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Font Resources

Online Graphic Design Degree Guide: Font Resources

Before the advent of movable type, everyone wrote (or rather, everyone among the few people who could write wrote) in their own style of handwriting. And rather than reducing all information to uniform letters, the printing press spawned a vast array of fonts and typefaces for commercial and personal use. In this guide to fonts, we discuss the development of font-based typography and link to typographic resources on the web.  We also include links to databases where the user can review galleries of fonts and download freeware versions for home use.

Typefaces vs. Fonts

This is a point that should probably be clarified. The two terms are often used as synonyms nowadays, but this is a relatively recent conflation. Since the popularization of personal computers in the ’80s, the term “font” has been used in word processor software to mean “typeface.” In the past a typeface was a distinct entity (Helvetica) and a font was a subcategory of typeface (Helvetica Standard, Helvetica Bold, or Helvetica Italic for instance).

The Evolution of Modern Typefaces and Fonts

Immediately after the development of the European printing press, the first typefaces developed reflected the calligraphic, Gothic styles of the hand-written manuscripts before them. But as the Renaissance developed, the Medieval writing styles of France and Germany were replaced by a strong, Roman-influenced style characterized by smooth, curved letters. The late 15th Century saw the creation of clean, classically influenced typefaces as well as a slanted style popular in Venice that would later be called “italic.” In the 16th Century, typographic innovations from Italy became more common in France, with major typographers like Claude Garamond and Robert Granjon establishing their own unique styles.

Baroque and even Medieval elements remained in these typefaces. The evolution to modern type occurred in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The center of typography shifted from France to the Netherlands around 1600, and then to England around 1650. Figures like William Caslon, John Baskerville, and Giambattista Bodoni abandoned baroque flourishes in favor of clean, modern serifed type.

The next revolution in typography came in the early 20th Century, as typefaces were developed that eschewed traditional rules, taking on often-bizarre forms in tandem with the growth of modernism in the arts. This era saw the boom in sans-serif fonts, as well as unusual typefaces mirroring art nouveau, art deco, and pop art aesthetics. Fonts like Helvetica became common, taking the “clean and modern” ethos to a new level. As the 20th Century drew to a close, fonts became more and more fragmented, in many ways reflecting the postmodernist vogue in art and philosophy; designers like David Carson advocated a “grunge” aesthetic that favored decoration over readability, form over function, and playfulness over calm.

Font Types: A General Categorization

As mentioned, most typefaces have several font variations. In addition to a standard form, printed typefaces generally have a boldface form (in which lines are thicker), an oblique form (in which letters are slanted to the right), and an italic form (in which the letters, are not only slanted, but frequently utilize very different shapes). Some word processors allow for other innovations, such as the transformation of a font to an outline form, or the addition of shadows to give a three-dimensional look to the type.

Serif typefaces can be divided into several categories. The oldest are the “old style” fonts (such as Garamond), which feature minimal contrast between the thickest and thinnest lines of a letter and thin points on the angles of letters. So-called “modern” fonts (like Bodoni) show strong contrast between the thickest and thinnest lines of a letter, often with thick vertical lines and thin horizontals and serifs. “Transitional” fonts carry elements of both styles. Last, “slab serif” or “Egyptian” fonts (like Courier) have the least contrast between line thicknesses, often with none at all and equally thick serifs.

Sans serif typefaces are mostly derived from “grotesque” styles developed in the 19th Century. Grotesque-style fonts have some thickness contrast, while “neo-grotesque” fonts (such as, most famously, Helvetica) have much less. “Humanist” sans serifs (like Lucida Grande) have much more, and thus bear more of a resemblance to modern-style serif typefaces. “Geometric” styles (like Futura) are based on simple, geometric forms and thus have a bold, vintage-modern feel.

While most people divide typefaces into serif and sans serif, other types exist as well. Script typefaces are designed to look calligraphic, and have an elaborate, often frilly appearance. Often hard to read, these are rarely used as body text.

Ornamental typefaces are those almost never used for body text. They are designed to evoke certain moods or artistic styles, and can have an “art deco” or “Wild West” theme for instance. Many employ unusual shapes like flowers in their letter forms. Others attempt to mimic foreign script styles– Hindi, Hebrew, Thai, or Chinese, for instance– while still being legible as Roman script. Yet others are styles that were once popular for languages now written in a conventional Roman script, such as the Gaelic script commonly used for writing the Irish Gaelic language and the fractured, Gothic script standard for the writing of German until the 19th Century.

A final category are symbol typefaces which entirely consist of symbols, such as abstract geometric forms, scientific symbols, foreign letters, or small stylized drawings of household objects. Wingdings is a well-known example.

Further Reading

We’ve included a number of links to help the student and non-expert understand the art and technique of typography.

  • ABC Typography is a self-described “online museum” of typography.
  • A FAQ on fonts, typography, and computer fonts.
  • Typophile is a forum for online typography buffs.
  • A discussion of serifs on the I Love Typography blog.
  • An in-depth explanation of sans-serif fonts.
  • Allan Haley discusses the use of script fonts.
  • A host of free fonts are available on the Internet. Two sites of import are the Free Fonts Database, and Freeware Fonts.
  • Fonts.com is an online font store, featuring free fonts and extensive typographic information as well.
  • Decode Unicode is a wiki explaining the ~100,000 typographic symbols commonly agreed on for use on computers, including those in languages like Cree, Thai Lue, and Yi.
  • For those with an academic interest in typography, links to academic typography resources are available here.

IMAGE: Futura, a classic example of a geometric sans-serif font (Source: Wikimedia Commons)