a quick guide to typography

Toby Matthews

Creative Designer

a quick guide to typography

Typography is the art of arranging type to make text visually appealing. It encompasses choice of typeface, character weight, spacing, and layout to make text legible and create impactful designs. This quick guide explores the five main typeface classifications and where each works well.

why typography matters

Understanding the basics of typography is useful for anyone involved in communications and is especially important for those working in graphic design. Good typography is fundamental for any written content – in print or online – as it enhances the overall design aesthetic and the readability and message clarity for the intended audience.

Different typefaces evoke different emotions and can play a key part in reflecting brand characteristics. And, for every typeface, there is generally a font family, with light, regular, bold, or italic text options.

type classifications

There are five main typeface classifications: serif, sans serif, script, monospaced, and decorative. These have all evolved from the earliest formats of type, known as Blackletter, which date back to the 15th century and evoke a sense of medieval calligraphy.

Engraver's Old English typeface with A-Z character examples of the regular font

As a general rule, serif and sans serif typefaces are used for body copy and headlines, script and decorative for headings, and monospaced type to represent computer code. Of course, not all typefaces are made equal – some work well in small sizes while others are only really suitable for larger type – so it’s important to consider readability in each use case.

1. serif typefaces

Serif typefaces derive their name from the small lines or projections that finish each letter (‘serifs’). They are quite formal in appearance and feature variable stroke contrast, meaning that within each character there are both thick and thinner lines. The higher (or more dramatic) the contrast, the harder a typeface can be to read. See if you agree with our examples below:

old style serifs

This category includes the first Roman types derived from calligraphy in the 1500s, as well as much later typefaces developed in the 20th century. The contrast in stroke weight is not dramatic and the stress (where the letterform is thinnest) is on the diagonal.

Old style serifs are easy to read and excellent for long passages of text. They are also often used for formal invitations and orders of service.

Sabon typeface with A-Z character examples of Sabon roman font

transitional serifs

This category was established in the 18th century and features characters designed on a strict grid system. Its typefaces reflect the transition between old-style and neoclassical designs, with some characteristics of each.

Transitional serifs are popular for use in books, magazines, and newspaper copy. They are equally readable in large and small type sizes and are suitable for long passages of text.

Times typeface with A-Z character examples of Times roman font

didone (or modern) serifs

This category is characterised by extremely high stroke contrast – dramatic changes in the thickness of the characters. The serifs are thin and flat and, in many cases, strokes terminate in a ball shape.

Didone serifs are popular for headings and display use but are not particularly legible in longer passages or smaller text.

Bodini typeface with A-Z character examples of Bodini roman font

slab serifs

This category became popular in the 19th century for display advertising and large-scale media. These typefaces embody the spirit of the industrial revolution with thick blocky serifs and low contrast.

Slab serifs have made something of a comeback recently and have been used for headings on trendy websites. They are best used as display type or headings but can be used for longer text.

Caecilia typeface with A-Z character examples of Caecilia light font

glyphic serifs

Typefaces in this category tend to emulate engraving rather than pen-drawn text. The contrast in the stroke weight is usually low, and characters feature a triangular-shaped serif design.

Glyphic serifs include Albertus, used by Faber & Faber on their iconic book covers, and are best used as headings and display type.

Friz Quadrata typeface with A-Z character examples of Friz Quadrata medium font

2. sans serif typefaces

This classification first appeared in the early 20th century. As the name suggests (if you have a basic grasp of French), sans serif characters do not feature any projections at the end of strokes. This initially earned them the name ‘grotesque’ because of the lack of elegant serif designs. These typefaces evolved into plainer designs, making them more legible, and ‘Neo-Grotesque’ sans serifs arose.

neo-grotesque sans serifs

This category includes many popular modern serif-free typefaces, including Univers and DIN, as well as Helvetica. Characters have less contrast than the earlier grotesque sans serifs and no spur on their capital G.

Neo-grotesque sans serifs are often used in headings and are suitable for shorter passages of text and smaller type sizes.

Helvetica typeface with A-Z character examples of Helvetica light font

geometric sans serifs

This category is influenced by simple geometric shapes and its typefaces are very modern. Character strokes have the appearance of being strict monolines with no contrast, making these typefaces less readable than other sans serifs at smaller sizes.

Geometric sans serifs are most suitable for display type and headings and are not well-suited to longer passages of text.

Avant Garde Gothic typeface with A-Z character examples of Avant Garde Gothic book font

humanist sans serifs

This category is said to be the easiest to read of all the sans serif typefaces. They were developed to retain some of the influence that handwriting had on earlier serif typefaces, with characters based on the proportions of classical Roman-style capitals

Humanist sans serifs make excellent headings in text but are also more legible than Grotesque sans serifs in longer passages of text.

Gill Sans typeface with A-Z character examples of Gill Sans light font

3. script typefaces

This classification takes inspiration from handwriting and calligraphy. Script typefaces are more fluid in style than traditional typefaces and characters often have strokes that connect them. They are often differentiated by appearing to be made by different tools, such as brushes, flat or pointed nibs, so can convey a range of moods, from formal to very casual.

formal scripts

This category of typefaces is derived from 17th-century writing styles. Characters often have strokes that connect them and are slanted with flowing loops and flourishes.

Formal script typefaces are normally reserved for use in short passages of text, especially in formal invitations or as headings.

Nautica typeface with A-Z character examples of Nautica regular font

casual scripts

Typefaces in this category suggest informality and give the appearance of something written quickly. Characters often appear to have been drawn with a brush and the letters are usually connected.

Casual scripts are popular for use in wedding stationery and party invitations, as well as in headings and social media ads. Their informality makes them seem more ‘friendly’ than formal scripts.

Liza typeface with A-Z character examples of Liza text font

calligraphic scripts

This category mimics hand-written calligraphy, often appearing to have been made with a flat-tipped pen. Characters generally have high contrast and can be connecting or non-connecting in design.

Calligraphic scripts are most suited to display type or headings. They are often evocative of a particular time or place. Mistral, for example, will immediately evoke France for many.

Mistral typeface with A-Z character examples of Mistral roman font

4. monospaced typefaces

This classification features typefaces where each character occupies the same horizontal space. Originally produced to comply with the mechanical requirements of typewriters, they were then widely used in early computing because of limited graphical capabilities. Monospaced typefaces include serif and sans serif varieties and often incorporate common stylistic touches on certain characters (such as exaggerated serifs on the stem of a lowercase 'i') to disguise their shared width.

Monospaced typefaces tend to be used to represent computer code or typewriter-style documents. They can also help to make URLs (which feature colons, slashes, and unconventional phrases) more readable.

Andale Mono typeface with A-Z character examples of Andale Mono regular font

5. decorative typefaces

This is the largest and most diverse of the major typeface classifications where unusual letter shapes, proportions, and effects are used to create dramatic results. Decorative typefaces often reflect an aspect of culture, such as graffiti or tattoos and, because of this, they can be time-sensitive and fall out of fashion.

Decorative typefaces are rarely used for lengthy blocks of text but are popular for signage, headlines, and situations demanding typographic impact.

Kingthing's Christmas 2 typeface with A-Z character examples of Kingthing's Christmas 2 regular font


the right typography for your design

While we hope this guide to typography has given you some insights into the different typeface classifications and when to use them, there are thousands to choose from. If you’d like help finding a strong typeface to reflect your brand, make a document or website more readable, or design an advert with maximum impact, our creative team will be happy to help.

Get in touch on 01865 242098 or contact us using the button below.

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