Typography Lesson: What Defines the Alluring Qualities of Serif Subgroups?

by fontspace

There is so much rich history in typography that can add mystique and an underlying quality to your layout designs. In the case of serif fonts, which date back to the time of the Roman Empire, one asks, what propelled these scribes and sculptors to add serifs to their inscriptional letters? In his 1968 book The Origin of the Serif, scholar and calligrapher Father Edward Catich espoused the popular theory that the "Roman letter outlines were first painted onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks which flared at stroke ends and corners, creating serifs." It is also believed that another explanation could be that serifs were added to neaten carved lines due to the difficult work of chiseling into stone.

Since ancient times not many advancements took place in design variations until Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press thanks to moveable type. During the 18th century, serif fonts were tinkered with by typographers that we still know by name. Their enduring contributions to typography developed subgroups within the serif typeface category. Here's a list of what distinguishes them.

Old Style: Also known as humanist typefaces, these date back to the Gutenberg times, ca. 1465, as they were inspired by handwriting from that period. They have thick serifs, low contrast between thick and thin strokes, and are characterized by diagonal stress. This promotes excellent legibility. Think Garamond or Caslon

Example from our site: Tex Gyre Bonum font by Gust e-Foundry

Transitional: These serif typefaces, derived from innovations developed by John Baskerville (1706-1775), upon the work of William Caslon (1692-1766). Caslon was an English gunsmith and typographer and attributed with cementing the qualities of the Old Style. Baskerville and these styles are also known as "baroque," but essentially they transition between the Old and the next phase, the modern. Their qualities are, thinner serifs and a higher contrast between thick and thin strokes. Most famous version: Times New Roman.

Example from our site: Linux Libertine font by Linux Libertine

Modern: Also known as "modern" typefaces, these emerged in the late 18th century, produced contemporaneously by the famous French printing and type producing family the Dibots, and the Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813). Following Baskerville's ideas, the Didone fonts are known for very thin serifs and extreme contrast between thick and thin strokes. The Bodoni font family embodies this style. 

Example from our site: Dubiel font by David Rakowski

Slab serif: Dating to the turn of the 19th century, slab serif, or "Egyptian" typefaces are characterized by a very small, almost imperceptible contrast between thick and thin lines. The serifs tend to be as thick and of the same weight as the vertical lines and normally have no brackets. Clarendon is a great example that displays the potential subtleties in line weight. 

Example from our site: Peralta font by Astigmatic One Eye Typographic Institute

Enhance your design content by downloading free history infused fresh typefaces that will get your message across. Contact us to learn how to contribute your own epically inspired font designs. Who knows, you could be the next Caslon, or Bodoni.