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Making Sense of Font Categories

This Font Knowledge article series discusses how font awareness can increase revenue and involve your print company earlier in the project development cycle.

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Today's successful printer delivers a full range of services, including graphic design that takes the latest styles and trends into account.  Brand owners are aware of the myriad font choices available today.  Helping them make sense of them can boost your customers' satisfaction and retain clients.


In our last article, we covered the history of typography and the many typefaces and fonts the artform has generated. We covered the tension between form and function, i.e., the practical need for legibility and the aesthetic desire for elegance.

We also considered the debate between those who sought to preserve the flourishes of calligraphy versus those who strove for a more modern, geometric look. Nobody won that debate, and today's fonts still reflect both schools of thought.

As we mentioned last time, the number of fonts available to today's marketers and graphic designers has exploded. From the three fonts available in the first version of PostScript, we've reached a point where we have roughly 250,000 fonts online from which to choose.

Group Them into Categories


How do we make sense of it all? When faced with a bewildering variety of items, the best way to get our heads around them is to group them into categories.

COPI simplifies fonts. Whether it is choosing, tuning, or licensing fonts for your projects, COPI can assist.

For example, there are millions of species, but most living things fit into either the animal kingdom or the plant kingdom. We have about two million brands of wine to choose from, but we can class most of them as either red or white.  Peter Dawson provides over 1,800 examples of typefaces grouped by category in his book The Essential Type Directory.


In the same way, the myriad fonts available to publishers fall mainly into two categories, serif and sans serif. The serif fonts still tip their hat to calligraphy while the sans serif fonts extol modernist geometry.


We should start with a definition. A serif is a small stroke that starts or ends a serif letter stroke. Here is an example of a capital letter A with a serif and without (sans) a serif. They are the same weight and point size.


As you can see, the two upstrokes that form the letter A in the serif font have tiny strokes at the base to add a little flair. Those are serifs. The two main strokes also have different thicknesses, or weights, in many serif fonts.


The sans serif font has none of these embellishments. The strokes are even, straight and geometric, and they come to an end with no ornamentation.


Within these broad font categories, there are subcategories to help keep them straight in our minds. Since they came first, let's start with the serifs.


Old-Style Serif Fonts

Working chronologically, the first set of serif fonts is called "old-style," or "humanist." Old-style typefaces sometimes slant slightly to the left, and the weight of the strokes is relatively even.


Here is an example of a popular, old-style font called Bembo:


Publishers use Bembo for a wide range of things, but it's most common in books. Bembo has been very influential over the centuries, inspiring the two even more popular serif fonts we'll look at below.

Transitional Serif Fonts

After old-style fonts, the next category of serif fonts is called "transitional." These represent the bridge between the old-style and the more modern styles. 

The most famous font of them all is the transitional Times New Roman. Here's a reminder of what it looks like


Britain's newspaper of record, The Times of London commissioned Times New Roman as its typeface. It's also used by many other papers, although, contrary to popular belief, it's not the most used font in the news business. That would be Poynter.


Even the Times stopped using Times New Roman in 1972 to maintain a more distinctive image. They've gone through several fonts since then, most recently creating their own Times Modern typeface in 2006.


Readers can see how the weights of the strokes are less even in Times New Roman. Designers view this pervasive font as a highly refined, if cliché, approach to the serif style. 


It's lighter and fresher looking than old-style serif fonts, and its approach is more elegant. As commercial printers will know, it's the default font in almost every word processor. 


It's also the highest-selling metal type product of all time for its manufacturer. These factors have combined to make it the most ubiquitous typeface in the world.

Modern Serif Fonts

Our next category of serif fonts is the modern, or "didone" fonts. Here's a well-known 20th-century example called Didot:


The weights of the strokes contrast even more, and the letterforms are lighter and more open. Didot is fashionable in the upscale magazine world. For example, it's been the typeface for Vogue since 1955. 


Didone fonts can be difficult to reproduce because of the very thin upstrokes. Some people find them difficult to read compared to transitional fonts for the same reason.


Most of the brand owners you work with will be aware of the difference between serif and sans serif fonts.  You can add value to your client interactions by knowing how to choose between them and when to combine them effectively.  Knowing the subcategories within each class of fonts can help you to guide your clients to design copy that makes an impact.


Now, let's move on to the sans serif fonts.

Humanist Sans Serif Font

Our first sans serif subcategory is called "humanist" or "grotesque," although there's nothing ugly about the fonts that fall under it. People in the calligraphy camp thought their geometric form was misshapen when they first appeared, however. This example is simply called Grotesque:


It's a quintessential sans serif font with no elaborations, big, open letters, and even stroke weights. Designers initially intended Grotesque for headlines, but typographers use it today as body text in a range of publications that project a modernist look and feel.

The next category is the humanist, or "neo-grotesque," sans serifs.  Like the transitional serif fonts, they're the bridge between the humanist and more modern styles.

There's another thing the two transitional subcategories have in common. They're each home to the most famous fonts in their categories. Here's a reminder of what the ever-present Helvetica looks like:


Helvetica is the opposite number of Times New Roman on the sans serif team. It's the "go-to" sans serif font in most word processors.

Its designers intended it for use anywhere and everywhere, especially for signage. Helvetica is highly legible, and publishers often use it when they don't want the font to distract the reader or send unintended messages.


Geometric Sans Serif Fonts

Our third category of sans serif fonts is called "geometric." Here's a well-known example called Futura:


Futura takes the geometric school to its logical conclusion. The characters are all drawn from the primary geometric shapes; the circle, the square, and the triangle.

As its name implies, designers turn to Futura when they want to convey a futuristic feel. It's intended to make us think of science and human progress. Advertisers use Futura extensively for copy and logos for companies like IKEA and Volkswagen.  Typographers also use it as a more creative, general-purpose alternative to Helvetica.

There's a lot more to the art, craft, and science of typography, but those are the primary genres. One of the reasons for the explosion in the number of fonts is that marketers find that avoiding hackneyed clichés is a must. 

Use Your Font Knowledge

Direct mail campaigns often miss the opportunity to make a distinctive first impression because of forgettable typography and fonts. To stand out in today's world, modern text needs to have an appropriate, fresh look and feel.


That’s where the COPI Font Team comes in. They provide the best in font tuning and licensing services for high-volume production printers.

In the next article in this series, we'll cover the impressions marketers and printers can deliver with sound font choices, when to use the various styles and when to avoid them.

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