When going out, wearing a certain kind of attire can make or break your reputation.
It would be weird if you showed up to your office in a bikini.
It would be equally as strange to use a blackletter typeface for your travel itinerary.
When designing anything - a website, a poster, a resume - your typography choice can do the same.
The 4 font types
If you’ve ever explored the list of fonts in any document creation software, you know it can get kind of crazy. There are fonts that you use every day and fonts that you wouldn’t be caught dead using.
There are thousands of different fonts, with more coming into existence every day, and that beast of a dropdown list is becoming increasingly intimidating. How could you possibly know which one to use?
If you’re not sure where to start, check out the following categories that will help you simplify that list and allow you to gain a better understanding of which category of fonts is appropriate for your design.
As you're reading, feel free to get familiar with some of the web font marketplace software out there. These tools are a great place to browse around and download fonts you like directly to your desktop.
Only interested in one of these types? Jump on down to:
The word “serif” itself is used to describe characters that have lines which project from the end of each stroke.
While the exact origin of this type of font is unknown, there is a widely believed theory that it was developed by the Romans as they chiseled characters into stone to neaten the ends of characters. Regardless of the origin, this type of font is still present today.
Historically, serifs are better to use for print and in larger sizes because their little details help the human eye can recognize the shape of the letter.
Serif fonts can be classified into several subcategories.
Old style serifs are characterized by small contrasts between thick and thin strokes. In some versions, the lowercase “e” is tilted on an angle. Old style is used in large blocks of copy, especially in print.
Transitional serifs are the transition between old style and modern serifs. Their head serifs are more horizontal than those of old style serifs, and their serifs are more gradually curved.
Modern, or didone serifs, are characterized by their intense contrast between thin and thick strokes. Their brackets are minimal and there is intense vertical stress. These typefaces tend to look pretty high-class.
Slab serifs, sometimes called square serifs, are much more casual looking and have thicker, blocky serifs. The ends of the serifs themselves may be sharp or rounded. They were originally designed for posters as an attention-grabbing technique with their loud appearance.
Glyphic serifs are classified by their triangular serifs or tapering strokes. They’re called “glyphic” because their typefaces resemble characters that were etched into stone or metal. The glyphic serifs often place emphasis on capital letters, meaning that some typefaces may not offer lowercase options at all.
The word “sans” derives from French and simply means “without”. Sans serif fonts, therefore, are fonts without serifs that convey minimalism and simplicity.
In print, sans serif fonts are often used in headers.
Online, they’re all the rage. The reason behind this is that on low-resolution digital displays (which probably don’t even exist anymore), the little details in serif fonts became warped or disappeared altogether. Sans serif keeps things clean and neat.
Like the name implies, square sans serifs are typefaces that look...square. The typefaces have little to no curves to them.
Uppercases styled just like the Romans did, humanist sans serif emulates the presence of the hand. Humanist sans serif typefaces definitely have a little more personality than the mechanical-looking square sans serifs. They’re arguably the most legible of the sans serifs, and are often used in website body copy.
They’re not that ugly, really. Grotesque is sometimes used synonymously with sans serif, but also refers to a subcategory of fonts within the sans serif umbrella. Grotesque sans serifs are easily characterized by their loops at the bottom of their lowercase “g”s and the consistency of weight amongst characters.
Geometric sans serifs are based heavily on circular shapes. Although they’re the most modern of the sans serifs, geometric typefaces are rarely used in web body copy. They’re pushing the envelope a little too much for large amounts of reading, but they definitely work for stand-alone titles and futuristic branding typography.
We’re getting fancy, here. Script typefaces reflect handwritten lettering styles. They often appear to be elegant, but there are some typefaces that have a much more lighthearted look to them.
Script fonts shouldn’t be the font of choice for any official business documents, such as a graphic design contract because of their readability. Instead, lean towards using these typefaces on the cover of a juicy romance novel or on your wedding invitations.
Special fonts should be saved for special occasions.
Formal script typefaces are elegant. Inspired by penmanship from the 17th and 18th centuries, they flow and loop gracefully. Their lowercase letters typically connect, just as they would if you were to write in cursive. Remember cursive?
These typefaces are very informal and look as though someone has quickly jotted down a note. Their personalities are nothing short of strong, and can sometimes be a little too strong. If you’re using a casual script in your design, make sure that the typeface is legible and doesn’t contradict the overall design.
Blackletter typefaces are designed as though they were written with a quill and ink, because they were. Also known as Gothic script, blackletter script was used in Western Europe from the 12th century into the 17th century. In other words, it’s very old.
The blackletter typefaces are very Shakespearean and dramatic-looking. If it aligns with your brand identity, blackletter fonts can help you stand out.
This category of calligraphic typefaces is broad. There’s no one characteristic that pulls these fonts together, other than that they look like they’ve been written by a calligrapher with a brush or a flat-tipped pen.
Decorative typefaces are extremely diverse and almost never used for blocks of text, regardless of whether they’re online or printed. Stick to display purposes with these fonts. They’re called decorative for a reason.
Decorative fonts fit into none of the prior categories, meaning there are no rules or identifying characteristics between any of them.
They can be highly emotional, suggest different time periods, and are completely original and distinct.
There are no official subcategories of decorative typefaces - that’s exactly how unorthodox they are. There are graffiti fonts, grunge fonts, stencil fonts, psychedelic fonts. If you’re trying to convey a certain mood with your design, consider using something with a little attitude.
Tame the beast
The amount of font options can become a blur for anyone - even graphic designers. Often, we keep a few that we use religiously and ditch the rest. If you have a new project that’s asking you to convey something different than anything you’ve done before, think about checking out that list again. It won’t be so scary this time.
Designing online? Make sure that you’re choosing the best typography for websites.