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Typography terminology: Part 1 serifs

If you want to avoid typographic clichés, it’s important to have a basic understanding of type history and context. Over the next four weeks, we’ll look at the main classifications of typefaces and their key features, starting with serif.

Old-Style (or Humanist)

Usually subdivided into Venetian and Garalde, Old-Style typefaces are typically very easy to read and are commonly found in body text.

Venetian

Appearing in around 1470, in the world of the Renaissance, Venetian typefaces essentially mimic Latin handwriting and are therefore very calligraphic. With a strong axis and small x-height, there is little contrast between thick and thin strokes. Serifs are almost always bracketed and head serifs are often angled. An easy way to identify a Venetian typeface is in the use of the lowercase letter e, which features an angled crossbar, as if formed by a right-handed person. Examples include Adobe Jenson, Arno, Berkeley and Fairfield.

Garalde

These typefaces came about between the late 1400s until the early 1700s and move slightly away from the calligraphic. With a straighter axis, the characters are more proportional and serifs more carefully formed. There tends to be a larger x-height and the lowercase e crossbar is now horizontal. Classic examples include Caslon, Palatino, Galliard and Bembo.

Transitional (or Neoclassical or Realist)

In 1692, the French Academy of Sciences was commissioned by Louis XIV to create a new typeface, based on a strict grid. The font family of 86 fonts was completed in 1745 and was known as the ‘Roman du Roi’ (literally, ‘the Kind’s Roman’). The style was heavily influenced by printer and type designer John Baskerville, as well as Pierre Simon Fournier, a highly-respected printer also known for introducing the point system for measuring type size.

Transitional typefaces are classified by an almost vertical axis and an exaggerated difference between thick and thin strokes. Great attention is paid to the finer details of the characters and serifs tend to be less triangular than they were previously. Examples of the style are Baskerville, Caslon, Goudy, Perpetua and Times New Roman.

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Didone (or Modern)

The end of the 18th Century saw the emergence of Didone typefaces, developed largely by the Didot family, as well as by Giambattista Bodoni (the latter alone designed 298 typefaces and was famed for his meticulous and beautifully-crafted work).

The exaggerated contrast between stroke weight is even more marked with the Didones, showing the influence of copperplate engraving, and the stress is now completely vertical. Ovals have become circles, apertures are particularly tight and elegance of individual characters is paramount; they therefore tend to work better as individual characters or display type, rather than as body text. Bodoni, Didot, Basilia, New Caledonia and Century Schoolbook are typical of the style.

Slab serif (or Mecanicals or Égyptiennes)

Created originally for large print such as posters and advertisements, these are a type of display font which have become synonymous with the age of industrialisation and the start of advertising. The first slab serif was created by Vincent Figgins in 1815.

There are four subcategories of slab serifs:

  • Neo-grotesques such as Rockwell, Beton and Memphis, have abrupt serifs and heavy weights. All elements, including serifs, have the same stroke thickness.
  • Clarendons such as Sentinel and Belizio tend to be less extreme with heavy but bracketed serifs.
  • Italiennes like Playbill feature over-emphasised serifs with weights which are stronger than the other letter elements.
  • Typewriter slab serifs such as Courier and Prestige Elite have fixed character widths, where all characters take up the same amount of horizontal space, as on a typewriter.

In the next post, we’ll move forward in time and look at the different classifications of sans serif fonts and how best to use them.

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