The appropriate application of typographic principles is crucial to the impact and effectiveness of page layout and selection of suitable fonts is imperative.
Some Descriptive Vocabulary Regarding Typefaces
Before ranking styles we need to be aware of some the major distinguishing features of a typeface. The ”face” is what we see on the page and it is made up of “strokes” or lines. Thin strokes are called “hairlines” and “stems” are thick strokes. “Serifs” are the tiny ledges or feet at the end of a stroke. The “counter” is the part of letter, which is either partly or completely enclosed, for example the inside of an “O” or a “C.”
There isn’t one universally accepted system for classification of typefaces, though the following is a practical model:
Roman or Serif Typefaces
Many hundreds of years ago, in the age of the Roman Empire, a typeface comprised of all capitals was used. This face was made up of thick and thin strokes and all capital letters. (View an image of Roman text used on Emperor Trajan’s column here). Modern Roman typestyles share those same features, except that we have lower case letters as well. These serif-augmented styles are easily readable because characters with contrasting strokes and serifs are more distinct. Most printed publications with large volumes of text are set using Roman styles. There are exceptions, in which sans serif faces are used.
Sans Serif Typefaces
Sans serif faces are a relatively recent innovation, becoming commonly used in the middle of the last century. These letterforms are typified by strokes of even weight and no serifs. The word “sans” means “without” in French. An outstanding example of a sans serif face is Helvetica. The excellent documentary film called Helvetica is about the typeface and its impact on graphic design. Sans serif is often used in titles and headings. You will see it in many ads, technical communications and textual information where a clean modern impression is intended. Many web sites, such as this one, will use a sans serif face because it has a contemporary look and because Roman style details don’t show up as well on a computer monitor as they do in print.
Script or Typefaces Which Appear to be Written or Drawn by Hand
Script and brush typefaces look like very neat handwriting enhanced with many swirls and flourishes.
Script faces are generally reserved for social announcements and weddings. They, along with brush stroke forms may also fit into the category of “special use typefaces.” Note that when using these faces, lower case letters are small relative to capitals (i.e. low x-height) and can be difficult to read. Also, script faces should never be set in all capital letters.
Special Use Typefaces
Special use faces occur as variants of the above three classifications or as specially designed decorative styles having limited or very specific use. They include the following:
Text refers to large highly adorned block type styles, which people often mistakenly call “Gothic” or “Old English.” These fonts are based on forms employed by Medieval scribes, in Europe, when books were hand written. They were used for textual information and were still not uncommon in the early 20th century. Now, they are rarely used except for instances where antique, medieval or ancient themes are predicated. Text styles often show up in modern street gang related imagery.
Italic faces were an Italian creation of the middle ages. Now they are usually variations of existing Roman and san serif fonts. Characters are reshaped to suit the italic style; they are not simply slanted letters. Italics are to be used sparingly for emphasis or as an alternative to underlining in a body of type. They are sometimes useful as an element of style to replace quotation marks around a title or dialogue. Frequently, italics are used for captions or cut lines beneath images. Setting in all capitals should be avoided as italic becomes very difficult to read.
Decorative, Specialty or Display
A decorative face is one of the countless styles designed for specific use, mostly for headings or emphasis. Many are extremely stylized, may have few practical uses and are often labeled “fun fonts,” some for example, dripping blood, having strokes built of sticks or other objects. Others express a theme, which make them more useful, such as those evoking the impression of Asian or Greek letterforms, square serifs of an American Old West “Wanted” poster, or perhaps distressed weatherworn features.
Specialty fonts also include extreme modifications of common Roman and sans serif styles. For example, a heavily extended bold variant (i.e. extra thick strokes and wide characters) may only be useful as display type.
Selection of the appropriate typefaces is an essential component of graphic design. The model above offers suggestions for choice by category; however, as in any creative endeavor rules and traditions may be skewed to comply with originality and innovation. Readability is the key; if type is illegible, communication is broken and the design is a failure.