If you’ve ever shopped for a car and narrowed it down to “the one,” then you’ve probably experienced the bizarre phenomenon of suddenly seeing that car EVERYWHERE. There’s probably a scientific name for this phenomenon and I just don’t know it, but it does bring to mind the Tootsie Roll candy jingle from my childhood years:
Are you wondering what this has to to with the evolution of typography? Well…
I’ve Been Shopping for Typography
I’ve had this fixation on typography lately and been learning all I can. I’m not an expert by any means, but the result of this “font-centration” has opened my eyes to see fonts EVERYWHERE. It’s even inspired me to re-write the Tootsie Roll jingle:
I can’t even look at a billboard without dissecting the letterforms in an effort to Identify that Font Face*.
*Game that nerdy designer types play on long road trips. Or possibly just me.
Anyhow, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the topic. Below is a quick history on the evolution of typography to help you learn to identify fonts by their classification (or style). Want to identify fonts on the fly? Read on.
Below are examples of five major font classifications, ranging from the 15th century to the 20th century. Note the examples I’ve selected within each classification are VERY similar, just to show what the fonts share in common. These are general classifications and you will certainly find fonts that fall outside these boundaries.
Old Style typefaces are, well, old school. They date from the 15th-17th century. If you look at the horizontal vs vertical stroke, there is contrast in thickness, but not a major one. The crossbars are quite straight and the serifs are sloping, or concave.
If an Old Style typeface fell off a rooftop, it would lightly ping the concrete with it’s serif, roll once on it’s slightly oblong counter, dust itself off, and walk away with all dignity intact.
Transitional typefaces mark the Age of Enlightenment, a bridge between Old Style and Modern. They came at a period in history where there was a departure from handwritten (or calligraphic) letterforms. They typically have a more noticeable contrast between horizontal (thinner) and vertical (thicker) strokes. The serifs are a little straighter than you’ll see with Old Style fonts.
When a transitional typeface walks off a rooftop, it gently floats to the ground on it’s parachute-style serifs.
I suppose modern is a relative word, but when it comes to typography, Modern typefaces (a.k.a. Didones) date from the 18th century. The stroke transitions are rather abrupt, with even more extreme contrast between horizontal and vertical strokes than seen in Transitional fonts. The serifs have gone on a diet – straight and skinny is in.
Rooftop test: The Modern typeface enjoys champagne on a rooftop terrace while wearing a stylish gown. It’s does not fall off a rooftop, it takes the stairs down to the lobby and a carriage home.
Slab Serifs (a.k.a. Egyptian) typefaces made their debut in the 19th century, along with advancements in print technology. A major departure from their dainty predecessors, these beefy slab serifs weren’t meant for long lines of text; They were destined for headlines. You’ll recognize them by their monotone stroke weight and their heavy, square serifs.
When a Slab Serif typeface falls off a roof, it leaves it a big hole in the concrete.
Sans serifs are practically a gimme. You can spot them a mile away because THEY DON’T HAVE SERIFS. Although sans serif fonts have been around for centuries, they made a comeback to commercial popularity in the late 18th to early 19th century. Three broad classifications of Sans Serif fonts include: Grotesque, Humanist, and Geometric.
Sans serif fonts don’t fall off rooftops because there are no serifs to trip on. Duh.
Now You Can Play
Some of the “biggies” to look at when identifying fonts are the vertical vs. horizontal stroke weights and the serif type. Just recognizing those three things will give you a leg up when playing the Name That Font Type game.
So, next time you’re rolling down the freeway or cruising around town, go ahead and impress your friends with your mad font skills.