Fonts play a powerful role in communication and branding, and they have a constant presence in our daily lives. From billboards to business cards, we see different types of fonts everywhere.
Luckily, you don’t have to wear a turtleneck, or be a German design student, to understand the basics of typography (but alles gut if you are.)
Typography is actually pretty simple to get to grips with. To help you feel less Grotesque about it (font pun), we’ve boiled down the basics for you. Pretty soon you’ll be feeling Extra Bold with your typography design skills.
To help you navigate, here’s what you’ll find in this guide:
- Part 1: Key font terminology
- Part 2: Types of fonts (with examples)
- Serif font types
- Sans serif font types
- Script font types
- Display font types
- Part 3: Popular font styles (with free examples)
Ready to begin? Let’s get textual up in here!
Part one: Key font terminology
When investigating different font types, you’ll likely run into some unfamiliar words. Take a look at the most common font terms you’ll hear in your search for the best font.
Typeface vs. font:
While it’s easy to get them mixed up, these two terms do actually mean different things.
- A typeface refers to the design features of a set of characters, glyphs, and symbols (like Helvetica). Essentially, a typeface is a family or grouping of fonts with the same set of characteristics.
- A font, on the other hand, refers to a specific subset or style within a typeface. For example, Helvetica Light is distinct from its Helvetica cousins by its notably light visual ‘weight.’
The weight of a font refers to the thickness of the letters. A bold font is thicker, meatier, and weightier. A light font is lighter and thinner, and a medium font is somewhere in between.
This is because weightier fonts naturally draw the eye, and this will affect what we look at first. For this reason, using bold or heavy fonts in your titles and subheadings is a great way to draw attention and add emphasis to specific words, whereas lighter fonts will let the reader digest more information with less mental friction.
The word leading comes from the thin strips of lead that were placed between lines of type in a handset letterpress.
Leading simply refers to the vertical space between lines of text. Too little, and the lines are compressed and difficult to read. Too much, and the lines are loose and disjointed.
Tracking refers to the process of changing the overall space between all letters in a word. Too little space results in cramped, hard-to-read text, and too much makes words look loose. Different types of fonts will have different levels of tracking.
Kerning refers to changing the space between individual letters. We can generally make do with tracking for overall legibility and composition, but kerning allows us to make subtle changes between specific letters.
Kerning is usually used to alter the space between letters that take up disproportionate amounts of space, like A, W, V, and T.
Part two: Types of fonts
While there are thousands of fonts to choose from online, there really are only four main types of fonts that act as the broader font categories.
To help you narrow down what you’re looking for, here are some examples of the most popular types of fonts, their common features, and helpful examples.
1. Serif font types
The word ‘serif’ comes from an old Dutch word for a dash or line, so serif fonts are defined by the ‘serif’ at the end of letters. Serif fonts are making a huge comeback in recent years, as we’ve already covered in our most recent font trends piece.
Here are some of the most common types of serif font styles.
Old-style/humanist serif fonts
Old Style fonts are typically recognizable because of their low contrast between thick and thin strokes (which is just a fancy word for the lines that make up a letter), wedge-shaped serifs, and their slightly left-leaning ‘stress’, which is another fancy word for the tilt of a letter stroke compared to its axis.
Their hand-drawn, organic feel makes them well-suited to branding that requires a more distinguished look, like restaurants or law firms.
Monterchi Serif, designed by Zetafonts in 2019 is a great example of an Old Style font type.
Resgak, designed by Eko Nur Cahyo at Kulokale foundry and released July 2020.
Modern serif fonts
Modern, or neoclassical serif fonts, were a new kind of typeface design that came about towards the end of the 18th century. They’re characterized by highly constructed letterforms, dramatic contrast between thin and thick strokes, the vertical axis of curved strokes, and the common use of ball-shaped terminals at the end of strokes.
Ravensara Serif, designed by Peter Bushev for NaumType. This is a great example of a modern serif font that is both functional and full of personality.
Revans font family, designed by Ahmad Ramzi Fahruddin for Arterfak Project, released Jan 18, 2020. A sleek ultra-modern serif font type example.
Transitional serif fonts
Initially developed by English typographer John Baskerville in the late 1700s, transitional typefaces straddle the line between old-style serifs and neoclassical ones, combining elements of each. A transitional serif has much sharper serifs than humanist fonts.
You’ll notice these types of fonts have more contrast between the thick and the thin strokes in the letters.
Garcedo is a beautiful transitional serif released in March 30, 2020.
LaFarge, released by Typetanic in September 2021, and designed by Gregory Shutters.
Slab serif fonts
Slab serifs grew to prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries for their use in advertising. They’re noticeable heavy serifs with consistent stroke weights, appearing almost like sans serifs with serif marks added on.
They’re sturdy and utilitarian fonts that are highly legible, a relic of the mass consumerism that they represent.
Eko Bimantara designed Clab in August 2019. This font is bold yet casual and friendly.
Lagom is a new slab serif by Fenotype, released September 2, 2021.
How to use serif fonts: Serif fonts bring a timeless elegance to a brand. If you’re going for a classic, sophisticated look, a serif font might be the right choice.
Serif fonts do well in printed materials, and some research suggests that serif fonts are actually easier to read. With that in mind, you should consider using this type of font in body text, or areas where legibility is important.
Brands that use serif fonts: Rolex, Tiffany & Co., and Mercedes-Benz are traditional and luxurious brands that use serif fonts in their logos.
2. Sans serif font types
Sans serif means ‘without’ serifs. These are typically favored by brands because they’re accessible and flexible in terms of what you can apply them to. Sans serif fonts are typically great choices for logo fonts and headlines but can be used in body text just as easily.
These types of fonts are known for their versatility and are well suited to industries like tech, fashion, banking, retail, and more.
Let’s look at the main types of sans serif fonts below.
Grotesque sans serif fonts
Grotesque sans serifs were some of the original sans serif fonts (judging by the name, I guess people didn’t like them at first.) Still, they were some of the most commercially available typefaces and have stood the test of time.
Most grotesques are of a geometric design, with simple lettering and more or less even stroke weights. They’re great for bold display fonts (we’ll get to those below) that need a bit of character. Grotesque sans serif fonts work perfectly in editorial design or ad headlines.
The legendary Latinotype foundry released Grotesco in 2021.
Santi Rey created the grotesque font, Alfreda, in 2021.
Geometric sans serif fonts
These sans serifs are highly structured, geometric-looking fonts. Stroke weight is usually pretty consistent all-round, and the form of each letter is built around a clear geometry.
Geometric sans serifs are great fonts for logos and headlines, but not so good for longer text, as they’re typically not as readable as other fonts.
Gilroy is one of the most popular geometric sans serifs of the last few years, published by Radomir Tinkov in 2016
Futura Now, an update of the legendary geometric font Futura, was designed in 2011 by Monotype
Humanist sans serif fonts
Humanist, or humanistic sans serifs, are defined by their organic feel and their relationship to roman inscription lettering. They are a close cousin of serif types in both look and proportions, and it has been claimed that they’re the most readable sans serif fonts as a result.
Created by Stawix Ruecha, Eastlane became available in September 14, 2021
Monaco is a humanist typeface created by Salih Kizilkaya in March 2021.
How to use sans serif fonts: Sans serif fonts are incredibly versatile. They can be bold and striking when set in a heavier weight, or minimal and airy when selected in lighter weights.
Use bold, heavy sans serifs to call attention to something in a headline or announcement. Use lightweight sans serifs as accents, to create a serene and minimal feel.
Brands that use sans serif fonts: Tech giants like Google and Netflix use sans serif fonts in their branding. Some of the major designer fashion houses (like Burberry, or Yves Saint Laurent) have recently evolved their logos to leverage the fresh, and modern appeal of sans serif fonts.
3. Script font types
Script fonts call back to the times of calligraphy. These types of fonts are beautiful, artistic, and personal, as they are meant to mimic a person’s handwriting.
There are two kinds of script fonts: formal and informal. Let’s review them below.
Formal script fonts
Formal script fonts are highly baroque and ornate in design. They’re typified by their big swirly bits and they look distinguished and official.
Best used for formal occasions like weddings and other events, and for businesses that deal in luxury items like jewelry or handcrafted items.
Tiffanka, a modern cursive script font created by Maulana Creative in September 2021.
My Lova Olivia, by Sulthan Studio. A formal script font released September 3, 2021.
Informal script fonts
Informal script typefaces are designed to emulate casual, fast-paced handstyles, usually with a brush-script feel. They’re full of movement and energy, and typically well suited to clothing brands, hospitality, music festivals, and creative industries.
Brush Signature, a modern informal type of script font by Fikryal, released September 2021.
How to use script fonts: Script fonts have more use limitations than sans serif and serif fonts. For instance, scaling down a script font can decrease its legibility, so they are best used in spaces where they have room. Script fonts look great in wordmark logos, stickers, labels, and invitations.
Brands that use script fonts: Cadillac, Cartier, and Budweiser use formal script fonts while Sharpie, Barbie, and Ray-Ban use more informal script fonts in their brand identities.
4. Display font types
Display fonts are called such because of their common use in larger applications or digital displays. They’re rarely used for long bodies of text and are often highly striking and original in their design.
These types of fonts typically draw a lot of attention to themselves and are more about making a visual impact than true ease of reading.
Bely Display, shown here in branding for Floh, a dried flowers brand created in March 2021.
How to use display fonts: Use a display font if you’re looking to make a statement. Ads, billboards, business cards, or anywhere you need to capture a person’s attention very quickly are the best places to use display fonts!
Brands that use display fonts: Brands from the 70s were fond of using display fonts in their branding. Companies like Baskin Robbins, Lego, and Disney all use a display font as their logo to stand out and leave a lasting impression on their followers.
Part three: Popular font styles
Getting acquainted with the four main types of fonts is the first step to understanding which font is best for your project. The next step is selecting the right font style!
There are hundreds of different types of font styles out there! Each of them will fit under the category of one of the main font types but will have a certain flair or aesthetic that matches the look you’re going for.
Here are some popular font styles and what they mean.
Modern font styles
Modern fonts are clean and professional. Not too futuristic, but not too traditional either, modern fonts stand rooted in the here and now.
What we define as modern shifts with the times, but you can get a good sense of modern fonts by checking out the most recent font trends of the year!
Some examples of free modern fonts you can download on Google Fonts are:
Check out our guide to modern font styles here!
Vintage font styles
Vintage fonts are nostalgic and nod at an era gone by. These types of fonts are great for businesses steeped in tradition and history.
Here are some examples of vintage fonts that you can download for free on Google Fonts:
Check out our guide to vintage font styles here!
Romantic font styles
Romantic style fonts add a sweetness to everything they touch. From love notes to invitations, these fonts are soft and classic.
Here are some great examples of romantic fonts you can find for free on Google Fonts:
Get more romantic fonts in our guide here!
Minimalist font styles
Minimalist fonts are defined by their airy, sleek lettering and strong legibility. This style of font makes a big impact while often standing alone in a design.
You can find the following minimalist fonts for free on Google Fonts:
Learn more about minimalist fonts in our guide here!
Funky font styles
Funky font styles would fall under the display font category. These types of fonts have lots of character and add a personality to anything they’re used in!
Check out these awesome free funky fonts on Google Fonts:
Where can I download free fonts?
You’ll find the most custom-looking fonts through designers and design studios. However, not everyone has the budget to purchase fonts. In this case, your best option is to download fonts for free online. But you’ll want to make sure you’re sourcing your fonts from trustworthy websites.
The best places to download free fonts online are: