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The Complete Guide to Serif fonts

  • September 15, 2022
  • 5 min read
The Complete Guide to Serif fonts

Serif fonts are one of the most common types of typography. A serif is a small stroke found at the end of large vertical and horizontal strokes of letters.

Serifs are classified in many different ways, but the term is confusing. There are many overlapping words for the same type of serif, which can make knowing what is clear as mud. Over time, the words for different types of serifs have changed, but confusingly, the old words are still used (resulting in many names of the same type).

Let’s try to clear things up!

Important Terminology

Before we begin, there are some key terms that we will be reviewing.

  • Bracket: This rounded line connects the serif to the stroke of the letter for a smooth transition.
  • Contrast: In this case, we are referring to the difference between the thick part of the letter and the thin part.
  • Hairline: Very thin stroke

Some important words for typography anatomy (this design from seanwes is a great visual dictionary).

Old Style/Humanists/Traditional

Traditional serif fonts were meant to mimic the brush strokes of old-school writers, so they have a soft, rounded look. This serif style has a smooth, rounded transition between thick and thin strokes, and the transition to serifs (which have less edges) is a slightly thinner, smoother line.

This typeface has a hand-crafted style, rather than a sharp, machine-made transition or modern serif look.

Drawing this style is easy, since imperfections are part of the history, handmade charm of old serifs. Draw the letter as usual, giving weight to the whole body. Then hit the floor a little more – the difference in this type of model is not very surprising.

Then draw a rectangle, rounded for each serif. If you look closely at Garamond, every 90-degree angle is softened by a rounded edge, including the transition in every serif.

Transitional/Bracketed

Transitional serifs are extra-suggested and sharper than vintage-style serifs. John Baskerville was an English printer and typist who started this style thanks to some advances in printing methods, so Baskerville is a shining example of a typewriter. The curved edge connects the stroke and the serif is a bracket, so you often see this shape called bracketed. The brackets of transitional serif fonts are rounded and smooth while the edges of serifs are squarer.

This type of model feels more machine-made and modern, as the 90-degree angles and straight lines are difficult to achieve by hand. It is known as “transformation” because this typeface is a big step toward modern styles, but it keeps the character of old serifs.

Drawing this design is a little more difficult as it needs more consistency than the old serifs. Draw the letters as you normally would, giving the whole-body weight, and thickening the bottom stroke – the difference in weight in this style is more pronounced than the old serif style. Then draw a thin, square rectangle for each serif. Mark the transition in each serif with a smooth, rounded edge.

Didone/Hairline/Modern/Neoclassical

The hair serif is flawless. A high-level style between thick and thin strokes, with a narrow, unbracketed serif. This is the style I showed in my Vectorizing Serif Lettering tutorial.

This serif can be seen in typefaces like Didot and Bodoni. Sometimes you’ll see this style with ball bearings (like below c and a in the image above), but otherwise, this style maintains a modern, clean, anonymous look.

Slab/Egypt

The most commercial font on this style is Rockwell. These typefaces have very heavy serifs with minimum adjustments in stroke weight, and no bracketing (whilst bracketing is introduced the fashion turns into Clarendon, which we will get to!). This type of logo has a sturdy visual impact, so it turned into regularly utilized in marketing. It’s also every so often known as Egypt.

Clarendon / Bracketed Slab

That is a sub-style of slab serif, because it isn’t always a totally massive style and is visible in very few kinds. Like many others, this style is called after the typeface that pioneered it: Clarendon.

Any other form of display kind regarded within the middle of the nineteenth century, the handiest difference between this and the slab serif is that it has a gradual, rounded transition inside the serifs. As with slab serifs, their stroke variant is very small and the serif is brief or medium in duration.

Glyphic/Latin/Wedge/Semi-Serif

Glyphic serifs are usually triangular and tend to be very clear, similar to the style of chiseled Roman letters. In addition to triple serifs, the legs of letters like R or K tend to come out slightly at the end rather than having a full serif.

You will often find glyphic typefaces under the name “semi-serif”, but the terms “Latin” or “wedge” are also popular. This is another serif style that doesn’t have a strong difference between thick and thin. The transition into a triangular serif can be smooth or fast, depending on the type of writing.

Ornate/Decorative

This isn’t really a serif style you’ll find in most places, but it’s what I use to throw in any serif styles that don’t quite fit into other categories, like bifurcated, trifurcated, or illustrative serifs. Leaves, flowers, curls, etc.

There is no other way to draw in this style, as it is a kind of catch-all category. The difference between thick and thin is up to you. If you’re doing a bifurcated serif to add a western vibe to your piece, that usually varies slightly between thick and thin.

If you’re going for a botanical serif, maybe your entire letter is monoline, ending with serifs drawn from two leaves! This is the serif part where you can really get inventive.

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