completely missed the boat on that Norbert.


Norbert Florendo's picture

That's A-Ok, Chris.
In fact, the type exercise I'll be sharing at Type Ed session is for students to evaluate tonal value of copy blocks... in other words, how light or dark one block of copy compares to another.

The first step in "seeing" type color is understanding that text is basically ink on paper. Type style, size, density and massing of glyphs within a given area equals the ink coverage... the more ink coverage the darker the tonal value.

Whoever thinks the world is just black and white will have a hard time seeing type color.

ben_archer's picture

Hi Norbert

A fascinating thread; I dunno if this will help, and certainly it's of no use for Thursday, but I'm pretty sure that Frederic Goudy made mention of the contributing factors of text block colour in the Typologia.
Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style lists four entries on text block colour, and I think some of the writing about Matthew Carter's work also includes considerations about his types' resulting overall colour on the page. 'Fine Print on Type' also comes to mind, although I'm not sure which section.

For myself, I've been known to use weather-related terminology to describe text block colour – from 'light drizzle' through to 'blizzard' because these terms convey some accompanying notion of direction and degree of noise, possibly amounting to what we construe as texture in this instance. I'm also pretty sure that the old terminology relating to textures in mezzotinting and mechanical tint-laying might be relevant to this.

William Berkson's picture

You can identify density of grey separately from texture, but I don't think texture is an independent variable, so to speak, from density or 'tonal value' as you put it. From the point of view of type design, the weight of the strokes imposes demands on the designer that end up affecting texture.

Norbert Florendo's picture

> You can identify density of grey separately from texture, but I don’t think texture is an independent variable, so to speak, from density or ‘tonal value’ as you put it.

William, I agree that texture is not an independent variable affecting type color, but it does happen to be one of the lesser discussed or defined aspects. My perspective is from the "type user" or typographer's point of view and less from the type designer's point of reference.

Back during my Cg/Agfa days, I produced no less than six editions of their "big" type specimen books, each containing 5-6 lines of 10 pt. type over 11 points of leading at 20+ pica width. (Not the one or two liners you see nowadays.) By maintaining these settings consistently, the user could make comparitive judgements regarding what cut (version) of a typeface or family they preferred.

Getting an even and balanced color to each copy block was a prerequisite (as was for all printed material coming out during my watch). There is no doubt that even small adjustments to leading or overall tracking affect the lightness or darkness of a copy block.

Teaching students and novice designers about achieving a balanced grey tone or color in text blocks is not too difficult to explain or demonstrate. My main concern (and the reason for this topic thread) is how to teach students to see the more subtle aspects of block copy, that each typeface and each weight/style has an intrinsic feel, flavor, personality, texture, and/or flavor, so to speak.

It just seems that there are few, if any, standard terms or descriptions used to express these inherent type qualities. Hence my reference to "wine tasting" glossaries, since this is an example of how an industry or user base sought to define subtle but discernable aspects of aroma and taste.

It would be great if we were able to describe a newly released italic old style as gracefully dancing at 10 through 12 point settings... and have someone understand what it implies.

dezcom's picture

Yes!, that would be the font from the Softshoe Foundry called Fred&Ginger!


Norbert Florendo's picture

(Galliard text screenshot courtesy of

dezcom's picture

Yup, that's the one :-)


dgc's picture

Reading the range of descriptors here and realizing the apparent lack of written history on the subject, or consensus for that matter, speaks to the loss of apprenticeship in typography education. I'm not lamenting the loss, in fact I value the call to invent. I'm just observing further evidence of the dissolution of some official "Order of Typographiliacs." :•)

I frequently use terms like "chewy" or "soft" and other metaphors referencing how something feels in the mouth. How does it work on the tongue, how do teeth negotiate the text? I encourage my sophomore students to add these words to our type wiki and try to define them. The exercise reveals much about trying to define "taste."

Also I appreciate what Norbert is attempting here, to categorize or stabalize a "standard" for how we talk about such things. The work progresses through discussion and agreement (or fraternal enforcement). Where it gets tricky is assigning value (worth) of one or the other. The standards would need to be specific to particular uses: a set for reading online, one for newspapers, one for shampoo labels, etc.

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