The Old Style Typeface

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o Last week, we had a look at the Modern typeface and to continue this series of posts on font categories, today we’ll take a look at the beautiful Old Style typeface. I think for all of us, our design work can only improve when we become more aware of the different categories of fonts, their characteristics and similarities, and for what purpose they are most suited, whether we work in web or print design.

Old Style (occasionally referred to as Humanist) typefaces are based on hand lettering of scribes and they first appeared in the late 15th century, before Modern typefaces. Their relation to calligraphy can be seen in the curved strokes and letters with thick to thin transitions, looking somewhat like letters drawn with a pen and ink. Unlike Modern typefaces, the thick/thin transition is moderate and not so obvious. The serifs on Old Styles are always angled and if you draw a line though the thinnest parts of the letters, you’ll see that the stress is diagonal.

OldStyle

The very first italic letters were produced with Old Style fonts in the early 1500s.

Old Style typefaces are considered to be the best type for large amounts of body text on paper. That’s why you’ll find them used heavily in newspapers, magazines and books. They can also work well on the web and two Old Style fonts are considered to be web-safe: Times New Roman and Palatino Linotype. Old Styles don’t jump off the page with any sort of quirkiness and that’s what makes them easy on the eye. There is an argument that for print-based work serif fonts are the best, while for the web/screen sans-serif fonts are easiest to read. If you find that’s the case, you could consider using the fonts below for headings and sub-headings.

web-safe

Other well known examples of Old Style fonts include Garamond, Gaudy Old Style, Perpetua and Minion Pro. Note all of the text below is set at size 80pt and leading of 80pt.

4OldStyleFonts

You might think that these fonts look almost identical on first glance. When you start to look closely though, as well as their similarities, you’ll start to notice the little differences that make each one unique. One way to become more conscious of typefaces is to make an effort to look more closely at type. Sounds obvious I know. Next time you’re reading a magazine or book, or looking at a website, take time to figure out what kind of font is being used. Look at the ads when you’re standing at the bus stop. Are the fonts used serif, sans-serif, decorative? The more familiar you become with type, you’ll find that you begin to experiment and you’ll also start to figure out which fonts work well together. (Something I’ll be writing about in future posts here on Sitepoint).

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  • Tim

    I never noticed the diagonal stress before. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I keep seeing the o in Times New Roman a being on a lean. I presume that originates from the way you hold a fountain pen and the shape of the nib? Does this mean that the letters were always written by the right hand? I’d imagine it’s near impossible to get that shape writing left handed because of the angle you’d have to hold the pen at.

  • ricktheartist

    I am enjoying this series very much, mostly because I am a font geek. I will go through grocery stores and call out the names of fonts used on various packaging to my wife. None of my friends noticed when Snickers changed the font on their logo a couple years ago, until I pointed it out. Thank you for your postings, Jennifer, and I am looking forward to more.

  • http://www.laughingliondesign.net Jennifer Farley

    Thanks Rick. I’m like that too. I take photos of signs that I like the typography on all the time.

    Hi Tim. That’s a really good question about right-handedness. I don’t know the answer. I imagine only a very small proportion of the population could write at that time. Maybe everyone wrote with their right hands in those days? Just guessing though.