Useful Notes: Fonts

"Font" used to refer to a complete set of characters of one typeface (set of characters that share a common design structure) in a specific size and style. So for a typesetter from 40 years ago, a typeface would be Times New Roman, a font family within it would be Times New Roman demi-bold, and a font within that would be 12-point Times New Roman demi-bold. Since the advent of digital media, the two terms are considered synonymous, particularly since outline fonts are indifferent as to size.

There are also Bitmap, TrueType, and PostScript fonts. Bitmap fonts have glyphs as, well, bitmaps, at different point sizes. Most of these have only one bit to tell the system if a specified pixel is used by the character or not. Most systems will allow you to use bitmap fonts at point sizes other than what the font has, but results aren't pretty. PostScript fonts are the first vector-based font, used by printers that supported the PostScript language. The first iterations of Windows and Mac OS couldn't actually show them on screen, so a bitmap version of the font was still needed. Adobe Type Manager, available for Mac OS and Windows, would let you see the fonts (even anti-alias them), but current versions of Windows and Mac OS do this by themselves. TrueType was made to compete with PostScript by Microsoft and Apple, and a bitmap font is not needed. It also uses a different way of doing curves than PostScript.

In order to correct visually uneven spacing between two particular characters in a font, there is a process called kerning. It adds or subtracts space between characters.

It can be confused with letter-spacing or tracking, which refers to the amount of space between letters in a piece of text. Tight spacing usually benefits large types, but it has a subjective feeling ("fast talking like in advertising") whereas wider spacing increases legibility of small fonts, and creates an association of a more “objective voice”. In excess, the text can look affected.

And just for the fun of it, here's a handy flowchart for designers.

Serif: Serifs are embellishments details added at the extremes of the strokes of some letters.
  • Times New Roman. A traditionally styled font originally commissioned for newspaper columns, and thus designed to fit the maximum amount of text into a narrow space without sacrificing either readability or aesthetics. Was for many years the default font in most word processors, mainly due to being one the only fonts available by default on Windows, but is still a major standard.note  Ubiquitous as a result, especially in non-professional work. Accused of being So Okay, It's Average, but it does its job with a good balance of readability and economy of space. Used in several books and newspapers. Before the advent of digital typesetting almost all British paperbacks were set either in Times New Roman or the more old-fashioned looking Plantin. Using it on a Web site, however, tends to brand the creator as a noob.
  • Georgia. Has larger characters than Times New Roman, with old-style (or "lowercase") figures. One of the first fonts explicitly designed for computers, emphasizing on-screen legibility.
  • Trajan is the film poster font.
  • Garamond and Baskerville (an updated Caslon, a British font used in the American colonies and in historic documents, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Still used and highly considered today). They offer formality and elegance.
  • Clarendon. Common in wanted posters (like the "REWARDS" text in [1]) of The Wild West, logotypes and old traffic signs.
  • Traktir is another slab serif typeface evoking the look and feel of 19th-century papers and posters. It's bilingual, with both Latin and Cyrillic letters (the latter was often used in Tsarist Russia).
  • Computer Modern Roman, the LaTeX font. Is a didone type (horizontal lines are thinner than the vertical parts). (It's part of a whole family; see below.)
  • Bodoni. Also a didone, this historic font is suitable for posters, headlines or logos.
  • Cambria Math is the default, and only shipped, font for the current Equation Editor in Word. Other fonts, such as the Times-like XITS Math, are available for download and sort of compatible with Equation Editor.
  • Palatino. Classic one, easy to read.
    • Book Antiqua. Suspiciously Similar Substitute. (URW Palladio, which is used on many Linux systems because its publisher made it available for free, isn't "suspiciously" similar, because it was authorized by Palatino's creator, Hermann Zapf. As with Arial, Monotype and Microsoft showed no such consideration with Book Antiqua, which annoyed Zapf greatly.)
  • Cooper Black. Created in 1921, but generally associated with The Seventies due to its popularity in that era. You might also think of it as the Garfield font, from its appearance on comic collections going back to the beginning of the strip.
  • The Century family, especially Century Schoolbook, modern fonts that date from the 1890s, gives a feeling of old books, but today it's more commonly known by lawyers across the United States for being the font the Supreme Court uses—and makes them use if they submit anything to them.

Sans Serif: While serif fonts are more usual in print, sans serifs are widely used online. There is no agreement in which of the two has better readability (facility to read text) and legibility (to recognize characters).
  • Calibri. In 2010, it became the default typeface in, among others, Microsoft Office, substituting for Times New Roman and Arial. Not recommended for use on Web sites, however, because at the same point size it is noticeably smaller than all of the sans-serif fonts that can be used as a fallback.
  • Century Gothic. Geometric counterpart to ITC Avant Garde. For headlines and short texts.
  • Chicago. The default font for Macintosh computers for System 7 and earlier. Later Mac OSes replaced it with Charcoal, Lucida Grande, and most recently Helvetica (see below).
  • Eurostile. Known for its squarish round letters, most iconic in its extended (widened) form. Common on electronic equipment in the '70s and '80s. Still manages to retain a futuristic feel, though some would argue that it's slipping into Zeerust territory.
  • Franklin Gothic. Makes sense for headlines and minor design elements. Popular with the U.S. Army.
  • Frutiger. Originally designed for use on airport signs, it is notable for being easy to read from a wide range of angles and distances. Quite popular, it has a clean modern look.
    • DIN 1451 fonts are very similar, invented in Germany in the 1930's as an industrial standard.
  • Futura. Geometric type (therefore a very modern look) used extensively as a general-purpose font.
    • Its Bauhaus style is good for a movie set in The Fifties or early-to-mid Sixties and you want to show signage at a research laboratory or tables in a science textbook (even though it is considered more a font from The Thirties, where it may also be found, but more in the context of something high end, like a fine arts publication).
  • Gotham. Commissioned by GQ magazine to be geometrical and look "masculine, new, and fresh", though it was purportedly modeled after machine-cut signage from the mid twentieth century. Now associated with Barack Obama, whose campaigns made extensive use of it. Its use has exploded since then; most amusingly, it is used in the new logo for DC Comics.
  • Helvetica. Designed to be the 'perfect' typeface; meaning it could be used on almost any design or purpose. By the end of the 20th century, it and its clones has been overused by amateurs and professionals alike.
    • One of Helvetica's most famous uses was for the lettering of ship names on the Space Shuttle Orbiter Fleet.
    • Helvetica is the font used for most things on TV Tropes (when text isn't set to the individual browser default). The monospaced font we have is Courier.
    • Arial. Suspiciously Similar Substitute.
      • Here is a page about some of the differences between Arial and Helvetica. This is a 20-question quiz for telling apart the two fonts, using well-known logos designed in Helvetica and converted to Arial.
      • As a rule of thumb, if you're viewing this page on a Windows computer, it will by default be in Arial. If you are viewing it on a Mac, it is probably Helvetica.
    • Univers. The Rival: Both were created the same year (1957) and are extremely legible. Univers has wider letter-spacing.
    • Myriad. Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The author claims so. Although, realistically, it bears more of a resemblance to Frutiger.
  • Lithos is based on old Greek lettering and gives a primitive-ethnic feel. Good if you have a movie set in The Nineties and want to show a restaurant menu (particularly a Greek diner). Apple's Skia font has a similar inspiration, but with lowercase letters and less obvious cheeziness.
  • Neutra Display is a recent retro-style (roughly mid-20th century) font that has begun to take off among designers who want something a bit more distinct than Futura. Features a distinct low center line, which extends to the entire lower-case set as well as letters like "E" and "R".
  • Roboto. The "Android font" as of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Released for desktop systems by Google in 2012; it's gradually developed into Google's corporate identity font and is the standard web font for YouTube and Google+.
  • San Francisco is the second Apple font by that name; the first was a ransom note-style typeface designed in 1983 by Susan Kare for the original Macintosh and shipped until System 7 came out, while the new one was designed for the Apple Watch and is slated to replace Helvetica Neue on OS X 10.11 and iOS 9. At a quick glance, it looks very much like Roboto, although on closer examination there are significant differences.
  • Segoe. As "Segoe UI", the Microsoft user interface font for Windows Vista and 7, along with Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010. A slightly-different version of Segoe is the font for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Considered a Suspiciously Similar Substitute for Frutiger and Myriad.
  • Trebuchet. Designed in 1996, and named for the medieval siege engine. Used by this site.
  • Verdana. Sans serif counterpart to Georgia. Both were created by Microsoft. Tahoma is a narrower, more tightly-spaced variant also created by Microsoft.
    • Replacement Scrappy: Some felt that Ikea lost part of his identity when Verdana, in 2009, replaced Futura as the default font for their catalogs.
  • Johnston: An early "humanist" sans-serif font, designed 1916 by Edward Johnston for the London Underground, designed to be clean and modern but also friendly. Very useful for signage, rather like Frutiger.
    • Gill Sans A very similar humanist sans-serif font, designed in 1928-32 by Johnston's student, Eric Gill. Also used for signage, as well as many, many YouTube videos (it's a default title font on iMovie).
    • Both Gill Sans and Johnston are seen as quintessentially British modern fonts; seeing them show up is a reasonably good indication that whatever is using it is connected to contemporary Britain.

Script: Meant to imitate handwriting or calligraphy.
  • Comic Sans MS. An informal script font for funny stuff. Almost never used appropriately.
    • Love It or Hate It: Most designers are on the hate wagon, but its users show their love writing everything in it. Especially in pink.
    • It's not even a very good font for comic lettering, for a number of reasons. One of the major ones being that the letters do not "flow" together well; they look almost as if they had been cut and pasted randomly from a comic book page like a ransom note. Another is that the capital I is available only with bars on the top and bottom, which is considered bad form beyond writing the word "I". Blambot provides a number of better comic fonts — Digital Strip and Anime Ace among them — but they lack lower-case forms, which is a big part of Comic Sans' appeal in non-comic use.
    • Does have an advantage in that dyslexic people are able to read words written in Comic Sans easier than any other default font - precisely because the letters do not flow. Since dyslexia makes letters appear distorted and overlay each other, this is a great advantage.
    • The Vatican loves this font.
    • CERN declared it their official font, referencing the fact that their Higgs Boson announcement presentation was in it (which the internet found amusing).note 
    • The Scrappy: To a lot of people.
    • Two Mac fonts, Apple Casual and Chalkboard, look similar to Comic Sans, but neither has an oblique version.
    • Comic Neue and Comic Relief: Two attempts to create a less Scrappy version of Comic Sans.
  • Monotype Corsiva. To add a casual feeling to invitations, personal cards and short sponsored texts.
  • Kuenstler Script and Snell Roundhand. Highly formal, based on elaborated calligraphy from the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Kaufmann, Mistral, Dom Casual (which has a freehand effect similar to Comic Sans) and Brush Script. Casual script typefaces (they emulate informal handwriting). Very popular in advertising and entertaining magazines.
    • Dom Casual peaked in popularity in the mid-'50s to early '70s, when it was (over)used much as Comic Sans is now. Today it's most often used when a "retro" look is desired.
  • Segoe Print. Another font introduced in Windows Vista and Office 2007, presumably meant to displace Comic Sans as the informal/faux-handwriting font of choice.
  • Maiandra GD is a font based on an early example of Oswald Cooper’s hand lettering in an advertisement for a book on home furnishing in the early 20th century, which was itself based on examples of letterforms from Greek epigraphy. Similar to Comic Sans without falling into Its Popular, so It Sucks mentality; Malandra can be used in many of the places where Comic Sans would actually be appropriate without inciting "RAWR COMIC SANS!" rage.

Monospaced: Each character occupies the same amount of horizontal space.
  • Anonymous TrueType and Anonymous Pro. Initially designed for Macs, these got exported to other operating systems. Popular with coders and some developers, they have a very clean look. Often overlooked because of compatibility issues.
  • Courier New. Looks like typewriting. The font of choice for screenwriters; nearly every guide to writing a screenplay says to use this font. 12-point Courier was also the font used by the US Department of State until 2004, when they switched to 14-point Times New Roman. Also great for plain text e-mails, code, and rageface comics. Courier Prime is an attempt to create a prettier, more screenplay-friendly version of it.
  • OCR-A. Bar code or credit card font. Was created in 1968 to be easily recognized by computers. It has a retro-futuristic look, so it's also used in advertising and display graphics.
    • OCR-B: Also for optical character recognition, but has a less technical appearance.
  • Lucida Console is the typeface used in the blue screen of death in Windows XP and Windows CE, as well as the default font for Notepad. It's also the only font that can replace the default one in the Command Prompt. In other platforms there is Lucida Typewriter.
  • Consolas, a favorite among programmers because of its clean look, especially when text anti-aliasing (ClearType in Microsoft land) is used. Strangely, it did not replace Lucida Console as the default font in Notepad.
  • Fixedsys is a very old console-based font. Unlike almost everything above, Fixedsys is not TrueType; the characters are encoded as pixels rather than lines and curves. Was the default font for Notepad on older versions of Windows, and still finds use where terminal programs are involved.

  • Agency FB. A narrow, geometric font recognizable for its open capital "R". Popular in recent years for video game logos, including the Battlefield and Red Faction franchises.
  • Bank Gothic. A small-caps font with a simple, geometric design. Popular as a logotype for anything that needs to convey "serious business", particularly for subheadings.
  • Impact. Considered amateurish, it's good for making lists or standing text out. White-with-black-border Impact is used in an awful lot of image memes.
    • Haettenschweiler: An alternative. It's used in the "Concentrate Plus" game.
  • French Clarendon[2]. Apart from Clarendon, this variation was used in the wanted posters to highlight a word or phrase.
  • Paratype's Rodchenko is the archetypal, hammy, totalitarian SФVIЭT PЯФPAGДИDA PФSTЭЯ font. It is not to be confused with a much older font by the same name that is particularly associated with graphic design in the 1970s; astute viewers of Boston-based movies might note it as the font used on Boston Police cars until the early 2000s.
    • Another "Communist-style" font is "Truth", named after the Soviet Communist Party newspaper "Pravda" ("Truth"). Other Pravda-derived fonts, however, are much more subdued and ordinary-looking.
  • Serpentine. Used a lot in the 1990s and early 21st century by brands that wanted to look hip and edgy, most notably the 007 franchise.

  • Papyrus. Ancient-looking font.
    • Another Love It or Hate It font: it gets slapped on to everything despite it being specifically designed to evoke Egyptian-ness. Unlike Comic Sans, though, it at least looks decent in its own right; there just aren't many places where it's appropriate.
  • Rickshaw, Buddha, China Doll, and numerous other "wonton fonts". Commonly used to convey an Asian, Chinese, and/or Japanese atmosphere, but there's little Love It or Hate It involved — designers consider them all overused and trite, while some Asians find them offensive or racist. Even so, they still get regular use, particularly from lazy designers or small businesses out to emphasize their Asian-ness.
  • Curlz and ITC Viner Hand seem to have become the stereotypical gothic typefaces.
  • Wingdings and Webdings. A series of Microsoft dingbat (symbols instead of letters and numbers) fonts. Not to be confused with the Unicode symbols, these fonts use symbols mapped to actual keyboard letters (such as J for a smiley face).
  • Marlett is a symbol font used internally by Windows to create user interface icons.
  • Broadway, created in 1927. Popular with works set in the 1930s.
  • Bleeding Cowboys is quickly becoming a new Love It or Hate It font due to it being used in a lot of things trying to achieve a "grungy" or "edgy" look. Its flair and grunge texture make it very easily to identify when it's used. A "pro" version at least allows some variety to be achieved.

Font families

It's been a trend since the 80s or so for fonts to be designed as coherent families, usually with serif, sans-serif, and monospaced variants, and sometimes with display versions as well. Font families have existed for a long time, since printers first combined italic and upright glyphs in the same documents and wanted them to look right together, but Donald Knuth's Computer Modern family was the first modern one and still the most overwhelmingly comprehensive (due to it being implemented in a fashion best described as "excessively flexible").

  • Computer Modern (mentioned above) and its nearly-identical update Latin Modern were created for METAFONT, an early digital font rendering program that Donald Knuth (better known for his ''The Art Of Computer Programming" series of books) created to complement the TeX formatting package; however, they've been long since converted to PostScript, TrueType, and OTF formats for wide use, and expanded to include numerous character sets. They're loosely based on older versions of Century (as was commonly used in textbooks up through the mid-20th century), but also come in many, many forms of serif, sans-serif, and what can only be described as a blocky, charmingly antiquated monospaced form. (The original METAFONT source contained something like sixty different user variables, and Knuth noted that one of the reasons METAFONT didn't succeed outside the TeX world was because type designers didn't appreciate being forced to be mathematicians just to make a font.) Computer Modern and TeX were created because of Knuth's dissatisfaction with existing typesetting facilities for mathematical and technical writing, a field it still excels at.
  • DejaVu (and its ancestor, the Bitstream Vera family) is one of the most popular open source font families; it's used on many free operating systems and is constantly updated to keep up with changes in the Unicode standard (which mostly involves adding emoji these days). Apple's console font Menlo is a slight modification of Déjà Vu Mono to increase readability on a computer screen.
  • Liberation and Croscore are two very similar families derived from Ascender by Steve Matteson. Both are open source; the Croscore variants are used by Google Chrome as exact metrical replacements for Times, Helvetica, and Courier but are essentially completely different designs.
  • Lucida by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes is very widely known due to one of its sans serif variants, Lucida Grande (also mentioned above), having been used for years as a system font by versions of Windows and Mac OS X. Lucida Console is also a common monospace font for coders, while Lucida Bright (an improved form of the original serif Lucida) was created for Scientific American magazine and has shown up sporadically on both Mac and Windows since the 1990, as well as a good number of versions of Java. Closely related are the Luxi family (designed for the X11 Unix windowing system) and the True Type version of the Mac OS New York font, both of which were also designed by B&H.
  • URW Nimbus isn't so much a font family in its own right as a series of clones of Times, Helvetica, and Courier; unlike the Croscore fonts, however, the Nimbus fonts are virtually identical to their ancestors. They were released by URW for the Ghost Script printing software package and are common on Linux systems and Windows systems where the owner can't afford to license real Helvetica.
  • The PT font family by Russian foundry ParaType (main designer Aleksandra Korolkova) was commissioned by the Russian government to provide a unified font family covering all the languages of the Russian Federation, in both Cyrillic and Latin letters; it's available on many Linux distros as well as OS X. It comes in mono, serif, and sans-serif, and in multiple weights for various layout purposes.
  • Rotis, by Otl Aicher, is probably best known in its semi-serif form, for which it's a somewhat popular logo font, but it comes in several other variants that vary by stroke weight and serif design.
  • The Thesis family by Luc(as) De Groot (better known under its individual font names, TheSans and TheSerif) were designed as and commonly used as corporate identity fonts.


Advertising and Corporate Identity

Many brands develop close associations with fonts.
  • Times New Roman is so named entirely because it was commissioned by The Times of London in 1931. It still uses a variant today; probably the only thing that could possibly incense the normally level-headed Times readers would be if they abandoned the Times font family for something noticeably different.
  • BMW today is inextricably linked to Helvetica, and has been for quite some time now.
  • Volkswagen has used Futura for decades. They manage to make it look clean and friendly.
  • IKEA also had a historic association with Futura; this was nixed and switched to Verdana, which caused a small outcry among fans of IKEA and Futura.
  • The BBC uses Gill Sans for its logo and corporate identity.
  • The London Underground has used Johnston (from which Gill Sans is derived) for a very long time; the rest of Transport for London followed suit when it was formed in 2000.
  • In contrast, most American subway systems use Helvetica. Most notable are probably the New York City Subway and Washington Metro, which both use white-on-black signage throughout their systems.

  • Helvetica—a documentary about typography.
  • American Psycho: Despite what Patrick Bateman may tell you, there is not a font called "Silian Rail" — his card appears to be Garamond. Van Patten's "Romalian type" appears to be Didot. Bryce's card is Helvetica, Paul Allen's is Copperplate Gothic.

  • Thursday Next: In the Bookworld, different fonts are regarded as different languages.

Video Games
  • Type:Rider is a mobile game devoted entirely to the history of typography and fonts, even going as far back as the age of cave paintings.


Web Original
  • College Humor has created two shorts based on fonts, Font Conference and Font Fight. Different fonts are personified by different actors, assuming personas suggested by the font names. Thus Comic Sans is a superhero, Wing Dings is a mental patient able to speak only using the names of symbols ("diamonds candle candle flag!"), Futura is a time traveler from the future, Century Gothic is a goth, etc.
  • This McSweeney's piece.

Real Life
  • If you're using Mozilla Firefox, a handy add-on to tell what fonts are used on a Web page is fontinfo; highlight and right-click on text to use it.
  • An interesting kerning exercise can be found here.

Western Animation
  • The sing-alongs on The Beatles used Folio Bold to display the lyrics on all used songs except "I'll Follow The Sun."

It also provides examples of:

  • Discredited Trope: For professional print design, most of the default Windows fonts and their Mac equivalents fall into this. However, they are very common in Web design because of their high compatibility rate with most browsers.
    • To overuse and misuse script fonts, especially Brush Script.
    • Though the newer CSS 3 tricks, like @font-face and embedding sites like Google Fonts, allow the use of any font to be use on the web.
  • Font Anachronism: For when fonts are used in the wrong time period either by mistake, oversight, or on purpose to evoke a certain era while engaging the general audience.