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An Introduction to Typefaces
This article has been designed to give the layman or beginner an easy to read introduction to typefaces, sometimes referred to as fonts and the different attributes they hold. Effective use of a typeface is incredibly important in all forms of design and especially so in web design where text is one of the most important forms of communication.
Knowing what you are looking for when choosing a font is incredibly important. The fonts are mainly grouped by their physical appearance. The most recognised groups are serif, sans serif, script, blackletter, monspaced and ornamental.
Serif typefaces are named after the small features at the end of the letter strokes. They are sometimes referred to as “roman” typefaces and are used most commonly used in print media such as magazines, newspapers and books.
It is widely believed that serif fonts make long passages of text easier to read (hence their use in newspapers and books) but actually studies have shown a large amount of variation in results suggesting that the ability to better sustain serif typefaces is based on practice and familiarity with the style.
Serif fonts are also commonly divided into three subgroups called Old style, Transitional and Modern. Old Style Serif fonts are directly descended from written styles and tend to have a diagonal stress. They are still quite widely and you may recognise the fonts Garamond and Goudy Old Style as examples of this group.
Transitional fonts are much more common and are in between the old style fonts and the modern. They have more definition between thick and thin lines within the letters and you will recognise Times Roman and Baskerville as recognisable examples of Transitional Serif Fonts.
Modern fonts are characterised by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines. They are considered less readable in large blocks than the other two classifications and are more commonly used in headings.
A sans serif font is named after the lack of a serif at the end of each letters pen stroke and they are generally associated with more modern designs.
Sans serif designs appeared further down the time line than their serif styles brother yet are just as popular, especially in digital media. This is because sans serifs fonts encourage legibility over readability and are perfect for use in smaller text blocks.
Sans serif is also used more commonly in the digital field because it holds its legibility better on low resolution or poor quality screens; some thicker sans serif fonts have become especially synonymous with the web 2.0 styling. Sans serif fonts are also commonly used on road or public information signs.
Commonly recognised sans serif fonts include Arial, Helvetica and Futura.
Script typefaces are the ones often associated with handwritten text or calligraphy. They are quite difficult to read in large passages but are still used in some situations, especially print media. This is because script fonts often give off the impression of elegance when compared to some of the other font groups.
You will often find Script fonts used in restaurant menus or invitations for the elegant connotations and because these formats often don’t feature huge amounts of text collected together.
Commonly used Script fonts include Coronet and Handscript.
Blackletter typefaces are fairly complex fonts that use an especially complex set of serifs and design tweaks. They are predominately designed to fit in with “old English” style calligraphy and often appear Medieval. They lend a certain amount of power to text as it becomes instantly noticeable, especially alongside normal fonts.
Blackletter is very rarely used for full sets of text and is usually centred around headers and titles. It becomes difficult to read if set to small and therefore it does not lend itself to excessive use. Blackletter is sometimes referred to as “Gothic” but this should not be confused with certain styles of sans serif font that have gothic styles.
Common Blackletter styles include Schwabacher and Textualis
Monspaced fonts are specially designed fonts in which every letter or symbol has the exact same width. They were originally designed for typewriters which could not move a dynamic amount of space in-between letters so every one had to be the same. Early computers also used this style of typeface as did early printers.
Monospaced text is still used because of how easy it is to read in large groups and can be found today in computer programming and plain text documents and you will very often see it inside internet error messages or server commands.
Because of its relationship with computers and programming monospaced fonts often end up making blocks of text look very “geeky” or “technical”, it would be wise to avoid publishing anything in this style unless you wanted to purposely achieve these effects. While its legibility is high reading it in large amounts can prove to be difficult.
Modern examples of monospaced fonts are Courier and Monaco.
Ornamental text is often referred to under different names such as display or novelty text. It is very rarely suited for body text and is designed for distinctive titles. The style will very often carry extremely specific connotations (such as Horror or Fantasy) and can end up being associated with brands or products very easily.
Sometimes the font features picture or icons built into it and will often be involved in logos.
There are many other, less commonly used typefaces out there such as none latin based ones or symbol fonts such as Wingdings and Webdings. These all have their uses but are not always installed on every browser and reader.
The most important thing to remember when choosing a font is to find a balance between readability and suitability. If you site is all about castles and knights it may make sense to use Blackletter but no-one wants to read more than 20 or so words of Blackletter at a time, pick an Old Style serif font for the body of your text and use the distinctiveness of another font for headers and titles.
Hopefully this has been at least a little educating and next time you decide on a font for a project you will be a little better suited to making the right choice.
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