Understanding Typefaces, Part 2
In Part 1, we laid the groundwork for understanding typefaces in general. In this
installment, we go a bit deeper into the different styles, how they’re used, and why. Font names that are set in bold italics are linked to graphic samples.
The many categories of type
There are a few basic categories of type, and under each are a variety of styles. The broad categories are Serif, Sans Serif, Script, Calligraphic, Decorative/Display, and Monospaced. These can be broken down into numerous styles. I sort my digital fonts by these more specific styles—currently that’s a list of 38 different directories. These includes some unique ones like Famous—fonts based on movies and television shows, Illuminated—ornate calligraphic fonts, and Seasonal—fonts with a season or holiday theme.
In the Serif category, you’ll find such styles as Oldstyle, Transitional, Modern, Egyptian (slab), and Glyphic (semi-serif). Oldstyle tyepfaces date back to the late 15th century and have little contrast between the thin and thick strokes. Adobe Caslon is a good example of this type. Transitional faces made their appearance about the 17th century, with a bit more contrast in the thin and thick strokes. ITC New Baskerville is a good example. Despite the name Modern, this style dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s characterized by a high contrast between the thin and thick strokes, as well as flatter serifs. The classic ITC Bodoni is a good example. The Egyptian style dates back to the 19th century. This slab serif style was used for things like posters and advertising. Its name comes from a face used in a publication about booty from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Adobe Clarendon is a classic example. The slab serifs eventually became even more pronounced, like you see in ITC Lubalin Graph. The last serif sub-category is Glyphic. These semi-serif faces were based on carved or engraved letter forms instead of the more typical pen-drawn, hence the smaller chiseled serifs. A good example of this style is Adobe Copperplate.
Serif faces are often used for body text in print work. The serifs create a virtual line to follow, making it easier on the eyes. As one of the older letter forms, serifs often lend a conservative or traditional feel to a piece. Many of the slab serifs have a Western or antique feel and harken back to the days of wood type.
Sans Serif Category
Sans serif typefaces are much younger than serif faces. They fall into four basic sub-categories: Grotesque, Neo-Grotesque(Transitional), Humanist, and Geometric. The Grotesque style is the oldest and its linear forms have a squared look to some curves, but the real signature is the spurred G and double-bowled g. Adobe News Gothic shows this. The Neo-Grotesque faces have a less pronounced stroke contrast and a more refined form. This style also moved to a single-bowl g. Adobe Univers is a good example. The Humanist style came from an attempt to improve the readability of sans serif faces by utilizing ideas from the classical Roman (serif) forms. In this style you’ll find greater stroke contrast. An elegant example is Adobe Optima. An offshoot from the Art Deco[A popular international design movement from 1925 until 1939, with forms based on mathematical geometric shapes, including stepped forms and sweeping curves. ] movement was the Geometric style. As the name implies, these are based on geometric shapes. The circular shape of the o, like you see in Adobe Avant Garde, is a signature of this style.
While serif faces are typically used for body text in print, sans serif faces tend to be preferred for digital media. With the lower resolution of monitors, sans serif faces are clearer. In print, they’re often used for headlines and any place with short amounts of text. As a much younger style, sans serif faces often give off a more modern feel—one of the reasons they’re popular in science fiction movies—but some are distinctly retro.
Some of the most beautiful typefaces fall into this category. These faces are typically very fluid and are derived from or are meant to imitate handwriting. On the more elegant side, you have such faces as Adobe Shelley Allegro and Linotype Zapfino. Adobe Brush Script has been around a long time and has the look of being painted with a brush. Adobe Mistral has a rougher handwritten look.
Script faces are ideal for such uses as invitations and certificates. They’re also good for short amounts of text like pull quotes, but you don’t want to set large blocks of text in most scripts. Thanks to their flowing forms, they often give a feminine or playful touch.
Another elegant group of typefaces are the calligraphic ones. Many of these styles are based on the historical calligraphy used in medieval texts, but there are also more modern faces that have that distinct calligraphic chisel-look. On the historical side we have four different styles as examples. Adobe Neue Hammer Unziale is a classic uncial face. Adobe Linotext is a simple Blackletter calligraphic form while Adobe Fette Fraktur is typical of the fraktur form that came from Blackletter. Adobe Goudy Lombardic is another elegant historical face. For more modern calligraphic forms, a couple of good examples are Bitstream Cataneo and Adobe La Griffe. Adobe Auriol is a softer take on calligraphy.
Calligraphic faces, like scripts, are great for invitations and certificates. But also like script, you don’t want to use them for large blocks of body text. They also make interesting and attractive drop caps, especially if you opt for an illuminated (more ornate) calligraphic face.
This is a group that could go on and on. To limit things a bit, I’ve narrowed down examples to just a few of my many sub-categories: Alphabats, Computer/Digital, Dingbats, Funky, Gothic/Scary, Grunge, Handwriting, and Retro.
Alphabats is my term for faces that combine the actual alphabetic letter forms, along with some type of graphic or where the letter shape is rendered as a graphic. An example of the former is Adobe Childs Play Blocks, with the character inside a block. A couple of examples of the latter are Adobe Critter and Apostrophic Labs McKloud.
Dingbats, on the other hand, are purely graphic in nature. One of the more well known examples is Adobe Zapf Dingbats. These have been used for many years, often referred to as printer’s ornaments. They were used for bullets, finials to denote the end of an article, or simply as filler. Adobe Caravan is another collection of printer’s ornaments that could be combined to make a border. ITC DF Situations One contains cartoon images.
In my computer/digital category, I also include faces that have a sci-fi feel. They tend to go hand-in-hand. Several examples of ‘old school’ computer lettering include ICG Amelia, URW Countdown, URW Data, and BT Orbit. T-26 OCRX could be used to simulate the lettering on a credit card, while ICG Digital works for a digital display.
Funky is another large sub-category. I tend to put the more playful faces here. Some good examples include ITC Angry Hog, House Coop, MT Curlz, Adobe Spumoni LP, and ICG Whimsy.
In my gothic/scary category, I have faces that would be perfect for a horror film poster or something promoting Halloween. Take a look at House Haunted House, Comicraft Meltdown, and Adobe Zombie for good examples of this style.
Grunge is one of my smaller categories, mostly because I don’t really like these faces much, but it’s good to have a few as they do occasionally come in handy. In here are things like graffiti writing and distressed/damaged faces. Bright Ideas Aerosol is a good example of the former. Bitstream Eroxion, Adobe Magnesium, Adobe McGarvey Fractured, and T-26 Screech Caps fall into the latter.
Handwriting faces come in a lot of forms, from a child’s immature print all the way to the most elegant example of penmanship. Personally I sub-divide mine into two directories—one for print styles and the other for cursive. P22 Childs Play and MT Kidprint are examples of a child’s handwriting. Other examples of print writing include One Way Out Aspire, Letraset Bergell, Letraset Demian, Red Rooster Grove Script, Apostrophic Labs Komika Text, and the classic Adobe Tekton. In the cursive department, P22 Dearest Script, Adobe Kaufmann, Adobe Voluta Script, and Adobe Wendy serve as an eclectic group of examples. Another, P22 Monet, is based on the famous artist’s handwriting. There are also some faces that sort of straddle the two forms—a bit more ’flowy’ than true print, but not quite cursive. A couple of examples are ITC Arid and House Sign Painter-Casual.
Retro faces also include a lot of variety. Any face indicative of a past era fits into this category. Here’s a slew of examples in alphabetical order: Adobe Anna, Adobe Bauhaus, EF Bottleneck, EF Broadway, Apostrophic Labs Hadley, ITC Hornpype, ITC Mona Lisa Recut, Font Shop Morgan 29, Adobe Peignot, ITC Rennie, Adobe University, Adobe Willow, and Adobe Zebrawood. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what era they represent.
The uses for decorative and display type are nearly as many as the faces themselves. They’re perfect when you’re trying to emphasize a theme, say a flyer promoting a back-to-school sale or a concert featuring 70s disco music. Just remember a little goes a long way. You’ll typically only want to use these for headlines or very short blocks of text.
Some of the typefaces in this category are holdovers from the days of typewriters. Most modern digital fonts are proportional, meaning each letter form takes only the space it needs. In other words, an i needs much less space than a w. Monospaced faces, on the other hand, devote the same amount of space for every letter form. This comes in handy if you’re doing something where the letters must all line up perfectly, like a word search puzzle. The most classic example of this style is Adobe Courier, but another example is Nometica.
Monospaced faces should be used sparingly. They’re best in tables, where things need to line up, or to set apart a section of text, as though it was produced by a typewriter.
That’s all for now…
In Part III we look at the anatomy of letter forms. Then in Part IV we’ll discuss typographical marks—what
they are and when they’re used.