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Let’s Talk About Type

There are a lot of elements that go into creating great design work, but what separates the boys from the men is their sensitivity to typography. It’s not just knowing which type to use but also knowing how to pair different fonts and type styles together. It’s incredibly vital knowledge that all designers must be packing in their repertoire.

I could explain pairing type in a step by step formula but the concept would be hard to grasp unless you understood the way typography was broken down into categories, and you couldn’t really understand type categories unless you understood some anatomy of letterforms. So, as this is such an extensive subject, I will be breaking it down into smaller, more digestible articles with lots of visual examples (my favorite part). Here’s what we’ll be discussing in each:

  • Article One: Blackletter
  • Article Two: Serif
  • Article Three: Sans Serif
  • Article Four: Display/Novelty & Script
  • Article Five: Pairing

Even if you aren’t a designer you can benefit from this series. If for nothing else, you will be walking away with a better understanding of why we designers get our panties in such a wad about the typography demands made on us. Perhaps you won’t ever be like me who analyzes every single typographic choice in the universe obsessively, but maybe next time you pass a poster or are walking down an aisle in the grocery store you will be a little more conscious to the choices a designer has made and can assess for yourself whether it was wise, clever, unruly or an epic fail.

Let’s Get Started

Let’s start with a few definitions. A lot of people throw the word “font” around without knowing what it really means. To be accurate, a family of letterforms is called a typeface. A font is merely an offspring of that face. So Times New Roman is the typeface, Times New Roman Bold (etc) is a font.

Basic stuff, right? It makes me feel so much better to get that out, now we can move on.


Let’s get into the terms you’ll need to be familiar with so that we can discuss these letterforms in detail.

A serif is an additional stroke found at the end of a vertical or diagonal stem or stroke. Some also like to call these the “feet” of a letterform.

What is a stroke you ask?

A stroke is a collective term for a straight or curved diagonal line that can end in multiple ways (i.e. serif, terminal, etc).

Not to be confused with the stem which is the main, usually vertical, line of a letterform.

As I was saying, a stroke can end in a serif, or it can be defined as a terminal which is any stroke that does not end in a serif. Bars, arms, stems, and bowls are also all considered strokes (we can discuss these terms later on.)

kellypic1For additional information about the anatomy of type or more detailed definitions, check out this link here.

Let’s Dig Deeper and Discover:

kellypic2Teutonic No 1 by Paul Lloyd provided by FontSquirrel

About Blackletter

Also referred to as Old English or Gothic (or Fraktur if you’re in Germany), Blackletter is based off of early manuscript lettering (think of monks in monasteries when they used to write all books by hand). You would also have seen Blackletter in early day Gutenberg bibles. If you’ve ever received a certificate or diploma of any kind, you’ve most likely seen the likes of Blackletter gracing center stage, as well.

How to Use

Blackletter is a bold choice that makes a loud statement but can be hard to read as body text, so its best used for titles, headings, logos, posters or signs.

Defining Characteristics

  1. Dramatic difference between thick and thin strokes. (Hey, you know that word now.)
  2. Diagonal, thin serifs. (You know that one too!)
  3. In some fonts, there are elaborate swirls on serifs.

Visual Examples (Hooray)

Blackletter is not dead, not by a long shot. Take a look at some places you may have seen it:

kellypic3Noticing a theme? It’s not just newspapers that have kept Blackletter alive, however. Let’s look at something more modern that gives this type style the spotlight its earned:

kellypic4Provided via

You will also notice it here:

kellypic5Surprised yet?

And here:

kellypic6Juicy Couture

And guess what? It’s even here:

kellypic7And for some local flavor, look here:

kellypic8That’s right. You’ve been looking at this beautiful typeface everyday and didn’t even know it.

I challenge you now to go forth and discover more examples of blackletter letterforms!

Next Time on Let’s Talk About Type — Serif: Humanist and Old Style

About the author

Kelly Quigley