After receiving some good response on our Power of Type article, I’ve been wanting to follow up with a couple more posts on typography. Today we’re talking about font categories, and our next post will be about making font choices.
“Font categories...,” you say. Sound exciting?
I’ve gotta admit, I really love this stuff. The mind-numbing number of fonts available to designers today makes me feel like a kid in a candy store.
Every font has a voice—a mood—a story to tell. Part of the magic of typography is using the unique subtleties of a font to reinforce the meaning of the words themselves. Once you start seeing the differences in fonts, you’ll start to get a feel for their unique character.
There are several systems for classifying fonts, but no two are exactly the same. The categories I’m listing overlap neatly with just about any system. Some fonts may fall into more than one category; others may defy classification. Regardless, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive lecture on font categories. My goal is that you can walk away from this article with a broad overview and some “big mental buckets” to drop fonts into as you see them in the wild.
Some font category differences will be pretty obvious.
While some will be more subtle.
Enough introduction, let’s get started.
1. Archaic (or Historic) Fonts
Before the invention and widespread adoption of movable type printing, scribes painstakingly hand-lettered parchment or vellum and stone-cutters chiseled words into rock. Makes being a graphic designer by today’s standards seem pretty easy.
The fonts in this category bring with them a wonderment of human craftsmanship and the romance of ancient history.
In early writing the shape of the characters was directly related to the tools used to create them, be that a brush, a quill or a chisel. You’ll notice organic texture and natural variation between thick and thin strokes depending on the angle of the calligraphic tool.
This type of writing pre-dates the English language, but we can still use these beautiful forms to our advantage.
Arguably, the most well-known archaic font is Trajan, with it’s impressive forms inspired by Trajan’s column and first-century Roman writing.
Here’s another example of a historic font in action. This is a clipping of a flyer we created to promote a patriotic concert. The font used here is Auquiline.
2. Serif Fonts
Most simply, serif fonts contains small details that project from the end of their strokes.
The exact origin of serifs is a bit of a mystery, but there is a general consensus that scribes copied the letters of stone carvers. Serifs could have been chisel marks that carvers used to “clean up” the ends of their strokes. Another possibility is that letters were first painted onto the stone and stone cutters simply followed the natural flair made by the brush at the end of the stroke.
Traditionally serif fonts have been considered easy to read and are still very commonly used for book print.
They can also be grouped into several sub categories:
Oldsytle Serif (or Humanist)
With the coming of movable type to Europe in the 1400’s, printing moved from hand-written copies to impressions of letters that were cut into wood or metal. Oldstyle serif fonts resemble the typefaces of the Renaissance. They have a strong visual connection to the movement of the human hand (hence the name humanist). The serifs also smoothly taper into the strokes.
Transitional serifs originated in the 1700’s most notably in the work of the Englishman John Baskerville. They have more thick to thin contrast in their strokes, appear less handmade, and have sharper serifs than their oldstyle parents.
Modern serifs take the thick and thin contrast to an extreme. They radically depart from the organic, hand-made shapes of oldstyle faces. Their rounded shapes, and sharp un-bracketed serifs give them a rational, geometric feel.
3. Slab Serif (or Egyptian) Fonts
In contrast to the serif fonts mentioned earlier, Slab Serif fonts have heavy, thick projections of about the same thickness as their stems. These fonts first began to appear in the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Serif fonts grew to be bigger, bolder, and fatter to meet the advertising industry’s ever-growing need for new display faces.
Slab Serif fonts became known as “Egyptian” because of the popular fascination with Egyptian artifacts at the time.
Sans-serif fonts are also a product of the display types of the industrial revolution.
As the name suggests, they have no projections from their strokes. (The French word “sans” means “without.” Hence sans-serif = without serifs.)
However, like their serif counterparts they come in a variety of styles ranging from the humanist, organic forms to the modern, geometric forms, and some in between.
5. Script Fonts
Script fonts provide a welcome break from the mechanical and electronic letterforms we so regularly consume and produce. Their whimsical calligraphic shapes showcase the skill of hand-lettering, and can range from beautifully formal to down-right comical.
6. Graphic Fonts
Much like the industrial revolution, the technological revolution of our day has created a demand for unique decorative fonts. Font designers and casual enthusiasts alike have acess to tools to create fonts quickly and efficiently.
The result has been an explosion of fonts that experiment with shape and texture in an unprecedented way. Inspired by handwriting, vintage signs, space-age rockets, or just about anything else—they are difficult to categorize succinctly.
Wow, that’s a lot of fonts!
There’s certainly a lot more that could said, but I hope this has given you a bird’s eye view of the font landscape.
So with thousands of fonts available for every mood, taste, and budget, how do you know what’s the best one for your design project? We’ll talk about that in our next article, Making Font Choices.