Book Design 101: Typeface Classification

This series approaches book design through the basic fundamentals of typography. Like Beatles fans and noble truths, most typefaces fall roughly into one of four camps. While this wasn’t always the case, typefaces—sometimes called fonts—are classified today as either serif, sans serif, script, or display. This final category (also called “decorative”) can include anything from unintelligible dingbats (i.e., printer’s ornaments) to barely legible digital effluvium to quite legible and even beautiful nonstandard designs. Album covers and food packaging are good places to find decorative typefaces. Script fonts, of course, are those found on wedding invites, French menus, and women’s tattoos. For the purposes of this exploration, though, we’ll focus mostly on the first two categories, as these serve as the basis for the vast majority of book design.

But First, Some History

The written word has been around for about five thousand years (the Egyptian hieroglyphs are an early example, though not the first), while the printed word is relatively new. This invention—at least in the Western world—is largely credited to Johannes Gutenberg, who brought us the printing press and movable (i.e., mechanized) type in the mid-fifteenth century. Gutenberg, a German metalworker, based his first typeface on the “black letter” style used at the time by German monks to copy religious manuscripts (indeed, Gutenberg’s first printed book was a Bible).

Black Letter
Black Letter

Today, most would put black letter typography in the “decorative” camp, as no one in his right mind would set more than a headline or a Norwegian-metal concert poster in black letter. That said, had the term existed in 1439, Gutenberg’s typeface would likely have been placed in the serif camp.

So, What’s a Serif?

Simply put, a serif font is one that features what designers and moms call “those little thingies” on the ends of the letters. The blog you’re reading now is set in Sentinel, a “slab serif” typeface featuring heavy, horizontal, very distinct thingies—see them? While the origin and purpose of serifs (and also the word’s etymology) are fuzzy, serif typefaces remain by far the most popular style for setting large blocks of text.

Though serifs are evident on Gutenberg’s early typeface, his bears little resemblance to the fonts that compose our books today. These familiar “classical” or “old style” typefaces originated in Italy, shortly after the arrival of the printing press. (Note the terms “roman” and “italic” to describe different type styles.) Many of these early Italian designers’ names are immortalized in contemporary font libraries: Garamond, Bembo, Caslon, and Jenson, the latter a French expatriate credited with “inventing” old-style typography. Old-style serif typefaces are characterized by far thinner strokes than Gutenberg’s brawny black letter and are thus much easier on the eye.


Enter Sans Serifs

If you’re still here, it’s no doubt out of curiosity re the serif’s hipster counterpart: the sans serif typeface. While sans serifs could be seen kicking around nineteenth-century Europe—William Caslon IV (great-grandson of Caslon, supra) is said to have designed the first of these for print—they failed to establish any lasting popularity until the early twentieth century. This is thanks mostly to Paul Renner, who in 1927 designed a typeface called Futura. Renner’s design was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus and modernist movements, which championed clean lines and minimal ornamentation—thus no serifs. For better or worse, Futura still enjoys widespread popularity (you’ve no doubt seen it used in the credits of Wes Anderson’s films). Helvetica, a newer and superior sans hailing from Switzerland (its name is Latin for “Swiss”) has done its elder buddy one better by inspiring a full-length (and wonderful) eponymous documentary.

Sans Serif
Sans Serif

Along with the rise of advertising, the Internet deserves a good deal of credit for the proliferation and popularity of sans serif typefaces. A prevailing belief holds that sans serifs display better on screen—that serifs add visual clutter and fuzz. “Sans serif fonts are better on the web,” one recent blog post states outright. One should note, however, that most publications of record set their online content in serif typography.

Can You Read Me Now?

A number of studies since the 1960s have aimed to prove that serifs boast superior legibility—and have purportedly done so. Most if not all of these studies, however, have been roundly criticized or discounted due to faulty methodology. As a result, no actual or agreed-upon basis exists for the superior readability of serif typefaces for extended bodies of text (e.g., books). That said, see how far you can get in a novel wholly absent of serifs—if you can even find one in America. Faulty studies aside, the zeitgeist (I include myself here) will tell you that serifs increase legibility by improving horizontal flow across a line of text. Any more on this here and I’ll lose you, I promise.

Whether or not they increase legibility, serifs are the go-to typeface style for setting books or other large fields of type. Sans serifs, on the other hand, are often employed for their punch-packing ability to convey quick bursts of information in headlines and titles; they can also provide a nice contrast in layout to a straightforward serif. Of course, serifs work great in headlines as well, and blocks of type can be set in a sans, so long as it’s done with care. In subsequent posts we’ll delve deeper into the world of typefaces, learn how type functions within a body of text, and see how all four categories of typefaces can function together to create a balanced and harmonious layout.

Next up: “The Anatomy of a Typeface.”