There are countless typefaces out in the world. Some are elegant and ornate, others are streamlined and utilitarian. Most typefaces fall into the serif and sans serif groups (I’ll go over other styles like script and black letter some other time). Within these two groups, there are a handful of subcategories. In this entry, I’ll go over the different groups, and explain what elements define different type families.
Serif (also known as Roman) fonts are identified by small marks, or feet, at the end of a letter or number’s stroke. Serifs date back to the Roman Empire, and were originally chiseled into stone.
- Sans Serifs
Sans Serifs (or Gothic) are typefaces that, simply put, do not have serifs. Sans serif letterforms date back to ancient times, but weren't commonly used until the 19th century. Sans serifs have traditionally been used primarily for display and headlines. Over the last few decades, however, they have been used more and more for body copy, especially in digital design. The most common sans serif classifications are Grotesque, Neo-grotesque, Humanist, and Geometric.
Within the serif family there are four main subgroups, Old Style, Transitional, Modern (or Didone), and Slab (or Egyptian). Old Style serifs came into prominence during the 15th century, after the invention of the printing press. They are inspired by the old calligraphic methods seen in pre-Gutenberg books. The characters in Old Style typefaces have very little contrast in stroke thickness. The actual serifs are also usually slightly curved. Old Style serifs are highly legible, and are excellent for setting body copy. Examples of Old Style serifs include Caslon, Garamond, Bembo, Sabon and Janson.
Transitional serifs were developed in the 18th century. They have slightly more variations in thickness than Old Style faces. Transitional serifs, which were first developed by the British typographer John Baskerville, have more consistent letter forms than Old Style typefaces. They are also very effective for setting body copy. Some Transitional serif examples are Baskerville, Century, Mrs Eaves, Times New Roman, and Georgia.
Modern serifs also came about in the 18th century. Unlike Old Style and Transitional, Modern serifs are not ideal for body copy, and work best as display or headline faces. They are identified by extreme variations between thick and thin lines. Vertical lines within the letterforms tend to be very thick, while horizontal lines are thin. The serifs are usually thin, straight lines. Sometimes, Modern serifs have rounded ends, called ball terminals. The two quintessential Modern typefaces are Bodoni and Didot.
Slab serifs, unlike Modern, have almost no variation in stroke weight. The serifs are generally straight across, and are a similar thickness to the rest of the letterform. They are very versatile and can work both as copy and display faces. Probably the most well known slab serif is Courier, which became the standard font in the typewriter industry after the 1950s. Other examples of Slab faces are Lublin Graph, Clarendon, Archer, and Rockwell.
The first sans serifs to be commercially popularized were Grotesque faces. Grotesque typefaces tend to be very uniform in their design. They are identified by a moderate stroke contrast and slightly squared curves. Distinct characters include the capital R and the lowercase G. The R usually has a straight leg, and the lowercase g has two stories. A few iconic examples are Akzidenz Grotesque and Franklin Gothic.
Neo-grotesque faces are an evolution of Grotesque. They look almost exactly like Grotesque faces, but the strokes tend to be a little less varied, the capital Rs have curved legs, and the lower case g has a single story. Helvetica, the most well known Neo-grotesque typeface, was popularized by the Swiss design movement of the 50s and 60s.
Humanist typefaces have a lot in common with serifs. They have a much larger variety in stroke thickness than Grotesque and Neo-grotesque faces. The letterforms are also much less uniform. Humanists are the most legible of all the sans serifs. Some classic examples of Humanist design are Gill Sans, Johnson, and Frutiger.
Geometric typefaces are based on simple geometric shapes, and the letter forms tend to be very minimal. The O, for example, is almost always a near perfect circle. Geometric typefaces are generally bad for body copy because they have almost zero variation in stroke thickness.