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It was March 2nd, 2011, and I was fifteen-years old. I was in the clouds. My font family, Expletus Sans, had just gone live on the Google Webfonts Directory (now simply called Google Fonts). Plenty of positive feedback and a generous reward from Google had made me expect a lot of it. But it didn’t take very long before I started laughing at the high regard I once had for Expletus Sans, and its silly name. The elegance I once saw in it was soon mixed with a decent dose of clumsiness and amateurism. However, Expletus Sans did provide me with the motivation and opportunity to invest in my skills, and keep designing typefaces.

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Original author: 
Joseph Alessio


In the first installment of this two-part series on type classification, we covered the basics of type classification — the various methods people have used, why they are helpful, and a brief survey of type history, classifying and identifying typefaces along the way. Unfortunately, we only got as far as Roman (traditional serif) typefaces and the early-19th century. Now we’re back for part 2!

Part 2 will primarily cover sans typefaces, with a nod to display typefaces and other less common categories, as well as address a few of the questions people have about whether type classification is helpful and necessary.

If you haven’t read part 1, now’s your chance to go over it. It lays important groundwork for this article, covers the categories of serif typefaces, and contains plenty of useful information about the development of serif type. If you already have read it, here is a quick recap to get us started before we move on to the new material.

type classification


Type Classification Systems

Type has been classified in many ways over the years, both formal and informal — Thibaudeau, Vox, British Standards, etc. None of these are complete or all-encompassing, but they’re helpful as an aid to study as well as for learning to use type correctly and effectively. The material in this two-part series draws heavily from the Vox-ATypI system, which is the most “official” of the systems today, having been adopted by the Association Typographique Internationale in 1962 and still the most commonly referenced system.

Is it perfect? No, but it provides a good overview of what is out there; and when you describe typefaces using the terms you’ll learn in this series, anyone who is reasonably familiar with typography will know what you’re talking about.

Here is a quick overview of the type categories we covered in part 1.


Venetian Typeface Characteristics

  • Notable calligraphic influence, patterned after handwriting.
  • Strongly angled axis or stress.
  • Based on typefaces designed in Renaissance cultural hubs such as Venice.


Oldstyle Typeface Characteristics

  • Less calligraphic influence because type began to be viewed as separate from writing.
  • Named after influential type designers Claude Garamont and Aldus Manutius.
  • Still has a tilted axis but less obvious than in Humanist type.


Transitional Characteristics

  • No calligraphic influence. Designed independently, sometimes on a grid.
  • First appeared in the late-17th century.
  • Virtually vertical axis and high contrast between heavy and thin strokes.


Didone Characteristics

  • Extreme contrast between thick and thin. Rigidly vertical axis.
  • Abrupt, or unbracketed, serifs. Very precisely designed.
  • Named after Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni.

Slab Serif

Slab Serif Characteristics

  • Very heavy weight and low contrast between thick and thin.
  • Unbracketed, prominent serifs.
  • First typefaces created expressly for display purposes.

Sans Serifs

When we left off in part 1, it was circa 1815, with the first appearances of slab serifs, also called Mechanistics or Egyptiennes. By the time slab serifs were being popularized, early sans serifs had already been around for some time in a variety of forms. To follow the progression of sans serifs, we must step back in time a number of years.

History of Sans Serifs

The earliest sans-serif letterforms were, of course, not type, but inscriptions, dating back to as early as the 5th century BC, and enjoyed a resurgence in engraving and inscriptions in the 18th century.

etruscan type
Caslon’s Etruscan type, as seen in a 1766 specimen book. Larger view. (Image source: Typefoundry)

Strangely enough, the first “sans serif” type was created not for the Latin alphabet, but for use in 18th-century academic works on Etruscan culture, which preceded the Roman Empire in the geographical area of modern-day Italy. Circa 1748, the foundry of William Caslon (with whom you should be familiar) cut the first known sans-serif Etruscan type for the Oxford University Press, although there are earlier usages of sans serifs in similar applications.

Embossed Type
Haüy’s type, created to emboss pages so as to be read by touch, was oddly ornate for its purpose. Larger view. (Image source: Camille Sourget)

Another interesting typographic innovation was the work of Valentin Haüy, who founded a school for blind children in 1785. In 1784, a year of preparation during which he devoted himself to educating a single student, Haüy developed an embossing typeface with which to make tactile books. The typeface, which, along with his method, is called the Haüy System, is an early form of sans serif, but it reads more like an upright italic or a disconnected script.

It was first embossed and then often carefully inked over the top so that it could also be read visually, as in the photo above. It looks lovely, but was superseded in both practicality and readability by the system devised by Louis Braille, himself a student at the school Haüy founded.

Caslon Sans
William Caslon IV’s sans serif was categorized as “Two Lines English Egyptian,”. (Image source: typophile)

William Caslon IV — who inherited the type foundry, as well as his name, from four generations back — is credited with the first sans-serif printing type for the Latin alphabet, appearing first in the 1816 Caslon specimen book. It featured only capitals and was marketed as “Two Lines English Egyptian,” the “Two Lines” being a reference to the size of the set type. There was much confusion over this new style, being variously called Egyptian (despite early slab serifs also being marketed as Egyptians), Gothic, Grotesque and Antique, among others.

Figgins Sans Serif
A sans from an early Vincent Figgins type specimen. Larger view. (Image source: Typefoundry)

Eventually Vincent Figgins (whom you may remember as being credited with the first slab-serif type) called the new style “sans serif,” which became the widely accepted term, although you’ll see many of the old terms in use on some typefaces.

Classifying Sans Serifs

At first glance, you might think that sans serifs can’t be classified the way that serifs can, since fewer variables are apparent in the ones we see most often. However, plenty of details can aid specificity when discussing, using and pairing typefaces, even within the broader category of sans serifs or, as Maxmilien Vox termed them, “linéales.” Subcategories were implemented by the British Standards classification, a permutation of Vox’s system, and they provide excellent means of discerning characteristics. I am presenting here a slight variation of those four, with a couple of minor differences for the sake of practicality.


The Grotesque category covers the early sans serifs, specifically those designed in the 19th century and the first decade or two of the 20th. Many of these typefaces had only capitals or exist only in centuries-old specimen books, but a number of them are still quite commonly used. These typefaces tend to be very idiosyncratic, with awkward weight distribution around bowls of characters and irregular curves.

Monotype Grotesque
(Image source: MyFonts)

Monotype Grotesque (above, 1926), based on Berthold’s much earlier Ideal Grotesque (1832), is an excellent example of the quirks commonly evident in Grotesques. Note the awkward “a” and “g,” the squarish bowls, the odd curves and angles at the tips of strokes in the “J” and “S,” and the overall irregularity.

The capital G in a Grotesque is usually spurred, and the British Standards specifies a curled leg on the capital R, although that is not apparent in many typefaces of the period. They tend to display some variation in the thickness of strokes, but the contrast does not show calligraphic influence or a logical pattern. The style became more sophisticated over the course of the 19th century. Perhaps the finest sample of this category appeared in the Berthold Type Foundry’s 1896 release of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which, along with Schelter Grotesk (1886), served as an archetype for many Neo-Grotesques, most notably Neue Haas Grotesk and Univers.


Interestingly enough, it has been postulated that Akzidenz-Grotesk was based on Walbaum or Didot. Despite looking extremely different at first glance, a simple comparison of the basic forms shows that the metrics are very similar.

Examples of the Grotesque category include Franklin Gothic, Monotype Grotesque and Schelter Grotesk.


The Neo-Grotesques, also called Transitionals or Realists, include many of the most commonly used sans. They are based on the later Grotesques and take the design of the sans-serif to a new level with their careful construction and aesthetics. They are much more refined than the Grotesques, during which period type designers were still feeling their way around the new style; thus, the Neo-Grotesques lose many of the awkward curves and idiosyncrasies that are common in earlier sans serifs. You’ll see much less variation in line weight, and most often a single-story “g.”


Created with an emphasis on neutrality and simplicity, they were extraordinarily popular among the Modernists and remain popular today. Despite many claims otherwise, simplicity does not directly translate into legibility: A tight vertical rhythm and pinched apertures keep many Neo-Grotesques (including Helvetica) from being good choices for body text. In fact, in the 2013 edition of the DIN 1450 (the German standards on legibility in typefaces, published by the Deutsches Institut für Normung), Helvetica is used as a negative standard. That’s an entirely different topic, however.

In 1957 — a big year for Neo-Grotesque sans serifs, as Frutiger’s Univers as well as Folio (originally thought to be a stronger competitor, although history has proved otherwise) were released — Haas Foundry released Max Miedinger’s Neue Haas Grotesk, which drew heavily on Schelter and Akzidenz Grotesks. In 1960, Haas, in an effort to market it more effectively, rebranded Neue Haas Grotesk to what we know as one of the most ubiquitous typefaces of all time — you guessed it — Helvetica.

helvetica specimen
Many people love Helvetica so much that they’ll hang prints of vintage Helvetica specimens as decoration. (Image source: etsy)

The quintessential members of this group are, of course, Univers and the immortal Helvetica, which has gone through quite a number of permutations over the years (as have all of these typefaces) and was recently revived by Christian Schwartz as a rerelease of Neue Haas Grotesk. A nice informational minisite was created by Indra Kupferschmid and Nick Sherman for the release. Other typefaces in this category include the DIN 1451 and its derivatives, and Bell Gothic and its successor Bell Centennial.


If you remember the most important quality of Humanist serif type, you’ll be relieved to learn that the same quality carries over to the sans serifs! The primary characteristic of Humanist type, both serif and sans serif, is a strong calligraphic influence, basing its shapes and flow on forms that could originate from a pen or brush. This means a much higher stroke contrast, and some Humanist sans even feature some stress, whereas nearly all other sans serifs have a completely vertical axis.

Another interesting characteristic of Humanist sans serifs is that their proportions often derive largely from Roman inscriptions and early serif typefaces, rather than 19th-century sans serifs as the Neo-Grotesques did. Because of this design process involving older letterforms, the lowercase “a” and “g” are most often two-story in Humanist sans serifs. All of these characteristics combine to make most Humanists a more legible choice than other types of sans faces.

Humanist Sans (Optima)

Hermann Zapf’s Optima is one example that clearly shows the calligraphic heritage, with an unusually obvious difference between thick and thin strokes, while many others in this category have more subtle features. The Humanist sans group includes classics such as Gill Sans and Frutiger as well as more recent releases like Myriad (1991), Trebuchet (1996) and Calibri (2005).


Geometric sans serifs are exactly what their name suggests. Instead of being derived from early Grotesques, like a Neo-Grotesque, or from calligraphic and engraved forms like the Humanist sans, they are built on geometric shapes. The characters often have optically circular bowls and are otherwise typically very rectangular, sharing many components between the various glyphs.

Erbar Grotesk
Erbar’s small x-height, among other factors, renders it difficult to read. Larger view.

Jakob Erbar, whose eponymous typeface is credited as being the first Geometric sans, reportedly based his construction on the circle. Released in the 1920s, Erbar-Grotesk was intended to be legible. Ironically, because of the awkward visual rhythm, resulting from strict adherence to geometric forms, Geometric lineals are among the least legible of sans serifs and are usually suitable only for display type. Geometric sans serifs usually show little or no stroke contrast and usually feature a single-story lowercase “a.”

Geometric Sans

Paul Renner’s Futura, Koch’s Kabel and Lubalin’s Avant Garde are typical examples of the style. H&FJ’s Gotham is also a Geometric sans, although it is less strictly geometric than some and allows for more variation in the heavier weights.

The Rest Of The Story

That’s the basic classification for sans serifs! While the two parts of this series primarily deal with serif and sans type, there are many other styles to consider. The Vox-ATypI system also provides five subcategories of “calligraphics” (i.e. type that is derived from handmade letters), but as they are largely self-explanatory, I won’t dedicate much space in this already lengthy article to them. Here is a brief summary of each category.


Script Metal Type
A case of script metal type. (Image source:

Scripts are, of course, typefaces based on handwriting, particularly formal scripts. The letters often connect, but not necessarily so. They range from the very formal — Matthew Carter’s Snell Roundhand, named after the author of a 1694 booklet on penmanship, originally released in 1966 — to the very casual — Ashley Havinden’s eponymous Ashley Script, from 1955.


Trajan Inscription
Carol Twombly’s Trajan was based on this inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome.

Glyphic typefaces are those derived from engraved or chiseled letters. Many of these typefaces look like they could be classified as serifs but are based on the work of a chisel, rather than having gone through the traditional design process and referencing the stroke of a pen. As such, Glyphics, also called “incised” typefaces, sometimes contain only capitals, and the serifs tend to be small, as a natural detail of the chiseling process rather than as a design feature. Trajan and Friz Quadrata are excellent examples of this style.


Graphic Wood Type
Graphic wood type from the extensive Hamilton Wood Type collection.

Graphic is essentially a sort of catch-all label for display type that doesn’t fit into any other category. It includes anything that would be drawn or designed, with a brush, pen or any sort of tool. If it’s not exactly a sans, not exactly a serif, and you’re not really sure what it is, it is most likely a Graphic typeface!


Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg printed with type designed to mimic the late-medieval Fraktur style of handwriting. (Image credits: JMWK)

Blackletter type began with Gutenberg and was used in printing, even printing body text, until the early- to mid-20th century in Germany. It is based on a medieval scribal hand, written with a broad-nib pen, and differs from graphic typefaces and scripts in that it has been used at length in body text. It has a very dense type style. When the traditional style that Gutenberg had used began to give way to the more readable early serifs (the Humanist/Venetian designs of Aldus Manutius and his colleagues), printers called the new style “Whiteletter,” in reference to the negative space-to-ink ratio on the page; thus, the old type was termed Blackletter, and we still use this term today.


Gaelic Type
Gaelic type includes the Latin alphabet as well as some additional glyphs. Larger view. (Image source: mathewstaunton)

Gaelic type is based on the insular script found in manuscripts throughout the UK. As with Blackletter, it has been used in printing body text in Ireland, from its earliest appearances in the 16th century all the way through to the mid-20th century, but is no longer popular as a text typeface. The Vox-ATypI system was amended to include the Gaelic category in 2010 at the ATypI annual conference, appropriately held in Dublin.

Non-Latin Type

Beyond that, there is still another world of type to discover. The entirety of these two articles on the subtleties of type (and, believe me, it can get much more complicated!) have discussed only the Latin alphabet, which, while quite commonly used, is merely one of many writing systems used today. I encourage you to learn more about, and get involved in, the typography of other writing systems! Some are very widespread and used daily by hundreds of millions of people; others are used by mere thousands.

Regardless of how many people use it, each writing system needs quality typefaces. From the commonly used (check out Nadine Chahine’s interview on Arabic type) to the rarely seen (Jean-Baptiste Levée gave a fascinating talk at last year’s TypeCon on creating Air Inuit Sans, supporting Inuktitut glyphs), the typography of non-Latin writing systems promises an exciting future.

Closing Remarks

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the fascinating subject of typography and type history in this two-part series “Making Sense of Type Classification.” Hopefully, it has piqued your interest in this intriguing field. Knowing your way around the typographic resources available to today’s designers is essential, and it is helpful to understand a little behind the characteristics, history, visual character and idiosyncrasies that make each typeface unique and that define how it communicates.

At one point in the history of Web design, an extensive knowledge of type history was unnecessary because a Web or interactive designer was limited to half a dozen typefaces, and those in limited weights and variants.

Today, however, the landscape of Web design is completely different, and the typographic possibilities are endless! Also, while this material is covered in many design schools, a significant portion of designers today haven’t had a formal design education, so now is the best time to catch up!

That being said, we also must remember that, while type classification is an important aid to studying type, it is not a hard and fast system that cannot be questioned. Many typefaces combine characteristics and could easily fit into multiple categories, and no classification system can cover all of the possibilities. In the end, type classification is an excellent means of learning to recognize common patterns and distinguishing characteristics of typefaces, and we get to learn some type history along the way.

With this short series, you’re now equipped with a strong knowledge of categories of type; you’ve learned to analyze typefaces and pick out unique aspects of letterforms; you’ve seen how type has evolved with culture; and, most importantly, you have a solid foundation for further study of typography and type history! It cannot be overstated how immensely important sound knowledge of typography is for anyone in the broad field of design, and the material we’ve covered here will serve you well in navigating the world of type.

(al) (ea)

© Joseph Alessio for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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Original author: 
Yoshihiko Mano

It’s the nature of the beast that web design is always changing, and one of the many things that designers often lose sleep over is fonts.

Till recently web fonts were usually limited to ones installed on Windows or OSX, but these days you can choose a wide range of fonts available online. This means lots of choice for design but with more choice comes more woe. Which one to pick for which occasion?

Well, let’s put aside difficult decisions for a moment. We want to have a bit of fun with fonts! PingMag has scoured the plains of the world wide web for some funky Japanese fonts that are useful (okay, maybe not so useful!) — but always unique.

Fonts that are almost practical!

Imagine Yokohama fun-japanese-fonts01

This font was created to mark 150 years since Yokohama opened its port to the world and to remake the “Yokohama” brand. The designers researched the images that people associated with Yokohama, and then turned the character you could see in these into a font. The result is a harmony of classic and modern, and rather attractive too. You can write in Roman characters and Hiragana, but the Kanji is limited just to characters used in Yokohama ward names!

Yakitori Font fun-japanese-fonts02Photo by matsuyuki


This is recommended for all budding izakaya owners! You can almost taste the atmosphere just in the lettering. (Personal use okay. Apply for commercial use.)

Yoji Font


Perfect if you’re in need of some nostalgia. Do you remember how your handwriting looked when you were a young child (yoji)? Say three or four years old? Well, with this font adults can recreate that charmingly earnest look on their work documents! It’s Japanese only and, of course, there’s no Kanji. (Personal and commercial use okay.)

Fonts for sentimental train (and other forms of transportation) aficionados

National Rail-esque Font fun-japanese-fonts05Photo by tosimisi


So now you can turn any word into a railway station name! The font resembles the style of characters used in old (i.e. back when JR was still nationalized) railway signage. Actually, it’s not just for nostalgia. The font can also look super modern and smart as well. (Personal and commercial use okay.)

Handwritten Railway Type fun-japanese-fonts07

Okay, this one’s for the real train fanatics among you, recreating the handwritten station name signs as used on Japanese railway lines from a bygone age. The design quality is also still good enough for today. (Personal and commercial use okay.)

National Rail Font: Pictographs fun-japanese-fonts08

This time it’s not words but the pictographs used in stations. Saying that, we’re not totally sure what that onsen (hot spring) symbol is doing there… (Personal and commercial use okay. Requires device with Japanese language input.)

Highway Sign Font fun-japanese-fonts09Photo by Ryo Yamaguchi

fun-japanese-fonts10 If you’re more of a driver then check out this font that looks like lettering on the signs to be found on Japanese highways. Striking and easy to read (since you are in theory driving fast!), this is great for titles. (Personal use okay. Apply for commercial use.)

Ghosts in the digital age?! Yes, it’s horror fonts!

Onryo fun-japanese-fonts11

Do you sometimes want to give your text a scary or ghoulish look? Gothic type just doesn’t cut it, right? Well, you will find Onryo (which means “ghost” or “phantom” in Japanese) a very useful font for those days in the office when you need to cast spells and curses on your work enemies. (Personal use okay. Commercial use also okay but recommended to check with the designer.)

DingTheInsect fun-japanese-fonts12

No scary experience is complete without some creepy-crawlies. For such occasions, reach for this font, which might just send shivers up your spine as you type. (Personal use okay. Commercial use also okay but recommended to check with the designer.)

Pure unadulterated fun!

JoJo Font


For the uninitiated out there, this font is in the style of the cult manga ‘JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’. Great for adding flourishes of onomatopoeia and the like, transforming dull text into exciting comic book scenes.

Neko Font fun-japanese-fonts14

Who cares about getting meaning across? If you’re crazy about cats (neko), then the felines are all that matter! This font isn’t available as data but you can type what you want on the website, and then get an automated code to display an downloadable image.

And there you have it for now, folks! The wealth of Japanese fonts available online is almost endless if you search around — and we’ve just scratched the surface with this quick intro. Happy hunting!

Okay, so please look out for future PingMag articles written entirely in cats.

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Original author: 
(author unknown)

For ideal typography, web designers need to know as much as possible about each user’s reading environment. That may seem obvious, but the act of specifying web typography is currently like ordering slices of pizza without knowing how large the slices are or what toppings they are covered with.

If someone asked me how many slices of pizza I wanted for lunch, I would probably say it depends on how large the slices are. Then—even if they told me that each slice was one eighth of a whole pie, or that they themselves were ordering two slices, or even that the slices were coming from Joe’s Pizza—any answer I might give would still be based on relative knowledge and inexact assumptions.

Such is the current situation with the physical presentation of responsive typography on the web. The information at a designer’s disposal for responsive design is virtually nonexistent outside the realm of software. Very little knowledge about the physical presentation of content is available to inform the design. The media query features of today can only relay a very fragmented view of the content’s actual presentation, and related terms from CSS are confusing if not downright misleading.

The immeasurable pachyderm

Among all the physical qualities of web typography, the elephant in the room is the issue of size. I’m not talking about em or rem or “reference pixels” ¹ or even device pixels. I’m talking about real, actual, physical, bona fide, measurable, size!

It’s ridiculous that we can send robots to Mars yet it’s still virtually impossible to render a glyph on a web page and say with confidence: “If you measure this glyph on your screen with a ruler, it will be exactly 10 millimeters wide.” Although actual physical size isn’t always the most important factor in web design, in some cases it is critical. For example, consider content for partially-sighted or low-vision readers: the ability to tweak designs according to physical sizes would enable designers to make conscious design decisions with much more sensitivity to how the type is actually being seen. And even where physical sizing is secondary to relative sizing, why shouldn’t we nevertheless be able to factor in physical size when establishing the relationships between different elements?

Physical considerations ≠ print design

I don’t believe web typography should be a screen-based imitation of print typography. One of the greatest benefits of web typography, and web design in general, is that it is flexible, adaptable, fluidly adjustable, without being locked into any one specific configuration. However(!), that doesn’t mean web designers should be forced to design without any means to address the issues of physical presentation. On the contrary, responsive design will not reach its full potential until it allows the ability to respond to the very important physical variables of digital media.

Please pardon the cliché, but when it comes to typography, on screens or otherwise, size matters. Physical size affects optical issues that change how the eye and brain process typographic images. Not surprisingly, typographers and typeface designers have been compensating for optical size-related issues as far back as Gutenberg.

You can’t expect a paragraph of type with the same relative line-height, column width, letter-spacing, and glyph proportions to function just as well on two different displays that have the same number of pixels but completely different physical sizes. It’s great that designers can adjust proportions between typographic elements if the canvas varies in relative size, but any such compensation is still based on guesswork and assumptions about the physical size of that canvas. When people disagree about the size or spacing of type on a website, there’s a very good chance that their opinions are based on completely different physical manifestations of the same content, even if their software and settings are identical.

Resolute resolution, absolute absolution

One of the most crucial factors in the size equation is resolution. And when I say resolution, I don’t just mean “how many pixels is this?”, or even “how many device pixels is this?”, but also “how large are these pixels?”

This is very different from the W3C’s “resolution” media feature in the current draft of the Media Queries Level 4 spec. You will note that the spec refers to resolution in terms of “CSS ‘inches’”—the quotes around “inches” are theirs, implying that they are not actually inches at all.

For an example of why physical resolution matters, imagine you are rendering text on a digital billboard with a physical resolution of one pixel per inch (1 PPI). Now imagine you are rendering the same text on a 200 PPI mobile device display. Even if you knew the actual number of device pixels that would be used to render your type (which itself is difficult to do with confidence these days), you would want to treat the two compositions very differently, both in terms of the typeface as well as typographic layout. The billboard type would likely require less space between letters. The letterforms themselves would benefit from narrower proportions, and could endure a higher ratio between thick and thin strokes. The type might even require different colors to optimize contrast at that size. These are all basics of typography and typeface design.

Unfortunately, in the current landscape of media query features, there is no way to know the difference between 16 device pixels on a crude LED billboard and 16 device pixels on a high-density mobile display. Heck, there isn’t even a reliable way to know if your type is 16 device pixels at all, regardless of how large the pixels are!

Pixels still rule, for better or worse

I know what some em-based enthusiasts might be thinking: “But you shouldn’t be specifying type sizes in pixel units to start with! All type sizes should be spec’d abstractly in relation to each other or a base font size!” However, in the current world of web typography, no matter what unit of measure you use to spec your onscreen type sizes—em, rem, px, pt, in, %, vh, or whatever else—at the end of the line, your specification is being mapped to pixels. Even if you leave the base size of your document to the defaults and specify everything else with em, there is still a base size which all other sizes will ultimately refer to, and it is defined in pixels.

This is because, currently, the only unit of measure that can be rendered onscreen by any operating system with absolute confidence is the lowly pixel. Until we have media query features that allow us to spec for situations like:

@media (physical-resolution: 1device-pixels-per-physical-inch) { … }


@media (device-width: 10physical-centimeters) { … }

… any compensation for physical size is based entirely on rough guesses about the devices our content will be presented on.²

It’s a complete fallacy that the official CSS spec allows so-called “absolute” units of measure like inches, points, and centimeters to be mapped to anything but actual physical units. Ironically, previous versions of CSS treated these things as you would hope and expect, but a change was made “because too much existing content relies on the assumption of 96dpi, and breaking that assumption breaks the content.” Call me idealistic if you will, but I am more of the mind that a spec should be written based on what is best for the future, not to cater to things that were made in the past.³

Getting physical

Any ability to leverage physical variables for web design will require a joint effort by several groups:

  • Device manufacturers will need to provide APIs that can inform the operating system—and, by extension, web browsers and web designers—of the actual physical properties of the hardware being used to present content to the user. Some device APIs are already beginning to show up in the world, but there is a long way to go before functionality and adoption are anywhere near dependable.
  • Standards organizations—the W3C in particular—will need to establish specifications for how to reference physical properties when formatting content. They will need to update (or at least augment) their existing “absolute” units of measure to be more meaningful, so they are more than just multipliers of sizeless pixels.
  • Software manufacturers will need to implement support for new specs relating to physical media features. Browsers are the most obvious software that will need to implement support, but the biggest challenge might be in getting native support for device APIs in operating system software.
  • Type manufacturers and type services will need to provide more diverse ranges of typefaces that have been optimized for a variety of physical properties. Ideally, many of the needed variations could even be provided on the fly using a broader approach to the ideas of font hinting.
  • Web designers and developers, last but not least, will need to build their sites to respond to physical properties, leveraging all variables to the benefit of their users.

Size and resolution are just the tip of the iceberg of physical variables that could be considered when improving web typography. Things like viewing distance, ambient light, display luminance, contrast ratio, black levels, etc., etc., could all be factored in to improve the reading experience. Even the ability to know some variables within the realm of software, like the user’s rendering engine or the presence of subpixel positioning, would go a long way toward helping web typographers design a better reading experience.

In the meantime, I’d love to see more of the players mentioned above start to at least experiment with what’s possible when physical features can be specified, detected, and factored into responsive designs in structured, meaningful, and predictable ways. Until we can do that, we’re all just ordering pizza without knowing exactly what will end up on our plate.

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stanford logo change

Earlier today, we reported that the prestigious Stanford University quietly, but officially, changed its logo.

The question on many an alum's mind: Why?

Business Insider talked to Lisa Lapin, associate VP of university communications and the woman who oversaw the update, and it looks like the reason for the change was very Stanford-appropriate.

It turns out that the university — which is in the heart of Silicon Valley and has produced tech giants including the founders of Google, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard — was using a logo that just didn't work in the digital world.

"The other mark is very pretty and academic and classic, but it was designed specifically for print and stationery," Lapin said."The world has changed in the last 10 years."

Lapin explained that the previous font "didn't work digitally. It's too thin and fine. People were struggling with the mark online, and we were struggling even further when we were making mobile sites — It doesn't translate to an iPhone screen."

The previous logo also didn't translate well to signatures (like for the school of Engineering) and clothing, so the university primarily went with block letters that merely resembled the official font.

Thus, Stanford hired Bright, a design firm out of Marina del Rey, to create a new logo. Bright had previously done the mark for UCLA.

stanford law school"They spent a lot of time studying Stanford's architecture," Lapin told BI. "They did come up with a font that reflects the architecture of the campus, primarily the arches."

Since the logo is now a trademarked piece of original art, this solves another challenge of Stanford's old mark: Licensing.

The last logo was Sabon font, and Lapin explained that was expensive to license.

"Lots of units wanted to have it throughout the campus, so we were spending," she said.

Now Stanford owns the logo design, which means that it can also prevent others from replicating the school's likeness by just using Sabon art.

But don't worry, the emblematic tree and Stanford seal aren't going anywhere.

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Creating custom icon font files with Icomoon. Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey.

Responsive images means getting high-quality, bandwidth-friendly images to the right screens. Currently that’s not nearly as simple as it sounds, but there’s a responsive images web standard in the works and plenty of smart developers working on the problem.

Implicit in the responsive images discussion is that the images in question are photographic images. For graphics, solid-color images and icons there are already better solutions, namely, either SVG or icon fonts.

Icon fonts in particular have been getting a lot of attention lately and for good reason — they make an easy, lightweight way to serve up resolution-independent images that look good on any screen. Indeed in most cases icon fonts can replace your old image sprites (though you can keep your sprites around for older browsers). And don’t forget icon fonts are fonts, so any CSS effect that works on text will work on your symbols.

There are dozens of great icon font sets available that you can just drop into your projects. Pictos, Glyphish and Symbolset are just a few popular options. There are high-quality free icon sets as well, but it’s also easy to create your own font file from any vector image you have.

Turning your vector files into icon fonts means you can serve your RSS, social icons and perhaps even your logo all from the same custom font file (or even straight from your stylesheet with base-64 encoded data). What’s more, when you roll your own, you can include only those icons you need, further reducing file size.

I’ve been using the OS X application Glyphs to package up icon sets, but, as developer Jeremy Keith recently highlighted in a blog post, there are a number of great (and free) online services that can turn your icons into font packs. Assuming you don’t need all the font editing features found in desktop apps like Glyphs, web services like IcoMoon will work great.

To create your custom collection IcoMoon has dozens of icon fonts to choose from (some free, some not), as well as an option to convert your own graphics. Once you have your set assembled the app will spit out the whole collection as single font file ready to use on your site. You can even get the resulting font base-64 encoded so you can avoid the extra HTTP request.

For more info on how and why to use icon fonts check out the nice overview on the Pictos blog, Chris Coyer’s Icon Fonts are Awesome, developer Trent Walton’s icon font write up and Jenn Lukas’ series on icon fonts.

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For years you have been searching for it. You hear the question being asked in your dreams as you go on an Indiana-Jones-type-crusade to find the answer. When the answer comes to you, you know that the confetti will fall from the ceiling and the band will start playing your favorite song. You might even get a kiss from that special someone. So what is this question?

What is the secret to Web design?

A tough question and one that might not have an answer. In 2006, Oliver Reichenstein wrote Web Design is 95% Typography. Some people loved it, others were not so amused. If Web design was based that much on typography, then what was the point of learning anything else? All you needed to do is understand the elements of typography and you were good to go.

Of course typography doesn’t mean font selection. With the advent of @font-face and services such as Typekit, Webtype, Fontdeck, and Google Web fonts, your skills in typography won’t improve. You can easily create wonderful designs with one font for the rest of your life if you choose to—they had to do it centuries ago and they didn’t have Photoshop sticking things to guides for them. If anything, more font selection will make things worse for you because creativity and beauty become hard to achieves when more options are given to us.

More toys means more fun though, right? If you want to go that route, then by all means go for it. I love to look at the different fonts being used and admire anyone that can successfully pull off using newer fonts for the Web. However, I’ve seen too many times what can happen when development options are given to the masses, and it isn’t pretty (re: Myspace). Instead of having a user agreement it would be cool if Typekit made you read a book on typography before you could begin using a font—the Web would improve tenfold, if that was the case.

I’m not being sarcastic, saying that is all you need to know for a majority of websites. Try going through all of the Web designs that you love, strip out the images and ask yourself “how would that website look with just text and spacing?”. When designers say “text is the interface”, they really do mean it. The iA site is a great example of that.

Information Architects
Information Architects is based around strong typography.

One of my all time favorite designs is A Working Library. The site is a showcase of text being the interface. The spacing is just right and the typography is on point.

A Working Library
A Working Library by Mandy Brown.

Some people find design like this to be dull and boring, they feel that design should have more pop to it. At the end of the day some extra visual flair might be what separates your design from the rest, but you need to get the first 95% down. The website that you are reading this article on now has done a wonderful job of presenting a visual design that isn’t reliant on images to be beautiful.

Well That Isn’t Hard

It’s possible to create a wonderful design without the use of images at all. I know that sounds crazy, but it is possible. I’m not saying it should be done, but if we can create elegance simply with typography and white space, then why shouldn’t we be able to create greatness when we start throwing in images, videos and other effects?

With the use of images I’m not talking about images that are needed to represent something such as icons, but images that are there for flare. Sometimes a picture is worth at least ten better words than any word you could use, so it’s better to go with an image (but you still need to consider using white space with it).

Here are two more examples of beautiful websites that place a heavy emphasis on typography to control the design. The first is Blake Allen Design and the second is The Harriet Series (both use images to represent their typography, but you get the point).

Blake Allen Design
Blake Allen Design uses images, but with great typography.

The Harriet Series
The Harriet Series by OkayType.

What makes the two designs above so interesting to me is that the typography not only guides you along a journey, but it does so with personality. You almost feel as if the typography is an expression of the person that designed it. Blake Allen uses Helvetica which gives the website a Swiss, clean and structured personality. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Harriet Series website is a bit more playful and experimental—there is beauty in the organized chaos that the typography creates.

For 99% of the designs out there, typography and white space are going to be your underlying foundation. So if you can’t get them right, then the rest of your design has nothing to stand on. Stop worrying about the pop of your design and first worry about how it will stand tall. Once you get that down then you can begin to dress it up.

Clear is a very simple to do list application for iOS devices. While the majority of the excitement around it are the gestures used to control the interface, you will notice that the typography does enough to get out of the way and allow you to enjoy the application. Sure it is nothing more than Helvetica, but what if it was Comic Sans and had bad spacing all around? Great typography doesn’t have to stand out in a good way, but that doesn’t mean it should do enough harm when it stands out in a negative way, either.

Typography In Other Disciplines

Art of the Menu
Art of the Menu is a great website on menu design.

The Art of the Menu does a great job of showing the importance of typography in menu design. While a lot of restaurants like to add images and illustrations to their menus to give them a bit more pizzaz, they fail in providing a decent typographical structure that allows you to easily browse through the menu.

If you are a designer you have no excuse to say you can’t come up with a decent design. When you create a design that lacks a strong foundation, anything else you add to it is just going to make it worse. Too many designers attempt to save their designs with fluff without understanding they are pouring gasoline onto the fire. If a design is not enjoyable to read then it is not an enjoyable experience, no matter how many images, colors or sounds you decide to add to it.

Looking to understand typography a little bit better? Not too long ago Smashing Magazine did a comprehensive overview of some wonderful typography tools and resources.


© Paul Scrivens for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Every now and then, we look around, select fresh free high-quality fonts and present them to you in a brief overview. The choice out there is enormous, so the time you need to find them is usually time you should be investing in your projects. We search for them and find them so that you don’t have to.

In this selection, we’re pleased to present Signika, Plastic Type, Bariol, Alegreya, Metropolis, Typometry and other quality fonts. Please note that while most fonts are available for commercial projects, some are for personal use only and are clearly marked as such. Also, please read the licensing agreements carefully before using the fonts; they may change from time to time. Make sure to check the free quality fonts round-up from January 2011, too.

Free Quality Fonts

A remarkable sans-serif typeface with a gentle character, Signika was developed for wayfinding, signage and other media in which clarity of information is required. Developed by Anna Giedrys of Poland, the typeface has a low contrast and tall x-height to improve readability at small sizes and at far distances. The typeface has a wide character set, supporting most European languages, small caps, pictograms and arrows. All weights from light to bold have alternative negative versions, optimized to solve the effect of juxtaposed positive and negative text setting, whereby negative text tends to look thicker. Available at Google Web Fonts and for free download at Fontsquirrel.

Plastic Type
The designers of this typeface were inspired by the plastics industry, exploring how they could use the various forms and imperfections of plastic in their design. The result of their experimentation is a freely available, beautiful, playful font, released under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.

Sullivan is a bold display face that comes in three variations. Each variation can be used effectively on its own or layered on the others to create a modern, industrial visual effect. The typeface was designed by Jason Mark Jones and released under the name-your-price policy.

Corki is a distinctive condensed slab-serif typeface suitable for headlines. Four styles are available: Regular, Rounded, Tuscan and Rounded Tuscan. The typeface includes 134 glyphs: both Latin and Cyrillic scripts, plus two manicules and various arrows. It is available for free.

Bariol is a friendly, rounded, slightly condensed typeface, available in four weights and designed with versatility and readability in mind. It’s nice and familiar, without being too sweet, and very readable even at small sizes. Bariol Regular is available for free (a tweet or Facebook update is requested), but each font weight can be purchased for just $1.00.

This beautifully designed serif typeface has a classic, olden feel. The uppercase letterforms seem to be based on Roman script, while the lowercase characters rather have the feel of a humanist book. The family consists of 12 fonts (including regular, italic, bold, black, bold italic and black italic.)


Metropolis is a distinctive, experimental typeface in the Art Deco style. The design was inspired by the industrial movement of the 1920s, when skyscrapers where born. As the designer explains, “Using a double line technique, I wanted to create my own Art Deco style font that represented this era. The result is a bold, bumptious typeface with a stolidly calm disposition.” Metropolis could be a good choice when you are looking for a retro or retro-futuristic look. Released under Fontfabric’s Free Font EULA, you may use it in your private and commercial projects for free, but if you use it with a @font-face declaration, then a credit to Fontfabric is required somewhere on your website.

An experimental display typeface inspired by geometrical forms. An interesting choice for unique patterns or just playing arond with glyphs. Designed by Emil Kozole. An advanced version of the typeface with 2 weights, 4 styles and 220 glyphs is available as well.

Tikal Sans Medium
Tikal Sans is a family with curved terminating strokes, ending in sharp edges. With a contemporary feel, a tall x-height and OpenType contextual alternate letters, Tikal Sans offers a functional look with a friendly touch. The thin and black weights are great for display sizes, while the light, regular and medium weights are well suited to longer texts. Tikal Sans Medium and Tikal Sans Medium Italic are available for free, but registration is required.

Tikal Sans

If you are looking for a workhorse typeface, then Actor might be it. It has a tall x-height, which is why it requires fairly high line spacing. The digits of Actor are created as old-style figures. The font can be used for free via Google Web Fonts.

Veneer Extras and Veneer Extras Italic
Veneer is a versatile, handcrafted “letterpress” font that has an authentic vintage feel with a touch of grunge. The freely available extras include 70 glyphs, in both regular and italics. Registration is required for the free download.

Wayfinding Sans
This type family, designed by Ralf Herrmann, sets a new standard for legibility in signage and wayfinding. Herrmann started this project with extensive field studies, driving tens of thousands of miles to explore the legibilty of road signage typefaces in dozens of countries around the world. The results of these explorations, along with an extensive study of relevant scientific legibilty research, formed the theoretical framework for creating an “ultimate” signage typeface. Wayfinding Sans includes 400 glyphs in one style, with arrows. To get the font, a tweet or Facebook update is required.

Here is a playful Colorado-inspired italic typeface, designed by Evan Huwa. It’s a good choice for a bold movie title or a vintage book style. This typeface is sans serif and uppercase only.

José Nicolás Silva Schwarzenberg of the University of Buenos Aires designed this free font specifically for the South American indigenous language Wayuunaiki. Fortunately, the tyepface can be used not only by the 305,000 Wayuu people, but by everyone across the world. It is a medium-contrast serif font, optimized for the Web and efficient at smaller sizes. Poly is available in the Google Web Fonts library as well.

 Poly, A Quality Serif Font

Designed by Serge Shi of Russia, Adec is an original experimental typeface. The texture of the glyphs makes the typeface a good choice for distinctive playful designs and graphic branding. The typeface has three styles: Main, Initials and Text. The download contains samples of patterns created using the typeface alone.

Frontage Outline
Frontage is a charming layered typographic system that allows you to combine fonts and colors to achieve an interesting 3-D effect. Add the shadow font or just use the capital letters of the regular and bold cut for a stark effect. Unfortunately, only the Frontage Outline one is available for free (or at least paid for with a tweet or Facebook update).

This serif typeface might be the perfect fit for the headlines and body copy of your next corporate or personal project. Designed specifically for Spanish text, this typeface is a solid fit for English as well. The free typeface was given the 2010 Desigh Award by Bienal Ibero-Americana. It includes the basic set, accented characters, signs and punctuation, numbers, ligatures and mathematical signs. Released under the SIL Open Font License.

Blanch is a distinctive display face, designed for the Fruita Blanch brand, a family-run company. The typeface is a great match for brochures and posters, but can be used for headings on the Web as well. Although it might look a bit rigid, the typeface has a modern, contemporary feel. The family consists of six weights: three condensed weights and three caps weights. Designed by the Spanish design studio Atipus, and released with a name-your-price license.

Valentina is a classic “didone” that follows some of the principles of Bodoni from the 18th century, while incorporating many characteristics of the Spanish style of the time. The font contains 457 glyphs, with 125 alternative lowercase glyphs and 46 ligatures. Some of the glyphs can be nicely integrated in a logo or branding design and combined with Ampersand (featured above) or Zeta.

Sánchez is a display serif type family. Similar to Rockwell, it has rounded edges, which provide contrast and balance to the overall square forms. Regular and italic variants are available for free.

Erler Dingbats
This typeface covers the full encoding range for dingbats in Unicode (U + 2700 to U + 27BF). Erler Dingbats is the result of a collaboration between designers Johannes Erler and Henning Skibbe to create a consistent, contemporary font that could be used for everyday communication. It includes a range of popular symbols and pictograms, such as arrows, pens, phones, stars, crosses and checkmarks.

Entypo Pictograms
Entypo Pictograms is a set of more than 100 pictograms available as OpenType fonts, released under the Creative Commons license and free for commercial use. The collection consists of many navigation elements and other familiar icons. Its designers, Daniel Bruce and Andreas Blombäck, look forward to seeing usage of it.

Great Vibes
This beautiful, flowing typeface has looping ascenders and descenders, as well as elegant uppercase forms. It is a Unicode typeface that supports languages that use the Latin script and its variants.

This typeface has strong contrast without feeling overwhelming. It can be used in headings and design campaigns. The smaller sizes (9, 12, 14 and 16 points) are hinted in TrueType format for better legibility on Windows. The font is published in the Google Font directory as a free open font (OFL).

Banda Free Regular
Banda is a semi-serif typeface with a tall x-height and rounded semi-serifs. Playful and inviting and suitable for logos, headlines and packaging designs, Banda Regular is available as a free download.

Edmondsans is a free display typeface with three weights (regular, medium and bold). The typeface isn’t suited to every occasion but would be good for bold, conservative headings.

Fenix is a serif typeface designed for display and long passages of text, with its strong serifs and rough strokes. Fenix is elegant yet legible at large sizes, probably a good fit for editorial work, books and newspapers. It is freely available for private and commercial use.

EB Garamond
Georg Duffner is recreating the classical Garamond with his open-source project EB Garamond. His goal is to revive Claude Garamont’s famous humanist typeface from the mid-16th century. Duffner’s design reproduces the original, with its letterforms taken from a scan of a specimen known as the “Berner specimen.” It’s a good, comprehensive Web font, released under the SIL Open Font License, 1.1, and also available on Google Web Fonts. The project is under ongoing development, so if you’d like to help Duffner, feel free to contribute.

Noticia Text
This slab-serif typeface was designed for long passages of texts in digital newspapers and other on-screen publications. Available for free in four styles, the typeface is currently under development, but the first version is available now.

Lusitana is a classic serif typeface inspired by the type found in the 1572 first edition of The Lusiads, a Portuguese epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões. This typeface is made for long passages of text at small sizes. Designed by Ana Paula Megda.

Cardo is a large Unicode font designed especially for academic needs. It works well for general typesetting in situations where a high-quality old-style font is appropriate. Its large character set supports many modern languages, as well as those studied by scholars. Cardo also contains ligatures, text figures (i.e. old-style numerals), true small capitals and a variety of punctuation and spacing characters.

Exo Font Family
A successful Kickstarter project made it possible for Natanael Gama of Portugal to create this typeface and release it publicly. Exo is a comprehensive geometric sans-serif font family with nine weights, in both regular and italic. Each font comes with many OpenType features such as small caps, ligatures, alternates, old-style figures, tabular figures and fractions. Both the OpenType and source files are available to download for free.

This typeface was designed by Jonatan Xavier to imbue the Art Deco style with a strong modern feel. It is best for brochures and packaging designs, posters and magazines.

Bitter Regular
This slab-serif typeface was designed specifically for literary texts and for reading on screen with eInk technology. The typeface is a great fit for headings in a corporate brochure or on a website. Only one font weight is available, in TrueType and OpenType formats. A description and images are available on the designer’s website. The download link on the official website isn’t working anymore, but you can still download it from Designer In Action. Released under the SIL Open Font License.


Last Clicks

Type Connection
A good relationship can be characterized as two people who fit together. Aura Seltzer adopted this idea for her game Type Connection, which was her MFA thesis project. In this game, you are a procurer who helps different typefaces mate with each other. Each typeface is a lonely character searching for love, and your job is to find its perfect partner. By playing the game, you not only explore type history, but also learn typographic terms, while learning how to pair typefaces.

Type Connection

Just My Type
Picking just the right typeface can be difficult. On this page, Dan Eden presents a collection of beautiful font stacks delivered by Typekit. Some of the combinations aren’t necessarily revolutionary, but Eden delivers a nice, visually pleasing collection nevertheless. Some of the fonts are even free. Whether you’re looking for a new font to please a client or just want to play around, you won’t waste your time visiting Dan’s website. And for a more thorough article on combining typefaces, check out “Four Techniques for Combining Typefaces.”

Novel Constructions
A detailed case study on how Christoph Dunst designed the typeface Novel. Interesting and unique insights into the design process.

Showcase of Typographic Posters
This project is curated by André Felipe, a graphic designer who loves typography and its unorthodox uses. Featuring literally hundreds of posters, this project is a great resource that could serve either as a platform to show off your talent or as a reference for your next project.

Showcase Of Typographic Posters

Squared Superheroes
How well do you know your favorite superheroes? What kind of weapons do they fight with? What do their masks look like? Instead of drawing the usual fine details (facial expressions, hair, shadows, special visual effects), René Schiffer goes for a rather laconic, minimal style. He has picked out the most important characteristics of each superhero and represented them as squared forms. Placed side by side, the superheroes make for a great composition. Now, see if you recognize your childhood heroes! And no, it’s not a typeface, but… well, it could be one!

Squared Superheroes

Further Resources

  • Lost Type Co-Op
    The Lost Type Co-Op is a pay-what-you-want type foundry. Users can pay whatever they like for a font or type in “$0” for a free download. All proceeds from sales go directly to the designers of the fonts themselves.
  • The League of Moveable Type
    This open-source type movement brings high-quality tyepfaces to the Web. The creators of the project release quality fonts every now and then, so stay tuned!
  • Google Web Fonts
    This growing directory offers hundreds of free open-source fonts optimized for the Web. Google also provides ready-to-use snippets to integrate the fonts on your website.
  • Typography and free fonts on Smashing Magazine
    An overview of typography-related articles and free font round-ups on Smashing Magazine.

We sincerely appreciate the time and effort of all of the type designers featured in this post. Please keep in mind that type design is a time-consuming craft that truly deserves compensation and support. Please consider supporting the type designers who create and release these amazing typefaces for all of us to use.


© Smashing Editorial for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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