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Typography terminology: Part 4 displays

For the final part in our typography series, we’ll be looking at the most varied group of all – display typefaces. With huge differences in mood, style and design technique, there are still some common features, as well as some distinct categories. We’ll take a look at these and explore what display typefaces are all about.

Welcome to the zany world of display typography!

Common features

Whilst there are many typefaces which can be used for both body and headline type, some are designed to be used solely at large sizes, typically 30pt or greater, and are generally unsuitable for standard copywriting. Used on posters, billboards, advertisements or company branding, these faces often show marked differences between stroke weights and tend to have less space between each letter. Some even include pictures built into the design or are stylised to suit a particular era, place or occasion.

But formal or informal, stark or sexy, display types share a common intention – to convey a specific mood or spirit. These are typefaces with personality and almost anything goes. Appealing directly to the emotions, they range from entertaining to terrifying, and in some instances can become more prominent than the written message they convey. Here, there is less concern with readability, but huge emphasis on the typeface as a form of artistic expression in its own right.

Classifications of display types

In typically human style, there are attempts to classify even display types into neat groups and whilst not all fit squarely into these categories, classification can nevertheless be helpful. Here are some of the most common categories:

Blackletter

Blackletter typefaces, such as Textura or Notre Dame, are often included amongst display typefaces. Exemplifying what people think of as ‘Old English’, medieval-style lettering, Blackletters are based on the first printed faces (think Gutenberg Bible) and typically have heavy stroke weight, diamond-shaped serifs and ornate capital letters. They are used nowadays almost solely to invoke an ancient, medieval feel to a text.

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Fat Face

Appearing between 1810 and 1820, and remaining the most common Fat Face typefaces were originally designed for advertising and are essentially a type of slab serif. Lasting well into the twentieth century as the predominant display typeface for the letterpress poster, they have a very marked difference between thick and thin strokes, creating an extreme and very striking style. Examples include Bodoni, Elephant and Cooper Black.

Art Deco

The Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s had a strong influence on typography. Exemplified by simple, geometric shapes and stylised lines, examples include ITC Anna and Busorama.

Outline, Inline, Stencil and Shadowed

Typefaces such as Agent Orange, Linotypes Iwan Stencil, Jim Crow or Umbra, feature the removal of all or part of the fill, or the addition of a highlight or shadow effect on each letter.

Grunge and Graffiti

More recent years have seen the introduction of ‘grunge’ and ‘graffiti’ typefaces, based on the early 1990s musical and cultural scene. The look is roughened and textural, and can include ink splatters, scratches and spray-gun effects – the dirtier the better. The rebellious, irreverent nature of these typefaces lend themselves naturally to band posters or alternative magazines, and typical examples include Bleeding Cowboys or Birth of a Hero.

Now common in funky web design, whilst maintaining prominence in printed material such as creative brochure design, display typefaces can add a splash of charisma unlike no other typeface category. Whist they might need close attention to the use of colour and a little manual adjustment to kerning at very large sizes, they are to typography what poetry is to language. Display typefaces have the ability to capture a reader’s heart and soul and fire their imagination before they’ve even read the words. 

And typography doesn’t get much better than that.

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