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Typography 101: Know your serif

Get familiar with a few typographical terms and see your font library in a whole new way

The printer wasn't always a machine that sat in the corner of your office, beeping out cryptic warning messages and accumulating slap-shaped handprints. Even a few decades ago, most people would have thought of a printer as a person — somebody whose work consisted of manually arranging and printing text and images. Professional printers are still plying and improving upon their trade, but thanks to the advent of the personal computer, we've inherited a great many of their tools in digital form. The problem? When those tools arrived, they didn't come with any knowledge of the craft. It's as though every computer owner has been given the keys to a master carpenter's workshop, but hasn't yet been shown how to swing a hammer.

Luckily, you don't have to don a hooded robe and take the Typographer's Oath to get a better handle on the fundamentals of your favorite fonts. In fact, once you've learned a few terms and distinctions, you may find yourself looking at your font options in a whole new way. So if you want to be able to talk typefaces like Leon from sales can talk about wine, pull up a chair.

Today, we'll take a look at one of the most easily distinguished characteristics of fonts: the serif. But first, in order to understand the significance of the serif, it'll be helpful to start off with a tiny bit of history.

Typography: a very condensed history

It's almost impossible to fathom the fact that, for the majority of its history, the written word was exactly that –handwritten (or hand-carved). Many would suggest that the questions typography addresses are as old as the first alphabet. The size, spacing, legibility and uniformity of hieroglyphic characters would have certainly been a worthy concern — after all, if your "owl" looked too much like your "scarab," readers would surely throw down your papyrus in frustration.

In the Western world, medieval scribes fostered a rich tradition of variations in handwritten scripts before the advent of the Gutenberg press in the mid-1400′s. Generally, it's said that this invention, with its reliance on uniform, custom carved letters, heralded the advent of typography as we know it today. The emergence of distinctive sets of letters and characters during this time is also largely responsible for some of typography's more archaic-sounding distinctions: gothic type? Roman type? What century are we living in?

Web-safe fonts

Hundreds of years and thousands of meticulously designed typefaces later, we're awash in a sea of font options. Just opening up the dropdown menu in Word is enough to give the average user an anxiety attack. Web- and email-based tools like Emma make the decision a little easier. Have you ever noticed that your reading experience on the web is fairly uniform, and usually pretty painless? Web designers can't be certain which fonts your device will come equipped with, so they'll often restrict themselves to "web-safe fonts" — fonts that can be read on any device — to ensure that their readers see their content as they intended it. This is also the case with Emma's font selection: instead of the Narnia wardrobe of fonts typically employed in desktop word processing programs, you'll see 15 of the most versatile, popular and readable fonts available. There's a lot of character in these sets of characters, so let's take a look at one way you can distinguish them.


Look at these two N's. Notice a difference? The Times New Roman N on the left has little finishing strokes in all of the places where an individual line terminates; the Helvetica N on the right doesn't. Those are called serifs. Easy, right? If serifs were just called "little taily things," no formal introduction would be required!

For many, the serif conveys an old-fashioned elegance, and that sentiment has roots in typographical history. Serifs are said by some to emulate the initial placement of a flat paintbrush on a surface to shape a letter for a stone engraving — a bit of calligraphic flourish from an era that predates the printed word. In print (and especially in newsprint) serifed fonts are said to have greater readability. Readability actually doesn't refer to whether the individual letters can be easily distinguished — that's legibility. Instead, readability refers to the ease with which a reader can follow along over longer sections of text. Proponents of serifed fonts often contend that the additional finishing strokes help distinguish letter shapes and assist in guiding the eye horizontally across the page.

Times New Roman may be the most commonly used serifed font in the workplace today, thanks largely to its long reign as the default font in Microsoft programs like Word and Excel. As Word goes, so go many word processing programs, including our own. Times New Roman is a taut, functional font, but among typographers, its suitability as serifed fonts' standard bearer is hotly contested. In fact, it's no longer in use by The Times, the London newspaper who commissioned its creation and gave it its namesake back in 1931. For web use, many point to Georgia as a suitable alternative — the lowercase letters are closer in size to the uppercase ones, so even at small point sizes, the individual letters are larger and more easily read. Perhaps this is why the Times that we're better acquainted with here in the States – The New York Times — employs Georgia as their main typeface for web headlines and articles. For those seeking a font that evokes an even earlier time in history — say, the Italian Renaissance — you might want to consider Book Antiqua. This serifed font boasts greater calligraphic stylization in its strokes, but its thicker lines and broader letters also make it highly readable.

Sans-serif fonts

Now that we've identified our serif, we need only dust off our French textbooks to identify our sans-serif fonts: sans means without. You may have noticed that the text on this page is sans-serif — the lines of the letters terminate without any ornamentation. The same is probably true of the typefaces in your email inbox and on your favorite news sites: in addition to their immense popularity in the material world, sans-serif typefaces enjoy special prominence on the web, where text is likely to be compact and frequently scrolled. In the pioneer days of digital typography, the clear lines of sans-serif fonts proved well-suited to pixel-based screens. Where ornately serifed fonts could dissolve into unwieldy, blocky characters, the cleaner sans-serif fonts could survive the pixelation more or less intact. While modern high-definition screens have all but eliminated pixelation as a serious text issue, the enhanced white space offered by thin, sans-serif characters is also thought to ease the reader's eye when scanning an illuminated screen. This may be especially true of smaller screens — the default typefaces for all major mobile devices are sans-serif.

Consciously or not, this techie association has only strengthened the infatuation with the presumed clean, spare modernism of sans-serif fonts. Although sans-serif fonts aren't a uniquely modern invention (serif-free Greek characters predate the Roman Empire, and their introduction in print dates back to the early 1800s), there's a ring of truth to their association with modernism. This is especially true of Helvetica, popular design's undisputed champion of the last decade. As illuminated in Gary Hustwit's engrossing 2007 documentary, Helvetica, this striking Swiss font has become one of the most ubiquitous emblems of contemporary life. Engineered during the 1950s in accordance with the modernist ideal — abandoning the trappings of classical ornamentation in favor of clean, spare functionality — Helvetica has emerged as the rare font with rockstar status among design lovers. Emma customer service specialist and man of style Miles Price sometimes even wears his Helvetica T-shirt to the office. If Helvetica can be likened to a rock band, though, its closest analogue is probably U2: it's wildly popular, critically laurelled, seemingly timeless and an easy target for ridicule. In fact, a great many trend-setting designers are consciously distancing themselves from Helvetica (and its Microsoft-commissioned, Emma-friendly cousins, Tahoma, Verdana and Arial). Consequently, while the sans-serif font remains a bastion of modernity, the design world has enjoyed a renaissance of ornately serifed fonts, both in print and on the web.

And beyond

Fortunately for the art form, there are plenty of font choices available beyond serif and sans-serif options. Many typefaces belong to different families entirely. Still, most fonts within your Emma account can be considered either serif or sans-serif, as can most of the text you encounter over the course of your day.

Fascinating stuff, right? Once you know where to look, you'll spot all kinds of places where a change in typeface changes the feeling of an entire message. One of those places may be in your own email campaigns, so if you feel like subtly altering your voice without changing your message, now you've got something other than your intuition to help guide your choice.

Cody's not a Certified Font Specialist, but he found a wealth of typographical information within the Emma design team, as well as in these posts from Co.Design, I Love Typography and Alex Poole.


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