Anyone who knows me pretty much at all, knows that I am a HUGE dork for typography. What can I say? I am totally in love with letters, and all of the different forms they can take, as well as communicate. One of the earliest things we were taught in Typography class was that certain typefaces communicated specific moods- and this was based not only on the shape of the specific letters, but how those letters related to each other and other words around them as well. Having all of this wonderful information ingrained into your brain space is priceless when it comes to being a branding designer. Clients come to me wanting to portray a clearly defined (or sometimes not so clearly defined) message and tone for their brand, and we almost always will start with the typography. As overlooked as this stage can be, it’s actually pretty important-REALLY important- in fact, consider it the backbone of the brand. Everything else adds to the overall concept to create a truly unique message, but it really all starts with a strong concept and solid typography. And now without further ado, the different categories of fonts, and the overall tone they represent, Aren’t you EXCITED?!?
Serifs: Oldies but Goodies, or The Typeface Form That Never Dies.
These are the fonts with the feet. Usually more legible in smaller sizes, serifs can be broken down into a couple different classes: Old style,or Transitional, Modern and Slab Serif
Traditional, or Old Style serifs definitely give off that feel. These are sometimes more stodgy and formal then their modern or slab counterparts- the typefaces of classical literature covers and a whole lot of lawyers and doctors, the tone is very classic, reserved, and more conservative than other choices. Traditional serifs were based off of the western alphabet designed from the ancient greeks’ proportions and refined by the romans; when typographers mean Old Style, they mean OLD.
Transitional serifs are pretty much just that, transitions between the Old Style and the new Modern style we will eventually see. Fairly common and way less dramatic than the Moderns, Transitional typefaces are used in typesetting books and large amounts of information; think Times New Roman, and my personal favorite, Baskerville.
Modern serifs, noticed mainly for their extreme variations between thick and thin lines, create a very fancy, high end feel. While being significantly less readable than the others, these fonts are mainly used in headlines and therefore particularly associated with the editorial & fashiony feel. First seen in the late 18th century, these serifs also can portray a more traditional and formal feel depending on the surrounding elements.
Slab serifs usually have a more blocky/chunky feel to the bottom of them,so we mainly see them in headlines and for informational use, but recently have become to look more refined and warm. Martha Stewart had a type foundary create a beautiful and welcoming slab serif that is now seen on about everything–sometimes even contrasting its original concept (like, oh say at its ridiculous overuse at the 2012 Oscars). First created in the late 1800’s, around the time where quick printing was becoming more popular, these fonts are usually more commonly associated with the old west due to the usage of slab serifs in the wanted posters and advertisements. Slab serifs are great for big bold needs like posters, or declaring your awesomeness in a happy, friendly, slightly heavy handed way.
Sans Serifs: Typefaces From The FUTURE, or Modern Type from the 1920’s, 50’s and 70’s.
Continuing our ultra exciting discussion on fonts and the inherited associations within the letterforms, sans serifs get lots of love from designers. Heralded in modern design, fonts like Univers, Futura, Helvetica and co. line design books for eternity. I think there was even a full fledged romance with the entire industry of design and Helvetica back in 2007. Things cooled off though, they still hang out.
Originally called ‘grotesque’ because of how horrid people thought this style was, sans serifs simply translate to “without serifs”. Simple enough! These mean, lean, legibility kings like to communicate everything from highway signage to crisp and striking facets of technology. It’s the typography of the future, or as everyone calls them, modern.
The classifications of Sans Serifs can get a smidge nitpicky, but here goes:
Grotesques are the really early examples of this type, and the descriptions of them can baffle the imagination a bit: “The ends of the curved strokes are usually horizontal.” yeah, sure, OR familiarize yourself with fonts such as Akzidenz Grotesk (a precursor to the beloved Helvetica) or Franklin Gothic, which always makes me think of newspaper headlines.
Neo-Grotesques, or Realists,can sometimes referred to as anonymous typefaces due to their neutral appearance. These typefaces are typically more common, including Helvetica, Univers, Highway Gothic and Arial, and have minimal line weight within the letterforms. These sans serifs are great for information, and wherever you need a light, barely there sort of touch with the typography.
Geometric sans serifs are constructed off of basic geometric shapes, squares and circles. These are just as versatile as the Neo Grotesques, but are usually wider and more “open” than traditional sans serifs. I love geometric sans because of the versatility for vintage and modern looks: think Gotham, Futura, and the ever so popular Neutraface 1 and 2.
Humanist Sans Serifs are considered the more calligraphic of the bunch, usually including the fancier “two story” versions of ‘a’ and ‘g’, they also feature a play on stroke contrasts not seen in the rest of the group. My favorite of the selection is Gill Sans, and that sassy leg of an R it’s got (I warned you of my type obsession, there will be no judgement), but it also includes Optima, and maybe a bit of Aperto as well.
Display Typefaces: Loud, Proud & Overbearing, or How Just A Touch Is Just Enough.
Now that we’ve covered the important basics of typography, we can move to the personality-filled display faces! These should NEVER (NEVER EVER EVER!) be used for large amounts of copy, information, or at small sizes! Display faces are just that: for a large display space. These include ornamental faces, scripts, or specialty typefaces that have more personality than legibility set in mind. These are probably the easiest to come across in terms of free font access, but really should only be used to communicate specific emotions or needs. I love display faces in the right place, but something with so much ‘specialness’ can really only be used in small doses.
A quick note about scripts: When it comes to script fonts, you really want to be careful. Handwriting has natural quirks and variations that fonts straight out of a computer will just not have (unless we’re talking about the typefoundary Underware, who loves to include so many glyph variations that switching out letters within words is a breeze). If it’s essential to make it feel hand drawn or calligraphic, then my suggestion would be to tweak any repeating characters and/or to create the word from scratch. Sometimes it’s just better to create authentically rather than recreate something to feel authentic, and with scripts this can make all the difference.
What about you? Do you feel the same as I do about how these typefaces communicate, and more importantly WHAT they are communicating? Typography, much like most of design, is rampant with subjectivity and most things will (and almost always do) come in and out of style. So no matter what the rules say, go with your gut. It’ll always save you in the end!