A short introduction to typefaces

All designers should be aware of the importance of typography and the notable impact the chosen typeface has on their designs. Typography has an immense effect on how we perceive and tell apart different designs. With that in mind, it would certainly feel dull and monotonous if all the text we come across everyday looked identical.

Fortunately, typeface designers throughout history have worked hard on creating and perfecting different letterforms, so now there is plenty to choose from. Still, choosing the right typeface can sometimes seem a bit difficult and overwhelming, so the first step to overcoming those feelings is to learn the basics.

Typography basics

First of all, it is important to use the correct terminology. A lot of people use “typeface” and “font” as if they were synonyms, but, in fact, the term “typeface” is used for the overall design of the lettering, whereas a “font” is a variation of that design. For example, Roboto is a typeface, while Roboto Black and Roboto Light are fonts.

Typefaces can be classified based on various technical specifications of the lettering, but most often they are divided into these five categories based on their style:

• Serif
• Sans-serif
• Script
• Display
• Monospaced

This system of categories and subcategories can be very helpful when it comes to identifying, choosing, and combining typefaces.

The oldest typefaces date back to the 1400s when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. These are known as “blackletter” and greatly resemble handwritten calligraphy. However, these letterforms seemed too dense when printed, which resulted with the birth of a new typeface called roman, created by Nicolas Jenson a century later. 

The roman type consists of straight lines and regular curves, which makes it very clear and legible compared to blackletter. Shortly afterwards, italic—a slender and stylized version of roman, emerged. It was created so that more letters could fit on a page in order to save money, while now it is used for emphasizing a word or a phrase. 

(source: Wikipedia)

Serif

There wasn’t much innovation and progress in type development until the 18th century when the first serif typefaces were created. These typefaces, considered original and classic, later got their name because of the slight projections that finish off the main strokes of their letterforms, which are called serifs.

Within this primary category, there are tons of smaller classifications. Based on the chronological order in which they occurred, serif typefaces can be further divided into Old Style, Transitional and Modern. The earliest typefaces within these styles are Caslon (Old Style), Baskerville (Transitional), Didot and Bodoni (Modern), which are named after their creators.

The Old Style typefaces have letters with thick serifs and low contrast between the line weight of the strokes, the Transitional has a bit thinner serifs and a higher stroke contrast compared to their predecessors, while the Modern typefaces are characterized by very thin serifs and extreme contrast between strokes.

Additionally, when advertising created the need for taller and wider letterforms, mainly to be used for billboards and posters, slab serifs were born. This is a widely used typeface category with rather thick serifs and it is sometimes referred as Egyptian. 

In general, serif typefaces are used for both headlines and body texts. Today, they are still considered a great choice when it comes to books, newspapers, and other printed media, as well as for designs that aim to come off as classical and sophisticated or brands that stand for traditional values.

Old style (Garamond) and Transitional (Baskerville) typeface examples
(source: Wikipedia)

Modern (Didot) and Slab serif (Rockwell)  typeface examples
(source: Wikipedia)

Sans-serif

Sans-serif typefaces lack the little extending features called serifs at the end of strokes, which is how they got their name (sans translates to “without” in French).

Most of the early sans-serifs were characterized by their distinctive letterforms and curves and are placed in a category called Grotesque Sans. Although the sans-serifs were created in the mid-19th century, they reached the height of their popularity during the time of early 20th century commonly known as the “Modern” era. The simple and minimalistic typefaces of the early 20th century are, in a way, a backlash of the complexity of their 19th-century predecessors.

In this era, styles such as Geometric Sans and Humanist Sans emerged, along with some of the most recognizable typefaces such as Futura, a simple geometric typeface designed by Paul Renner and Gill Sans, created by Eric Gill, which had more natural and soft curves.

Another notable sans-serif typeface is Helvetica, created by Max Miedinger in 1957. Helvetica falls into a category called Neo-Grotesque along with some of the most commonly used sans-serifs such as Arial and MS Sans Serif. Its simplicity and neutrality contributed to it being one of the favorite choices of the modernists and are the reason why it is still widely used today.

The less detailed shapes of sans-serifs, which are readable in all sizes, have proven to be very suitable for digital screens. These typefaces work very well for both headlines and body text and are still thought of as an efficient and modern option, especially for screen use, as well as designs that want to give off an impression as youthful, contemporary and approachable.

Serifs and sans-serifs are the obvious choices for longer texts and paragraphs, but when it comes to headlines, slogans, and other short copy that aims to grab the viewer’s attention, script and display style typefaces offer a variety of options. 

(source: Wikipedia)

Script

Script typefaces are harder to place within a timeline since they practically mimic cursive handwriting. Blackletter, known as the first official typeface, is technically a part of this category.

Script typefaces can be categorized as formal or casual and used accordingly. Formal scripts are very recognizable due to the curls and flourishes that extend from the serifs, causing them to strongly resemble 17th and 18th-century manuscripts.

These should not be used for extended amounts of copy and are usually chosen for designs that aim to feel more historical. Formal typefaces are a common choice for wedding invitations and other designs related to formal events.

On the other hand, casual scripts, which emerged in the 20th century, are much more clear and legible, while having a certain timeless feel. They are frequently used for designs such as logos, posters or pamphlets, since they can really emphasize the design’s overall aesthetic. 

Design by Erin LaSorsa and Cortney Sarkozy
(source: behance.com)

Design by Cheap  Premium Graphic Resources
(source: behance.com)

Display

As their name already implies, these typefaces are intended to be used for large sizes and titles, rather than paragraphs and extended body texts.

They include both practical and legible fonts and more complex and eccentric ones. Often used as headlines, as well as for logos, posters, or pamphlets, their goal is to introduce the reader to the narrative of the presented content. 

Design by Cheap  Premium Graphic Resources
(source: behance.com)

Monospaced

Another typeface category that stands out is called monospaced or non-proportional, which means that each character occupies the same amount of space.

Monospaced typefaces were originally used on typewriters, whereas today is mostly used for displaying programming code. However, they are still chosen for the headlines and body texts of some specific designs.

Design by Stelios Ypsilantis and Iordanis Passas
(source: behance.com)

Conclusion

The typeface style is crucial for the overall impression of a design. It also helps the observer conclude whether the design in question represents something traditional or modern, formal or casual, natural or futuristic, etc. With that in mind, gaining proper knowledge about the basic traits of each typeface category and its most suitable use is very important for every designer.

The design process requires trying out different combinations and possibilities, but one should always know that, for example, serifs are a better choice for printed media, whereas sans-serifs work best when it comes to digital screens. Additionally, both of these typefaces can be used for longer texts, but the right script or display style for the headlines and slogans can emphasize the design’s aesthetic.

Finally, choosing the right typeface requires following certain rules, but there is still room for experimenting in order to get the most out of a design. 


 

Links to image sources:

Blackletter
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackletter#/media/File:Fraktur_walbaum.png

Serifs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garamond#/media/File:GaramondSpecimenA.svg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baskerville_font_sample.png

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Didot_(typeface)#/media/File:DidotSP.svg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockwell_(typeface)#/media/File:RockwellWM.png

Sans-serifs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futura_(typeface)#/media/File:Futura_Specimen.svg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetica#/media/File:HelveticaSpecimenCH.svg 

Formal script
https://www.behance.net/gallery/29419585/CHAMPAGNE-BLACK

Casual script
https://www.behance.net/gallery/98511401/Belinday-Monoline-Script-Font

Display
https://www.behance.net/gallery/91901437/Marco-Valmory-Fun-Retro-Funk-Type

Monospaced
https://www.behance.net/gallery/66442101/Lulu-Monospace-Free-Typeface 

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