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Let’s Talk About Type – Serif – Humanist and Old Style

Here’s my next installment of the Let’s Talk About Type Series. Are you ready to have your mind blown? Excited to walk away with an arsenal of fancy type lingo to whip out at your next party to impress all your fancy pants art friends? Ok, maybe that scenario is only exciting to a type nerd like me, but hey it could happen.

To recap, last time we discussed Blackletter, today we’re going to talk about the umbrella term known as Serif.

Within the serif family are five categories: humanist, old style, transitional, modern, and slab. In this article, we will talk about the first two.

Lingo to Know


  1. Crossbar — The horizontal stroke in letters.
  2. X-height — The height of lowercase letters, based on height of lowercase x; does not include ascenders or descenders (will explain those further on)
  3. Stroke (you remember this one!)

About Humanist

The grandparent of almost all popular serif faces today, humanist typefaces succeeded our Blackletter friends between 1460-1470 and were modeled after early Italian humanist writers. Most want to say that humanist and old face are one and the same, but they are more like siblings or first cousins. Most of the humanist typefaces are not seen widely today as they have fallen slightly out of favor, but their influence is far reaching and they deserve a lot of respect as they are the backbone for today’s more popular types.

Defining Characteristics

kelly2Centaur, Humanist Typeface


  1. Sloping crossbar on the lowercase “e”
  2. Small x-height
  3. Low contrast between strokes
  4. Dark “color” meaning you can see an overall value to the page. A good way to understand this concept is by squinting at a printed block of text. The value of gray is therefore its color. (Can you see the color of each typeface above in the example?)

Check out these other humanist typefaces, can you find the characteristics we talked about that make up this category?

Jenson, Kennerley, Centaur, Stempel Schneidler, Verona, Lutetia, Jersey, Lynton.

Moving On

Let’s dive into old face, which should get you a little more pumped as you may recognize more of these typefaces. Yes, they are older than your great grandpa, but they have stood the test of time and are well alive in world of typography.

Lingo to Know

kelly4Adobe Caslon Pro, Old Face

  1. Serif — A stroke added as a stop to the beginning and end of the main strokes of a character. (You remember this from when we discussed blackletter, right? You got this!)
  2. Ascender — An upward vertical stroke found on the part of lowercase letters that extends above the typeface’s x-height (remind yourself what this is above when we discussed humanist).
  3. Stress/Axis — An imaginary line drawn from top to bottom of a letter bisecting the upper and lower strokes. The inclination of the axis of the lowercase o is usually used to measure the angle of stress, especially for typefaces that exhibit changes in the thickness of curved strokes.

About Old Face

As we mentioned, Humanist faces began from mimicking the handwriting of Italian scholars. Old style, though springing from the same well, marked a distinct departure from this more calligraphic style. This was an exciting time in the history of type! Typesetting (like that on a printing press) began making a stronger influence on the typefaces produced and widely used and seen by the public. This was also the time in history we saw the first Italic type (1501) which was not created to accompany the roman face as it is today, but conceived as a singular text face for smaller format books where space was limited and a more condensed type was needed.

Can you imagine reading a whole book set in Italic?

Defining Characteristics

kelly5Adobe Garamond, Old Face


  1. Greater contrast between thick and thin strokes
  2. The serifs on the ascenders are more wedge shaped
  3. The stress of the letterforms are more perpendicular (upright) position
  4. The adoption of a horizontal crossbar in the letter “e”
  5. Greater refinement than humanist faces as the skills of type cutters was steadily improving. (Above, the left “c” is Adobe Caslon, Old face. Right “c” is Centaur, Humanist. The difference is substantial.)

Old Face Typefaces

Some of the oldest Old Face typefaces are Monotype Bembo (Italian ~1495 Francesco Griffo), Stempel Garamond (French ~1540 Claude Garamond), Monotype Ehrhdardt (Dutch ~1600), and Adobe Caslon (English ~1725 William Caslon).

Others include: Berling, Calisto, Goudy Old Style, Granjon, Janson, Palatino, Perpetua, Plantin, Sabon and Weiss, to name a few.

Next time we’ll continue our discussion of Serif by discussing Transitional, Modern, and Slab. Stay tuned!

About the author

Kelly Quigley