Monday, October 28, 2013

Digging deeper... into type.
(Or wherein I look at fonts right in their face)

In response to Friday's post "Some good examples of bad type..." (which was, itself, prompted by a response to Thursday's post "A look at some old-school fonts..."), Keith Davies asked for advice on a sans serif typeface that I would pair Heuristica. Unfortunately, I won't be directly addressing that question today (but will most likely get to it tomorrow). I realized that, to address the question effectively, I would have to make sure everybody was on a level playing field when it came to some type knowledge (which I would expect very few of you to know, unless you specifically have a background in design).

Before we dig in, I want to put serif and sans serif typefaces into some historical context. When the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, being a German, Gutenberg based his first typeface (that is, THE first typeface... EVER!) on the Gothic/Romanesque forms popular in Germany in use widely in woodcuts and manuscripts (including the fancy illuminated kind). As printing spread throughout Europe, and particularly into Italy (who were second as printers only to the Germans/Austrians), new typefaces were cast based on the old Roman forms. We're still talking right around 1500 here. It's not until the late 1700s the first sans serif font was cut, and it wasn't until the late 1800s that Roman-inspired typeforms really began to lose their serifs. So serifs pre-date sans serifs by 200-300 years.


Old Style

Old style typefaces (which date back to mid-1400s) are characterised by a diagonal stress (that is, the thinnest parts of the letters are at an angle, rather than at the tops and bottoms of the letterforms), a low line contrast (subtle, rather than pronounced, difference between thicks and thins), and a high level of readability. Additionally, the serifs are bracketed (sloping curves) and the head serifs are often angled (rather than perpindicular.) Being derifed from calligraphic forms, they are the most “humanist” of all the serif fonts, having both a “softer” and more traditional appearance than other serif forms, and provide a great legibility at small sizes (e.g., as body copy.)

Transitional (a.k.a. Baroque)

Transitional serif typefaces were the next evolution from the Old Style faces, with stroke contrast becoming more pronounced (between thick and thin) and with the serifs taking on a more tapered appearance. Additionally, the stresses on the strokes are more perpendicular than their predecessors, with the thinnest parts of the letters being at the tops and bottoms of the letters. Their balance of humanist form and high contrast tends to make them a bit austere. While they are suitable choices for body copy use, certain Transitional serif faces with a greater contrast in stroke weight can often be hard to read at smaller sizes.

Modern (a.k.a. Didone/Didot)

Modern serif typefaces are characterized mainly by the extreme contrast between their extremely thin horizontal lines and extraordinarily heavy vertical lines. Additionally, their serifs are almost “mechanical” in nature with little to no bracketing whatsoever. They are the most modern and progressive of the serif typefaces. While the stark nature of their contrasted forms can make for dramatic use at larger sizes (headlines, e.g.), it also makes them very poor choices for body copy and use at smaller point sizes.

Slab Serif (a.k.a. Egyptian)

Slab serif typefaces generally have uniform strokes (little to no contrast), a bold, rectangular appearance, and the serifs are often as thick as the vertical lines themselves, with little to no bracketing. The underlying character shapes are often similar to sans serif typefaces so are often described as “sans serif fonts with serifs.” While they are considered modern, they tend to have a vintage (specifically American West) personality. They the boldest, brashest and most masculine of the serif classifications.

Wedge (a.k.a. Glyphic)

Wedge serif fonts are marked by their wedge-shaped (e.i., “chiseled”) serifs. The junction between the serif and the stem are generally a diagonal rather than a bracket. Wedge typefaces with a more geometric or diagonal junction can often have a modern appearance, while Wedge typefaces with a softer slope to the serif can have a more traditional appearance (with the feeling of engraving or stonework.)



Grotesque typefaces were the earliest form of sans-serif designs and, therefore, bear the greatest resemblence to serif fonts in terms of their form. Generally, the rounded letters (c, e, o, p, etc.) have a gentler curve to their shape, and the strokes have a slight/minor variation in thickness between the thicker downstrokes and the thinner cross-strokes. These typefaces, originally developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have a more traditional appearance than other sans serif faces.

Neo-grotesque (a.k.a. Transitional or Realist)

Neo-grotesque typefaces were the next evolution in sans serif type design. While they do have a more modern appearance than their Grotesque forerunners, they also have a relatively plain appearance, being relatively straight in appearance and having less line width variation than Humanist sans serif typefaces. Because of their plain appearance, Transitional sans serifs are sometimes referred to as “anonymous” sans serifs and are most responsible for the assumption that all sans serifs are “plain” and “boring.”


Humanist sans serif typefaces are more calligraphic than other sans-serif typefaces, meaning they have a greater variety both in the variation of their stroke thickness, as well as the general form and angles of their strokes. Often, the curved letters will have a “boxier” appearance (less gradual slope) than Grotesque or Neo-grotesque typefaces. The more calligraphic form of these typefaces provides both a more contemporary appearance and a greater legibility in print (especially as body copy.)


Sans serif typefaces of this classification have a significant contrast between the thicks and thins of their strokes, and often feature tapered terminals on the open curved letterforms. Contrast fonts are among the rarest sans serif forms, and tend to be slightly more elegant or formal than most other sans serif fonts. Contrast fonts are particularly popular among fashion and cosmetics brands.


Among all the classifications, Geometric sans-serifs are the most closely based on geometric proportions (rather than the visual/aesthetic proportions of the roman letters that acted as the precursor to the earliest sans serif forms.) The width of the strokes that make up the letterforms appear even in terms of thickness, and the curved letterforms are based on perfectly circular shapes. Geometric sans serifs have the most modern appearance of all the sans serif typefaces and, depending on size and form, can be difficult to read when used as body copy.

Squared Geometric

A sub-set of the Geometric classification, Squared Geometric sans serif typefaces are distinguished by a mechanical appearance, and their curved features have been squared, which gives them a more industrial look. Like the larger Geometric classification, their strokes have an even width. While Squared Geometric typefaces are modern in appearance, this “modernity” can often appear too mechanical or “futuristic” for certain applications.

Rounded End

Another sub-set of the Geometric classification, Rounded End sans serif typefaces are distinguished by one outstanding feature, all the terminals are noticeably rounded. This has a tendency to give them a more childlike (or “less mature”) appearance.


  1. And I thought _I_ was a font-geek. This is such awesome information! Thanks from a font-lover AND a history lover.