Little Typeface Primer

English: Little Typeface Primer German: Kleine Schriftstilkunde


My occupation with typefaces was raised by the desire to present academic and other texts in an appealing form. This covered both aspects of ergonomic reading and aesthetics. In addition to my technical studies of PostScript fonts, I made myself familiar with the many historic and modern typeface styles. A comprehensive overview makes it easy to evaluate the suitability of typefaces for certain purposes.
Here I present a summary of my findings, with an overview about typeface styles, demonstration of special type variants, and a book recommendation.
Finally I found the time to revise this page and present it in a modern form after reproducing the images in a decent quality.
There is also an FAQ and a commented link list.
I appreciate feedback.

Classifications of typefaces

Different systematic approaches exist for classification of typefaces. A historic approach seems most reasonable, even though modern designs may be difficult to assort. But there are disputable cases in every systematics.


The Romans used large (capital) letters similar to those engraved in stone.


Mediaeval minuscule typeface, consisting of small letters only.

Broken typefaces / Blackletter

Developed from Italian office scripts, contain many edges and branches in their forms.
In printing, the typeface of Gutenberg was widespread.

From the black letters, two groups of broken typefaces developed, Old English (right) and Old German (below) with more curly forms.

Serif styles (Antiqua)

The resumption of antique (e.g. Roman) basic letter forms and their combination with suitable small letters.

Old style (renaissance)

The basic forms remind of the informal forms of handwritten letters, e.g. round forms (like small "o") are often slightly slanted leftwards. Corresponding to the printing techniques of the time, serifs are attached with a flat curve and have wide ends.

Well-known exponents:

  • Garamond with many variants and look-alikes,
  • Palatino,
  • Goudy Old Style,
  • Century Old Style,
  • Berkeley Old Style.

    Garamond is exceptionally popular. Its modest aesthetics makes it universally useful while providing optimal legibility. (With the exception of ITC-Garamond which appears rather thick.)

  • Transitional (baroque)

    Serious symmetric forms. Serifs are attached with circular roundings and end in a thin spike.

    Well-known exponents:

  • Times,
  • Baskerville,
  • Caslon.

  • Modern (classicism)

    Striking contrast between vertical stems of uniform width and very thin horizontal lines. Serifs are very fine too and are usually attached at a right angle, corresponding to the copper gravure printing technique of the time.

    Best-known exponent:

  • Bodoni, increasingly popular recently; with many variants.

    Another succinct exponent:

  • Walbaum

  • Sans serif styles (serif-less Antiqua)


    By the end of the 19th century, a more technical conception of typefaces omitted the traditional serifs and developed more schematic, stylised letter forms. This led to typefaces like
  • Helvetica (no picture, the typeface without properties is well-known)
  • and the more or less bearable Univers.

  • Humanist

    This notion characterises sans-serif typefaces that revert to the traditional letter forms and maintain variations of their line widths. This way, typefaces became again more convenient for human reading habits.

    Exponents to be mentioned:

  • Gill Sans,
  • Lucida Sans,
  • the famous Optima, whose fine properties are only revealed at good printing quality,
  • the modern Rotis SansSerif,
  • Frutiger,
  • the presentation typeface Formata,
  • the striking AntiqueOlive.

  • Geometric

    In consequence of the technical typeface conception, typefaces were developed whose forms are based on simple geometric forms.

    Exponents are

  • AvantGarde, consisting only of circles and straight lines,
  • but also the quite appealing Futura.

  • Slab Serif

    Uniformly wide, striking serifs are the characteristic design property of these typefaces.


  • Glypha
  • Memphis
  • Rockwell
  • American Typewriter

  • Contemporary Antiqua typefaces

    Just like in other areas of style (architecture, music), typeface variety has become more creative and diverse.

    Designs resembling traditional styles

    Some modern designs like Palatino and Times can clearly be assigned to historic styles (Old style and Transitional, respectively). For others a category is less obvious.
    The Times New Roman (Times) is a transitional (baroque) design from about 1930. It had the requirement that much text should fit on a page of the Times newspaper. That partly explains its moderate legibility.

    Typeface families

    Some typeface designers created groups of typeface families that correspond to different basic kinds but maintain compatible style:
  • Stone by Sumner Stone with a serif, a sans serif and an informal typeface;
  • Rotis by Otl Aicher with a serif, a sans serif and two intermediate typefaces.

  • In addition to modern Antiqua designs, there are a large number of special typefaces that can be used for specific purposes:


  • Handwritten Antiqua, looks like hand-written script with Antiqua letter forms

  • imitated of scanned hand scripts

  • the old German hand script Sütterlin

  • Design typefaces

  • Headline and Poster typefaces used as an eye-catcher

  • Decorative typefaces

  • Typeface variants

    A typeface family typically comprises a number of style variations to be used to emphasise and distinguish different kinds of text. Among these there are especially various degrees of bold vs. light appearance (weight), italics with usually specific design details, and varying widths (e.g. Helvetica Narrow which is scaled geometrically, whereas Helvetica Condensed and Helvetica Compressed are different variants with a narrower design).

    Among the special typeface variants there are small capitals (small caps) and old style figures:
    Small caps are often preferred for literature references.

    Be aware of scaling down capital letters and pretending them for small caps! This is a typographic sin which revenges optically since the stem widths do not match and appear grossly unadequate. This is shown with a comparison between real and fake small caps.

    For some typefaces, more special variants are available:
  • Titling variants are intended for large initial letters and headlines. They are designed slightly thinner as simply scaling the normal letter forms to large sizes would often appear too fat

  • Swash letters: alternative letters with attached ornaments. They were formerly used for column alignment but can also be used to beautify a text (more suitable for poetic text)

  • Expert variants with special letters and letter combinations that are not covered by the normal letter set, e.g. small superscript letters as used for certain abbreviations in French and Spanish etc.

  • Book recommendations

    Well, actually I have currently only one recommendation that matches the introductory intention of this presentation, and that's in German.

    Frequently asked questions

    can be found in the
    FAQ (mostly in German).

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    to other good
    Internet pages about typefaces.

    Feedback and further questions

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    Thomas Wolff.