Understanding the connotation of each typeface category can help you choose the right one for your next project. There are essentially three different categories of typefaces: serif, sans serif and script. Since there are thousands upon thousands of typefaces available, being able to decide if you need a serif, sans serif or script typeface ahead of time will greatly help you in your search. Once you've decided on the particular mood or emotions that you want to evoke with your content, you can match that up to a type of typeface.
Different styles of type create different moods. You need to make sure you're picking one that matches the tone of your content.
A serif typeface is recognizable by the little lines or strokes that extend from letters. See how in the text above that says "Serif" the "i" and "f" have distinguishable feet. The "S" also extends down and up at the ends. Serif typefaces are some of the older typefaces. Because of their age, the mood associated with serif typefaces is often classic, romantic, elegant, formal and established.
Some well known serif typefaces are: Times New Roman, Georgia and Garamond.
Many people believe that serif typefaces should be used in printed works because the little serifs make it easier and quicker for us to identify the different letters, but that might not necessarily be true.
There are three different kinds of serif typefaces: humanist, transitional and slab serif. There are a few more categories of serif typefaces, like Renaissance, baroque, modern and wedge, but I'm just going to focus on the four listed previously.
Humanist serif typefaces emulate classical calligraphy with contrasting strokes. Humanist typefaces were the first Roman typefaces. Other characteristics of Humanist typefaces are small x-height, and low contrast between strokes. You'll often see classic and traditional things printed with a humanist serif typeface, like books and articles. The font in the image above (Adobe Garamond) is a Humanist serif typeface.
Transitional serif typefaces have sharper serifs and more contrasting strokes to create a style that's strong and dynamic, and is often used in law or academics. The influence of a pen is gone with Transitional typefaces. An example of this is through the vertical stress in the bowls of letters, meaning the thinnest part of the letter. In a Transitional typeface the thinnest part is completely vertical, whereas in the Humanist typefaces, the vertical stress is actually on a diagonal, since that's how the vertical stress of a letter generally is when words are handwritten. Georgia and Baskerville are Transitional serif typefaces.
Slab Serif, or Egyptian or square serif, typefaces have heavy and boxy serifs with almost no contrast in the strokes of the letter. This creates a friendly yet authoritative feel, like in a marketing application. New typefaces were needed for advertising and such, so a bolder typeface was needed. Monospaced text is often considered to be Slab Serif. Popular Slab serif typefaces are Courier and Rockwell.
Sans serif typefaces are considered more modern than serif typefaces. They lack the strokes that distinguish a serif typeface, hence the use of the French word, "sans" which means without. Sans serif typefaces are often used to signify something clean, minimal, friendly or modern. Some of the most popular sans serif typefaces are: Arial, Helvetica, Open Sans, Calibri and Verdana.
Sans serif fonts are often used on the web for large groups of text because of the lower DPI (dots per inch) that screens have compared to print. Sans serif fonts are generally easier for children to read because they're simpler.
There are three main types of sans serif fonts: humanist, transitional and geometric.
Humanist Sans Serif typefaces emulate calligraphy and have minimalist contrasting strokes. These design of these typefaces are good matches for small text and small text, to they're often used in government, education or finance work. Gill Sans and Whitney are considered Humanist sans serif typefaces.
Transitional sans serif typefaces have strong strokes and more upright and uniform characters than Humanist typefaces. Their unassuming and modern feel works great for tech and transportation writing.
Geometric Sans Serif typefaces use geometric shapes to form the backbones of the letters, which creates a strict, objective, and universal feel. The letter forms are often simple. So letters like "a" that have an opening would be circular or square and then repeated with other letters that have the same type of opening. Geometric typefaces are often used in science or architecture. Geometric typefaces can be more difficult to read. Europa and Futura PT are Geometric typefaces.
Script typefaces are considered decorative fonts. They're intended to look like they were handwritten or like calligraphy. They're not a great choice for body copy, because of their lack of readability. Script typefaces are also more fluid than other typefaces. Like serif and sans serif typefaces, there are different kinds of scripts that have different meanings. A script typeface can have a strong personality and should be examined carefully before selection. After all, Comic Sans is technically a script typeface.
Formal scripts are often graceful and fluid with connecting strokes. Formal typefaces get their inspiration from 17th century formal writing. Traditional wedding invitations use formal scrip typefaces. They're often used for decoration and for elegant or sophisticated works. Mahogany Script is a Formal script.
Casual script typefaces look the most like handwriting, since they're usually more friendly and appear to be drawn with a pen, maker, or brush. Casual typefaces are often used with in ads and more informal settings since they often look like they were written quickly. Black Jack is an example of a Casual script typeface.
Calligraphic script typefaces are meant to look like handwriting that's fancy. These typefaces, like casual script, often look like they've been created with a calligraphy pen or brush. Bombshell Pro is calligraphic script typeface.
There is a little bit of a stigma with using script typefaces, however. Many designers believe that designs that contain script should be created by hand to convey the true "handwritten" aspect. When you hand write something, your letter forms for the same letter will look different just because it was handwritten.
Now that you know the basic differences between the three main classifications of typefaces you should be able to choose your next typeface with a little more ease. If you'd like to learn more about typography and making decisions on type, check out some of our typography courses.