Let’s Talk About Type — Slab

Let’s seal the deal with the Serif family and talk about the last new kid on the block: Slab. Some also refer to this style as mechanistic, square serif, or Egyptian. Many of you probably read Egyptian with a “huh?” and all I can say is it’s the same conundrum as perms and side pony tails in the 80’s (why, people, why). It was a pop culture reference of the times, everyone apparently was smitten with Egypt and today it would be the equivalent of meshing your product with the name Gaga to get attention.

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Let’s look at where we are in our timeline, shall we?

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So, the 1800’s.

At the beginning of the 1800’s the industrial revolution was well under way. It’s easy to see the connection between this typeface arising in an era where everyone wanted to be bigger, bolder, louder, and more forward thinking. Before, typefaces were only being designed for long breaths of text in books. But now, something called advertising was stepping onto the scene and this style of typeface demanded viewer attention.

Slab Serif was originally designed with the intention to be an oddball, to shout “look at me!” in every way, perhaps that’s why this face is so dear to my heart.

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Also born in this century was something called Fat Faces. An example of this is taking a typeface and just feeding it lots of black ink, making the thick strokes thicker, usually done on our previously discussed Modern typefaces. So, an example of one of these obsese modern faces is Poster Bodoni (you remember Bodoni from last time). One can either thank or blame Robert Thorne (c. 1800) for designing the first ever Fat Face, and even for coining the phrase Egyptian for the first Slab Serifs.

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Well, isn’t this an exciting picture. Let’s pause here for a moment. Not only do you have a visual of an old time-y newspaper that makes you say “Ohhhh I get it now, yeah Slab Serif, I’ve seen this before” but this picture is a gem of a collection of type families we’ve already discussed. Go on, quiz yourself, can you identify all those type families? We’ve covered them all!

For those of you who are too lazy or just starting out with this series or those brave souls who are checking to see if they got it right:

  • Starting at the top is the typeface we discussed last time, notice the extreme thick to thin strokes and abrupt thin serifs of Modern? And this is actually another example of one of those Fat Faces I was talking about, where they beefed those strokes up.
  • Next is our new friend Slab –  to be discussed further.
  • Following is some sort of transitional serif too small for me to really determine who it is, but if you said Transitional you got it right!
  • Then go down a bit more and there’s our old friend Blackletter we discussed way back when. Ah, nostalgia.

During the mid-1800’s a more refined Slab Serif family made its way to market: the Clarendons. They put the fat faces on a diet, reducing contrast and thickness, making the typeface easier to read at smaller sizes. This remains a pretty popular typeface today.

Today, Archer from H&FJ is probably one of my absolute favorite Slabs on market. It’s elegant where other Slab Serifs can feel clunky and bulky and in the way. Archer provides a plethora of radical weights as well, so you can adjust the face to be as bold or as quiet as you deem fit. To be honest, if I could call any type sexy, it would be this one. Every designer needs a good Slab serif in their arsenal, and this one just fits the bill.

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However, I’d feel wrong not mentioning another popular, more well-known Slab Serif: good ol’ Rockwell. The default faces they provide you with on any operating system just do not do this guy justice. The type has undergone a 21st century makeover and new, lighter weights have been released in recent years that have made me re-think blacklisting it with the likes of Comic Sans. After seeing its face lift, I’ve been converted and continue to keep it in my back pocket.

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Another noteworthy typeface just popping up on the market that attempts to take the oddball type family that is Slab and make it more beautiful and useful for designers, is Sentinel. Let’s give it a little stage.

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Defining Characteristics

Let’s discuss the specifics of how you can spot a slab serif, starting with the most obvious feature.

1. Square Serifs.

kelly82. Slab Serifs generally have no bracket.

(*A curved or wedge-like connection between the stem and serif)

kelly93. Terminals can be blunt and angular, or rounded.

kelly104. No stress on axis, evenly circular.

kelly115. No calligraphic reference or tapering to the strokes. 

kelly12Slab Today

Slab is not just for old timey newspapers anymore. It can be as quiet as it can be loud.

kelly13A List of Some Slab Serifs:

Rockwell
Archer
Clarendon
Courier
Sentinel
Officina Serif
ITC American Typewriter

And thus concluded our epic journey with the Serif Family.

Up Next in the Series: Sans Serif!

Missed anything? Catch up on our Let’s Talk About Type series from the beginning.

About the author

Kelly Quigley