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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: Intriguing Facts About Fonts

I would encourage you to use Google Images (as well as Google Web) to find samples of each type characteristic or category. Type “Google Images,” then search for “Modern” Type, for instance. You can find detailed images and descriptions in this way.

Typography is one of the most important and complex aspects of the graphic arts, involving aesthetics as well as the highly computer-intensive arena of prepress. In no special order, here are a few facts and descriptions regarding typography and fonts.

A Brief History of Type: Old Style, Transitional, and Modern

It always helps to get a type sample print book to familiarize yourself with all the variations in typefaces. These now are available online as well as in printed form. Type books and websites display either full alphabets and numerals or selected passages of text (“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” for instance) in various typefaces.

As a starting point, let’s look at the “Old Style,” “Transitional,” and “Modern” classifications for serif faces (the typefaces with little extra strokes on the ends of the letterforms).

Old Style faces include Garamond and Goudy. There is not as much variation between the width of thick and thin strokes in the letterforms as in Transitional or Modern faces. In addition, there is a somewhat diagonal stress in the letterforms. (For instance, if you look at the difference in thickness of the letterform as your eye travels around the letter “O” set in Garamond type, the thinnest portions of the letter are somewhat asymmetrical, causing the letter to appear to lean slightly to the left.) Finally, the serifs are bracketed (that is, the letterform curves into the stroke of the serif).

Baskerville and Fournier would be good examples of “Transitional” typefaces. They have more contrast between thick and thin strokes as well as a more vertical “stress” than the Old Style typefaces that preceded them. In addition, the serifs are horizontal (as opposed to slightly slanted, as is often the case in Old Style typefaces).

Modern typefaces go even further. There is far more contrast between the thin and thick strokes of the letterforms (very thin vs. very thick). In addition, serifs and horizontal strokes of the letters are exceptionally narrow (almost hairlines), and the serifs have no bracketing (i.e., no curves into the serifs, just abrupt angles). Finally, the letterform stress is vertical. Gone is the slanted stress of Old Style type. Bodoni and Didot would fall into this category.

Sans Serif Typefaces

The aforementioned are only the serif faces. Another category entirely, sans serif faces have no little “tails” on the ends of the letters. Letterforms in this category are simpler, with no variance, or very little variance, from thick to thin in the letters. Other terms associated with sans serif (French for “without serifs”) are “Grotesque” and “Gothic.” You’ll see these words in the names of the typefaces, such as Century Gothic or Monotype Grotesque.

Due to their overall heavier look than some serif typefaces, sans serif typefaces are useful for headlines, providing contrast to the lighter tone of a block of body copy set in a serif typeface. Sans serif type can be a bit harder to read in large amounts of copy than serif faces (this is the traditional wisdom, although many people now dispute this). Some people believe the strokes of the serifs carry the eye more easily from one serif typeface letter to the next.

Helvetica and Futura are sans serif faces. Optima, another sans serif face, actually breaks the rule of most sans serif faces in that its letterforms include strokes of varying thickness (but no serifs).

Slab Serif or Egyptian Typefaces

You may have seen type on Old West style posters with pronounced thick, horizontal serifs that are chunky like slabs (much thicker than the horizontal serifs of Modern typefaces). Clarendon would fit into this category. Letterforms have a vertical stress, and there is little variation from thick to thin within the letterforms. All of these qualities made for dynamic, easy to read posters in the Old West. These faces are also called “Egyptian” typefaces.

Script Typefaces

These are just what their name implies. Script faces look like they were drawn with a pen. They have a certain formality, although they are very hard to read as text (and somewhat easier to read as headline type). You might use them in a poster or an invitation.

Decorative Typefaces

Stencil, Rosewood, and Hobo are three examples of decorative faces. Decorative type can be very effective in conveying a mood within a large format print like a poster or billboard, if the text comprises only a few words. Through its appearance alone, such a typeface can give your reader a sense of the meaning of the words. As to their readability, though, decorative typefaces are hard on the eyes when used for complete headlines or body copy.

Why You Should Care

With these type classifications in mind, you will start to see the subtle differences between typefaces. And that will be a good starting point to help you choose the most appropriate typeface for your headlines and body copy, typefaces that will reflect the tone you are trying to convey with your graphic design project while still being readable.

Typefaces are not interchangeable. Set a few sample words (or a headline) from your brochure printing job or print book cover in several different typefaces (use only a few words, and use the same words for all examples you’ll create this way). You will see the subtle or even dramatic ways in which its tone, or mood, or even meaning will change as well.

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