Crash Course: The evolution of typeface style

Alex Bigman

By now, you have probably realized that we at 99designs are totally smitten with the alphabet – arguably the longest ongoing graphic design project in human history.

Over the past few weeks, we have gone over basic key terms in typography and explored the history of type technology. Now without further delay, let’s dive into the most fascinating chapter of all: the evolution of typeface style, leading right up to the massive array of fonts we have to choose from now. You may notice many of these old styles echoed in the modern type we see today.

1. Blackletter
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Left to right: Uncial script, Carolingian miniscule, Blackletter typefaces

Blackletter is the oldest typeface style that still has significant echoes in modern type. It emerged in Europe in the middle ages (around 1150 AD) and stuck around well into the 17th century – especially in Germany. It is the direct descendent of Carolingian minuscule, which itself came from Uncial script.

Blackletter typeface
Blackletter typeface

When books became more popular with the rise of universities, scribes needed a more efficient typeface than Carolingian—something easier to write and more dense, so more type could fit on a single page. The tall, narrow, sharp and blocky Blackletter emerged in solution.

Also known as: Gothic, Block, Fraktur, Textura, Old English

2. Humanist
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Centaur, Adobe Jenson and Verona SB typefaces
Left to righ: Centaur, Adobe Jenson and Verona SB typefaces

This typeface style emerged around 1460 and was based on the script style of Italian humanist thinkers. It is much lighter and less blocky than Blackletter, making it a lot easier to read by today’s standards.

The median height of its letters is distinctively low which has caused it to fall out of popularity nowadays.

Also known as: Venetian
Examples: Centaur, Adobe Jenson, Verona SB

3. Old Style
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Goudy Old Style, Palantino, and Cheltenham typefaces
Left to right: Goudy Old Style, Palantino and Cheltenham typefaces

Old Style type was the first style to emerge in the era of movable type letterpress printing (late 15th century), rather than calligraphy and scribes. The effects are clear. More sophisticated molding technology allowed for greater contrast between thick and thin strokes and more delicate serif tails.

The horizontal axis becomes more prominent (no more sloped cross-bars on the “e,” for instance), while italics emerge for the first time. Though its name might suggest otherwise, most people would find Old Style the first modern-looking typeface.

Also known as: Garalde
Examples: Goudy Old Style, Palantino, Cheltenham

4. Transitional
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Baskerville, Times New Roman and Georgia typefaces
Left to right: Baskerville, Times New Roman and Georgia typefaces

This style came about in the Enlightenment period (18th century). It takes Old Style a step further, eliminating all remaining traces of handwritten calligraphy in favor of a fully mechanical look (the Enlightenment was all about ditching tradition and celebrating invention).

Thin strokes get thinner and thick strokes get thicker; the amount of serif tails increases; the vertical and horizontal axes rule — diagonal strokes and leaning attitudes disappear (except in italics, of course).

For a 300 year old style, we still use transitional fonts all the time today.

Also known as: Neoclassical
Examples: Baskerville, Times New Roman, Georgia

5. Modern
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Bodoni, Didot and Walbaum typefaces
Left to right: Bodoni, Didot and Walbaum typefaces

The first Modern font, by Italian printer Giambattista Bodoni, appeared in 1784 but the style really became in vogue (and in Vogue) in the 20th century. The style takes the stylistic progression of the Old Style and Transitional typefaces to its ultimate conclusion: super fat thick strokes contrast with hairline thin strokes with abrupt, right angle serifs.

Nowadays, the style exudes luxury and high fashion.

Also known as: Didone
Examples: Bodoni, Didot, Walbaum

6. Slab
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Clarendon, Rockwell and Playbill typefaces
Left to right: Clarendon, Rockwell and Playbill typefaces

Up until the 19th century, type was almost always intended for book reading.

Around the beginning of the 1800s, though, new uses for text became popular: advertisements, posters, and large newspaper headlines – things designed to catch your eye.

monospaced slab typeface
Courier is an example of a monospaced slab typeface

The Slab serif arrived to fill this need. They are basically modern typeface styles, fattened up with thick, block-like strokes. Most typewriter fonts are also slabs.

The typewriter also introduced monospacing, or forming a typeface in which every glyph is the exact same width.

Also known as: Egyptian, Square Serif, Mechanical
Examples: Clarendon, Rockwell, Playbill, Courier.

7. Sans Serif
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 Helvetica, Lucida Sans and Verdana typefaces
Left to right: Helvetica, Lucida Sans and Verdana typefaces

The word “sans” in French means “without.” So there you have it: sans serifs lack those little tabs and tails that, up until the 1830s, were in practice mandatory. People did not adapt to the change easily. Early sans serifs became known as “grotesques” because people found them so ugly.

After the grotesques, three other categories of sans serif emerged:

  1. Neo-grotesques (aka transitional, realist): Plain and easy to read; the famous Helvetica is one of these.
  2. Humanists: Slightly more calligraphic; they include Calibri, Lucida Sans and Verdana.
  3. Geometrics: Distinctly modern feel by being based entirely on geometric shapes; Futura and Century Gothic are examples.
Futura and Century Gothic typefaces
Left to right: Futura and Century Gothic typefaces

That covers the major progression of typeface style over the centuries. If you’re thinking “wait, I see loads of typeface styles that don’t quite fit into any of those categories,” you’re totally correct.

Since the advent of digital technology, the number of typefaces has skyrocketed to include a number of styles that were previously extremely rare even unheard of.

Here are a handful:

8. Script
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Kuenstler
Left to right: Kuenstler, a formal script typeface, and Caflisch Script, an informal script

Directly imitates handwriting and calligraphy

9. Mimicry
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Faux Hebrew typeface
Faux Hebrew is an example of Roman letters in Hebrew style

For the roman alphabet but evokes other writing systems, like Hebrew, for example

10. Ornamental
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Mutlu Ornamental typeface
Mutlu Ornamental

Not the most readable, this typeface sometimes includes objects, animals and other flourishes

Also known as: Novelty

11. Symbol
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Windings
Windings

Consists of symbols that may not resemble normal typographic characters at all.

Also known as: Dingbat

For more information on the evolution of typeface style, check out this awesome series of articles on I Love Typography, starting here.

Featured image: UCDMedicine (via Flickr)

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