Many of us use electronic typing programs each day for work (presentations, reports, sending business letters), school, projects, or other reasons.
We understand that some fonts, like Arial and Times New Roman, are popular based on consensus. But many people aren’t aware of why these fonts are popular or the history behind them.
Some don’t even know why fonts are influential.
The first typeface came with Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing press in 1440. It was a Blackletter typeface inspired by Gothic and Old English calligraphy. Gutenberg’s typeface mimicked the handwriting of monks as they transcribed manuscripts.
Gutenberg’s removable type machine continued to evolve until 1890 when Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the first Linotype machine. The invention enabled continuous casting, letting typists adjust the size and length of fonts as they wrote.
Continuous casting evolved into the digital type that we’re familiar with today. In the digital age, typologists created Verdana as a font that works well with lower computer resolutions. Today, there are thousands of popular fonts we can use across hundreds of languages.
In this article, we’ll discuss what makes a font, why fonts matter, the main types of fonts, and how to pick the right font.
First, it’s important to note that font and typeface are not the same things, despite the two terms often being used interchangeably with one another. A typeface is a set of characters with the same typography design elements, such as Arial, Georgia, and Helvetica.
Fonts, however, are stylistic adaptations of typefaces. They are like the typeface, except with different sizes, widths, weights, and other elements.
For instance, while Arial is a typeface, Arial Bold is a font. The italics style is another version of a font that exists with any typeface.
Fonts that are similar and designed to be used together are parts of font families. For example, the Montserrat font family consists of Montserrat Thin, Montserrat Medium, and many more. Each font borrows the family name but is styled differently. Some more examples of font families include Brush Script, Abadi, and Sitka.
A font will always keep the core elements of its typeface.
The fonts we choose for our websites, forms, newspapers, and other media affect more than just designs and aesthetics.
Depending on culture, different cognitive biases affect our impressions of certain fonts. An easy example is Comic Sans, a font which most people associate with childishness or unprofessionalism.
In the same way that Comic Sans and other decorative typefaces can deter readers, some fonts can increase credibility and perceptions of quality. Times New Roman and many other bold serif typefaces fit this space for many 20th century media.
Serif typefaces like Times New Roman are thought to be more readable than sans-serif typefaces because they aid the eye in moving from one letter to the next.
However, what typographic features the populace prefers depends on technology. Early computers couldn’t display high enough resolutions for serif typefaces to appear clearly. Modern computers are capable of much higher resolutions, so serifs are seeing a resurgence in popularity.
When picking a font, designers have to consider these factors as well as originality. Many brands develop original typefaces or purchase high-end font packages online. While there are many free fonts to choose from for developing logos, advertisements, and more, a paid font kit is more likely to make an original typographic statement and will stand out more.
Lastly, if your company uses optical character recognition (OCR) technology or scans documents often, you may want to consider scan-friendly fonts. Whether or not a typeface is scan-friendly depends on how well it distinguishes between similar characters such as a capital ‘I’ and a lowercase ‘i’.
Poor font choice for scanning could cause issues with readability.
Fonts like Tahoma are a great choice for scanning. While Tahoma doesn’t have serifs, it has distinct shapes for the lowercase and uppercase versions of ‘I’ and ‘L.’
Now, let’s discuss some of the categories that divide popular fonts. Each group has situational benefits and drawbacks, so we’ll talk about what we like and dislike for each group.
A Serif is a small, typographical stroke, usually on the end of a character. A font family or typeface that uses serifs is simply called a serif typeface. Times New Roman, Didot, Garamond, Georgia, and John Baskerville are popular examples of serif typefaces.
On the other hand, a typeface that lacks these strokes is called sans-serif. The first serif typeface was created in Italy in 1465 for Gutenberg’s printing press.
Serifs were originally designed to mimic the elegance of Renaissance calligraphy. Since then, serif fonts have expanded into many other sub-categories, such as old-style, slab serif, and more.
Some believe serif fonts are more legible than sans-serif fonts, but studies on the topic aren’t conclusive. Serif fonts are more likely to be used as body text for books and less likely to be used for text on computers due to resolution issues. Therefore, while serifs do have a reputation for readability and antiquity, they are not always the best choice.
Serif fonts typically distinguish better between similar characters, making them more scan-friendly. However, some sans-serif fonts like Tahoma achieve this without the extra strokes.
Serif fonts have a reputation for being classic and literary, so using a serif font could result in higher credibility or authority for texts.
The Latin root sans means “without,” and as such, sans-serif typefaces lack serif strokes. Letters in this category tend to have less variation in terms of width. They were ideal for early computers with lower resolutions.
Many document programs such as Google Docs and Microsoft Word default to sans serif fonts (Arial and Calibri, respectively). The majority of all typefaces are sans serif.
Other classic typefaces that are sans-serif include:
- Berlin Sans
- Euphemia typeface
- Franklin Gothic
- San Francisco
- Gill Sans
While serif typefaces have a classical feel, sans-serif typefaces have a sleek and somewhat futuristic feel. Font packages for tech brands like Microsoft and Adobe are typically sans-serif. This may be because of the tradition of using sans-serif fonts for digital texts to accommodate lower resolutions.
Due to the more uniform width of sans serif characters, some fonts in this category are monospaced fonts. In a monospaced font, each character occupies the same rectangular space as the others, regardless of size, making each letter equidistant from the others in a word.
Monospaced fonts have good and bad attributes. You may not realize it, but the different widths of letters contribute greatly to their readability. They make distinguishing between one letter and the next easier.
Therefore, monospaced letters are usually harder to read.
On the other hand, monospacing is excellent for numbers. Numbers in the text as well as in equations benefit from even spacing. Because of this, you’re more likely to see monospaced fonts in scientific texts, cash registers, and screenplays, among others.
Script fonts are based on cursive, connected writing, or handwriting and are often used for hand lettering. Script is a popular choice for design projects due to its association with elegance and prestige.
However, script fonts are rarely used for body text. Instead, they are used for accented titles, displays, or trade printing.
Some examples of script fonts include:
- Broadley, Monarda
- Rampage Monoline
- Hope Sans
Many script fonts are also OpenType fonts. OpenType is a category spanning all kinds of fonts created by Microsoft.
OpenType fonts are convertible from a Windows computer to a MacIntosh computer and vice versa, meaning users can see texts in their original formatting,
A script typeface is a great choice for an accent. However, due to its founding on cursive handwriting, it may not be the most evergreen choice. Many people believe that cursive writing has been on the decline in America for years. Depending on its livelihood, script fonts may waver in popularity.
Old-style serif fonts tend to be more uniform in terms of line thickness, unlike modern serif fonts. This typeface is inspired by Renaissance typographers in the 15th century. At the time of its invention, it surpassed the popularity of Gutenberg’s Blackletter typeface and became the new norm.
The strokes of old-style serif fonts take inspiration primarily from pen strokes. Many old-style serif typefaces still exist today, such as:
- Gaudy Old Style
- Minion Pro
This is a great choice for an authoritative, historic appeal, but the lack of thickness variation means it could be less readable than other choices.
Also called baroque, these forms of serif fonts came into popularity around the 18th century. This category of fonts is characterized by sharper serifs and greater line thickness variation than the old-style variants. The result is a more modern, strong, stylish look with more vertical stresses.
- Benjamin Title Serif
- Jaavon Serif Font FamilY
- Aderes Serif Font Family
- Marquez Vintage Serif Typeface
You don’t have to sacrifice as much readability for style with transitional serif fonts, making them a great middle-ground.
Also called modern serif fonts, didone types began appearing in the late 18th century and were standard during the nineteenth century. These typefaces feature strong vertical lines and very narrow, sharp serifs. These thin, unbracketed serifs are also called hairline serifs.
Didone fonts are often used in magazines since gloss printing captures the contrast between the thick and thin strokes well.
While didone serif fonts did decline in popularity in the 20th century, today they are fairly popular as body text for publications in Europe, especially Greece. Some American media still use them to achieve a “European” aesthetic.
Some examples of didone serif fonts include Didot, Bodoni Poster, and ITC Fenice.
Slab serif fonts are characterized by their blocky, rectangular serifs. These were created in the early 1800s as attention-grabbing headlines for posters and other media. The thick serifs of fonts in this category are about as thick as every other line in each symbol.
The slab serif category embodies a very large variety of fonts, both geometric and rounded. Many slab serif fonts are also monospaced. Slab serif and slab-like designs are often found on newspapers, as the serifs help readability on lower-quality paper.
Due to their shape, slab serif fonts are typically less elegant in design and more forceful or sturdy. Fonts like this are more commonly found in body text today rather than headlines or eyecatchers.
Examples of slab serif fonts include Memphis, Rockwell, Karnak, and Beton.
Specialty fonts are outliers that defy the aforementioned means of categorization. Font category is usually determined by the lack or presence of serifs and by line thickness in various parts of the characters. However, specialty fonts don’t fit neatly into any specification.
These fonts are usually used as large accent text or in attention-grabbing graphics.
They seldom appear in body text due to their poor readability, especially at smaller sizes and lower resolutions.
While specialty fonts can work well for garnering attention, some of them have a reputation for being niche, experimental, or goofy. When using these fonts, be sure to exercise moderation.
19th Century Art Deco Poster, Outlaw, Horror Hotel, and Kingthings Christmas are examples of specialty fonts.
The right font for your text or project depends on the kinds of media you are making. Each category listed above has specific use cases.
For instance, decorative fonts and script fonts are great as accents for formal events or for making an elegant-looking appeal. Specialty fonts might be ideal for the heading text on your eye-catcher or advertisement.
Slab serif fonts are great on printed newspapers, but sans-serif fonts may be easier to read on computer screens.
The psychology behind font choices is worth considering as well. The reputation or image of a font varies greatly depending on its history, style elements, and prior use in media. For example, Papyrus is a sans serif typeface invented in 1982. Aside from being fairly new, this typeface is not viewed as an authoritative or very readable choice for text.
Contrariwise, Baskerville Old Face, is a transitional serif typeface invented in 1750 by John Baskerville. Baskerville Old Face was and is the preferred font choice for documents created by the University of Birmingham in England.
With a history and shape designed for academics, this typeface provokes images of authority in the reader.
Ultimately, the anatomy of fonts is crucial to their perception. Serif designs, stroke lengths, and other factors are worth considering. A large stroke looks more calligraphic than a small stroke. A font with distinguishable uppercase and lowercase letters is usually advised.
Other than character shapes, different aspects of typefaces need to be considered. Spacing between letters, also known as kerning, is an important factor for readability. Leading is the vertical space between one line of text and the next. Some fonts are more legible at smaller point values than others.
There are plenty of websites online that offer free fonts. The following is just a few to get you started:
Google Fonts is a source for over 1,280 free font families and APIs. Each font is licensed for use in projects and commercial products.
Behance is a great source for hundreds of paid and free fonts. You’ll find that there is a great variety of free, professional-looking fonts available.
The typography section at Dribbble has a plethora of professional fonts made by experienced designers. A handful of these great fonts are free of charge.
Dafont is a database of freely downloadable fonts. You can sort the catalog by artist, style, or design elements. Find your perfect serif designs or try something new for your project.
Similarly, Urbanfonts has over 8,000 free fonts to choose from. You can filter for the perfect font, or enjoy a free trial on a premium font.
Lastly, Fontspace is a massive directory of over 85,000 free font downloads. Each is legally licensed, so you can run with the font you like best. Fontspace is the largest provider of accessible designs for fonts on the Internet.
Your choice of font can have a lot more impact on reception than you realize. There’s a lot more behind serifs, typeface history, and readability than meets the eye. Fonts are a nuanced subject, but mastering them is a critical skill.
While we may have established standards for text today, they can change quickly. Serifs fell out of style in the 80s and began to be seen again just 20 years later as computer resolutions improved.
The best way to keep your branding evergreen is to follow font trends as they change.
For more information on fonts and page design, read GCF Global’s various articles on the relationship between typography and business. The site has plenty more helpful articles about design and consumer influence, too.