Let’s get this straight: you don’t need to know something as geeky as typeface classification if you’re not a graphic designer. However, if you’re a solopreneur and serious about choosing the right typeface for your brand, then knowing more will only help you.
There are hundreds of resources about the best free fonts on the planet, but typefaces is political. If you don’t know a bit of their history, what they represent, and different typeface classifications, you’re unlikely to make a good choice.
For example, Bodoni is definitely a sexy, attention-grabbing typeface, but is there a place for it on your brand graphics? What kind of typeface should you use for the body text? Is slab serif typeface serif or sans-serif? So on and on.
If you’re an aspiring graphic designer, this article is definitely for you. Even if you’re not going to specialize in type design, understand typeface classifications is the first step to making better decisions in branding, logo design, web design, you name it.
Today, I will start with serif typeface.Broadly speaking, serif typeface can be divided into four subgroups: old style, transitional, Didone, and slab serif. There are some variations within each subgroup, but I will pick the most exemplary typeface for each group and analyze their major features.
It’s called Old Style because, well, it’s the oldest of the whole bunch. This typeface dates back to 1465, shortly after Johannes Gutenberg developed the world-changing movable type printing press.
Old-style serif fonts are popular for setting body text because of their excellent readability. If you’re making a resume, then you can’t go wrong with an Old Style typface, which I mentioned in this article about common resume mistakes.
Personally, I think Old Style is very beautiful and elegant in a quiet way. They are also quite a challenge to draw to to dozens of little details and typographic decisions in each letter.
For this typeface classification, I pick Garamond, because it’s a key moment in the history of typography. A quick Google research will show that there are many revivals of Garamond, probably more than any other typefaces.
Characteristics of an Old Style typeface:
- calligraphic feel. I think the main reason is
- low contrast between thick and thin strokes
- the thinnest and thickest part of letters are usually at an angle. If you find this feature hard to tell, then look at the negative O shape inside the g. It looks like a tilted egg.
- serifs are almost always bracketed, which means the transition from a serif to the stroke is smooth, instead of being a crisp corner.
- head serifs are often angled.
Most of all, I think an Old Style serif typeface can be distinguished by its calligraphic look due to the popularity of broad nib quills at the time.
If you’ve tried lettering or calligraphy with quills or reed pens, you’ll know what I mean: smooth transition, never too much contrast between thick and thin strokes, angular feet etc.
On a side note, I don’t see Old Style used a lot across the internet, so if you’re a blogger, definitely consider this type.
Lemme guess: the very first font that you’ve used was probably Times New Roman, or Georgia. Incidentally, they belong to the Transitional typeface classification.
Overall, Transitional typeface looks sharper. It is named so because it represents the stylistic bridge between Old Style and the next cateogory, Didone.
Characteristics of the Transitional typeface
- letters usually look wider than their Old Style counterparts
- higher contrast between thick and thin strokes.
- stress in the curved letter is more vertical. Stress is an imaginary line connecting the thinnest parts of an a, or g.
- most importantly, the end of a stroke takes a circular shape.
The change in appearance from Old Style to Transitional occurred in the mid 18th century, partly due to advances in printing and font making technology.
Modern typefaces made their first appearances in late 18th century. They are also called Didone, which amalgamates the surnames of the famous typefounders, Didot and Bodoni.
A modern typeface can be easily recognized by the extreme contrast between the thick and thin strokes. The thin stroke usually looks so delicate that it also breaks.
Modern typefaces are usually considered to be less readable than Transitional or Old-Style, but they are actually designed for display use. That means you’re more likely to see a Modern typeface in magazines, posters etc than in body copies.
Most famous Modern typefaces are Didone, Bodoni etc. By the way, the design for Madonna’ MDNA album features a Modern typeface.
Characteristics of Modern typefaces
- Extreme contrast between thick and thin stroke
- Vertical stress. Pay attention to the negative shapes, and you’ll see that it follows a vertical axis.
- Minimal bracketing, which means that the feet is almost of constant width. Notice that when the letter transitions from the vertical stroke to the serif, it makes a 90° angle.
- Usually lower x-height than the earlier typeface groups.
Are there any good free Modern typeface out there? I can’t think of anything, but please a comment below if you know one or two.
Typewriter, writing app, code editor, newspaper etc. These are the places that you probably have seen Slab Serif. This typeface classification is so unique that you don’t even need any introduction to recognize them.
Like Transitional, Slab serifs also emerged in the mid 18th century. These fonts were useful for advertising and signage, because of their weight and strong presence.
Indeed, a lot of slab serif typefaces look like geometric sans-serif with added feet. I think it’s the only group in the serif family that can evoke a wide range of feelings. Some exude a vintage vibe, while others take on a modern, contemporary feel.
Characteristics of slab serif typefaces
- usually minimal difference in stroke width
- usually unbracketed or square serifs.
I know it’s a bit hard to wrap your head around these typeface classifications, so here’s gif for you: