I Love Typography

The Return of the Serif

Part Two
In part one, Who Shot the Serif?, we learned among other things that serifs — like milkshakes — come in many flavours: The main two flavours are Adnate and Abrupt; with Adnate serifs generally being more organic; Abrupt Serifs on the other hand are usually squarer, bigger, chunkier (the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the font world).


Today we’re going to take a brief look at the Serif family tree. And if we’re going to use the family tree “metaphor”, then lets stretch it a little. So without further ado, let me introduce to you (drum-roll…) Mr Abrupt Serif and his wife, Mrs Adnate Serif.

In an exclusive interview (they turned down a lucrative offer from FontShop), I was able to gain some insights into the private lives of the Serif family.

The following is an excerpt from the interview (speaking from their home in Serifsville, Georgia).


Could you tell the iLT readers a little about the Serif family heritage?

Mr AS:

On my side of the family I’m most proud of my son Slab Serif. (My wife and others often call him Egyptian). Slab Serif’s children include Clarendon, a fine young lady. Most would agree that she and her siblings—Xenia, Geometric Slab Serif, and Rosewood—are very artistic, very decorative. Rosewood has starred in numerous Westerns; he’s a bold, strong character, who was once very popular in advertising. On my wife’s side…



Mrs AS [interrupts]:

…yes, my side of the family is certainly more refined, perhaps I could go so far as to say, more natural, more organic. For example, my Baskerville (a fine young man, a real perfectionist from the Transitional Serif family) when born (I think it was about 1754), was considered anorexic, with his razor-thin serifs; however, he’s stood the test of time, and his contrast makes him easily legible.




What about Old Style? Where does she fit in?

Mrs AS:

Well, some call her Old Style; I prefer to call her Humanist. Her great-great grandfather was the 16th Century typographer Claude Garamond. Humanist owes a lot to the calligraphic style of writing. Here’s a picture of Sabon, one of Humanist’s children. She looks as though she’s been designed with a wide-nib ink pen, doesn’t she?



A big thank you to Mr and Mrs Serif. They have a busy schedule, what with books magazines, poster campaigns, and their recent popularity on the Web. We didn’t really look at Modern Serifs (e.g. Bodoni and Didona) and Latin Serifs (e.g. Quant Antiqua). Can you think of more examples?



A full transcript of the interview will be available in the “Who Shot the Serif?” e-book, an edited and expanded compilation of all the Type Terminology articles.

To ensure you don’t miss out on the next in this series, subscribe to I Love Typography today.

Coming up

Typoholism: The Disease, The symptoms;
The Typographic Dating Game; and much, much more…

Have you enjoyed our examination of the serif?



  1. Kari Pätilä

    Great stuff. Reading these pages is a nice pastime while I await the arrival of my Bringhurst.

  2. Kari
    Thanks. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.

  3. Marvellous article. I’d never heard of the Latin serif before. It looks rather pleasant.

  4. I second that, Rik Hemsley.

    Love it, great way of teaching by wrapping it into a story.
    I caught myself trying to picture Mrs. Adnates’s face while reading!

    Way to go, my friend! Keep ‘em comming!

  5. Hi there. I’m a young designer from Italy. I would like to congrat with you for this wonderful, easy to read and fresh website. Go on with it!


  6. Love your site but have to point out that Rosewood is called one of Clarendon’s sisters but then referred to as a he in the next line. Perhaps we just witnessed the world’s first transgender typography? ;)

  7. Here’s a cool timeline that encompasses some of what you’ve talked about: http://www.rsub.com/typographic/timeline/

  8. Thanks Alec, that is awesome!

  9. Rik
    That’s great to hear. Yes, there are some beautiful Latin Serifs. Here are a couple more for you (quite distinctive, aren’t they?):

    New Journal

    I’m pleased you enjoyed that style. An illustrator friend is working on some lovely illustrations for future articles (and for a Children’s book about Typography). I’m also doing some cartoons.

    Lee (Valentina)
    I’m pleased you found it easy to read. I really appreciate the compliment and your visit. I wish I could translate these articles into Italian!

    Very well spotted! I would love to say, that that was intentional. However, it’s just a plain old mistake. I really have some very observant readers. I’ll get it fixed, though “trans-gender typography” is an interesting concept.

    That’s a fantastic link. I had wanted to do something similar, but doing the research to ensure that all the dates are correct is quite a task. That’s a great time line, and it has inspired me to create a similar, though more comprehensive version. Thanks very much!

  10. Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is, indeed, quite a good read. Aside from the fact that anyone interested in typography, typesetting, and page design will benefit from so much of the book, it’s a great read. I mean, the writing is lyrical in spots! Another worthwhile book that gives historical perspective and some sense of the evolution of types, is Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typesface.

  11. Stephen
    Yes, Alexander Lawson’s book is good one. I can’t find my copy anywhere! it would be really useful, as it does a great job of tracing the evolution of type. I wish they’d revise and republish the book. I think it was published in the early 1990’s, so would be good to see a revised version—a lot has happened (especially in digital type) since its first publication.
    Thanks for mentioning these great resources! I plan to have a Reading List page, so if you’re interested in reviewing any tpye-related book for iLT, then let me know.

  12. It is interesting how you used gender to divide Abrupt and Adnate serifs. Is that how it is commonly taught to graphic designers? That actually seems like a logical way to remember the difference in my head. I’m not the biggest fan of serif typefaces but in general I’d personally prefer the Abrupt over the Adnate.

  13. Chris,

    Please tell me you’re in advertising or some kind of display typesetting. I can do without another book designer who thinks it’s okay to put page after page of body text in sans serif type.

  14. That was the most enjoyable and entertaining article I’ve ever read about Types. Did you get this Mr./Mrs. idea yourself, or from your friend who’s writing Typography for children? Love the tree illustration, is it yours?

    P.S. John, could you perhaps add a tiny bit of left padding for the content area, otherwise the text in the articles starts too close to the edge of the browser, looks a bit awkward and claustrophobic ;-)

  15. Stephen,

    I have no real experience with your particular craft, book layout, or any kind of traditional graphic-design training beyond books I’ve read.

    Education-wise, I have more of a programming background and I’m trying to get a freelance website building/entrepreneurial career off of the ground. So to help facilitate that I’ve really started trying to learn more about various aspects of typefaces and layouts in depth recently and thats why I’m here. This is an interesting site with a lot of great discussion and resources posted.

    When I say I like sans-serif typefaces better, I’m mainly talking about my own situation which is web stuff, where I’ve read that sans-serif typefaces are best for legibility because current monitors aren’t as high-resolution as physical printing and you miss some of the fine details of serifs.

    I’m sure for your situation, lengthy sections of body text, serifs might be more appropriate in many cases, but I’m not sure I correctly understood what you were trying to say so feel free to expound on any particular point you’d like.

  16. Absolutely right, Chris. Sans serif for long stretches of text on the web, to be viewed on a monitor. I should have distinguished between text meant for the monitor vs. the printed page.

    For an example of a perfect case in point, check out Jon Evans’ novel Beast of New York. It’s simply page after page of sans serif text, a novel posted online, chapter by chapter. And it’s a hell of a good read!

    Feel free to say that I sent you.

  17. Stephen,
    thanks for the “Beasts of New York” tip! And on a sidenote, you know that you could assign your own CSS with Firefox’s webdeveloper addon? Would it make a bit more convenient to read.

    Where’s the flippin’ pic of Mrs. Serif now, John? Still trying to picture her when re-reading your lil’ novel :D

  18. Chris
    I’ve never seen Adnate and Abrupt Serifs divided upon gender lines before. I just thought it might be easier to remember that way.

    You raise a very interesting point about the choice of Serif and Sans Serif faces; something I’ll be discussing in a future article. As a book designer, I would appreciate your input when it comes to writing that piece. Those with no experience of book design might be surprised to learn that it is quite a distinct craft (books are not long magazines). Perhaps you would agree to be interviewed on this topic?
    Re your discussion with Chris, I’m often asked whether I prefer Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces; however, I’m sure most would agree that context and media and medium often dictate one’s choice. Some designs, some contexts are just screaming out for a particular style of typeface.

    Yes, Mr and Mrs Serif came from my own head. And actually, I am writing the Type for Kids book, and I’ve asked my friend to illustrate it. Mr and Mrs Serif are just two of its characters.
    I was inspired to write something for children upon reading The Serif Fairy, though the intention of my title is to teach typography, rather than use type to simply illustrate a children’s story.
    The B&W tree illustration I found elsewhere, but the “captions” and serif illustrations are mine. I had wanted to draw the actual tree myself, but ran out of time. I’ll take a look at that padding issue. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Both Mr and Mrs Serif are being illustrated as we speak by my very busy illustrator-friend. They will soon make their entrance!

  19. Well, there have been studies done about readers’ comprehension of text presented in different ways. For print, some of the research goes back a good, long way. For something published not exactly moments ago but still very good, you might want to read Colin Wheildon’s Type and Layout : How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across, or Get in the Way. For on-screen reading the research may be a lot more recent. Jeffrey Zeldman is someone who’s writing’s could be a good starting point. (There’s actually someone who’s a bit more noted, kind of the granddaddy of web accessibility, but his name slips my mind and both googling and searching on Amazon just now did not reveal the man’s name. Sorry.)

    As for helping input on a future article, I’d be happy to. You know how and where to find me.

  20. Yet another funny one, John! I’ve never read anything quite like it. Having an interview with The Serifs makes the whole subject a little more approachable, doesn’t it? I think my favorite serifs are the Humanist. They are so beautiful!

    Steve, perhaps you are thinking of Jakob Nielsen?

  21. Yes, LaurenMarie, thank you. Jakob Nielsen.

  22. Lauren
    Thank you. Yes, there are some wonderful Humanist family typefaces. Sabon is one of my favourites—makes me go weak at the knees.

    Thanks again for you input. There’s an interesting article, Science of Typography, by Ellen Lupton on the subject of readability and legibility. She doesn’t go into much detail; however, she does mention several other resources/studies in the notes accompanying the article (though some of these studies are a little dated now).

  23. Wow, just gave a quick read to the Lupton article. It certainly sends some—to me—confusing, contradictory signals. And, mind you, I loved Lupton’s thinking with type. For one thing, she doesn’t give out very much on the studies she mentions. And so we don’t know how they were conducted—in a standardized, scientific way would be nice. And although some of what she says seems to run counter to last known results from what I understand are studies conducted in that “scientific” way, I’m not clear on whether the studies distinguished between what readers preferred to read and what their best comprehension resulted from (though passing reference seemed to be made to both).

    I’m not saying that there may not be something to these studies—perhaps new trends, indicating that people are so caught up in the necessity to do things quickly, are at work. But absent something more substantial, for print, I’m inclined to go with something like Colin Wheildon’s Type and Layout : How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across, or Get in the Way. But now I will stay on the alert for new studies, indicators, and indications.

  24. One thing I’ve noticed in my unscientific voyage through design books is that there are two main pedagogical trends at work: 1) show lots of examples of things that “work,” nevermind how or why; 2) take a dogmatic stance on exactly what “works” and stick to it.

    Of course, in neither case does science generally play a role, so it’s laudable for Lupton to look into science’s impact on the aesthetics of typography. Laudable, but in the end not particularly fruitful.

    The problem is that the science’s involvement in aesthetics often boils down to a list of “do no harm” rules — e.g., don’t set books in frilly scripts, because that will be very fatiguing to the reader’s eye. Constructive rules (like “10 point is the ideal size for printed text”) are often laughably unscientific, or live in such a restricted domain that they are nearly useless. And, of course, for every scientific rule of aesthetics, there’s a counterexample that shows why that rule is not universal. (If you’ve ever taken an aesthetics course in a philosophy program, you’ll appreciate this problem keenly.) I suppose, conversely, one of the points of Lupton’s article is that for every aesthetic unscientific rule, there is possibly a scientific study that may in turn come along and debunk it.

    I think Lupton’s conclusion is very apt: “What we might expect from the science of type is a seamless web of rules. Such is not forthcoming.” She could augment it thusly: “And if we expect a seamless web of rules from aesthetics, we shall be similarly disappointed.”

  25. Alec,

    Interestingly, I saw your comment, after posting a blog entry of my own railing against design books that practice bad design—or at least what I consider bad design. I just haven’t had a chance to reply till now. And you might be interested in taking a gander at what I wrote on the subject on my blog. Just follow the link above.

    Anyway, I beg to differ with you on a couple of counts. First, you may be unaware that there have actually been some studies done that adhere to decent research rules, giving a bit of the air of “science” to them. Granted, I don’t know whether any are actually “good science,” but I think that would be missing the point. Take a look, perhaps, at Colin Wheildon’s Type and Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across, or Get in the Way.

    As for your looking for proactive rules, rather than “do no harm rules,” I really think that’s more a question of semantics. Okay, so let’s not say, for instance, “don’t set books in frilly scripts, because that will be very fatiguing to the reader’s eye.” Instead, referring to Wheildon’s book, say, let’s put it like this: “Job 1 for the book designer is to bring the writer’s words to the reader without distracting the reader and in a way that invites the reader to stick with it. So let us use a typeface that is easier on the reader’s eyes and hold up our end of that obligation to author and reader.”

  26. I’ll have to check out Wheildon. It looks like the book you reference is out of print. (Oh, the irony.) Do you know if his other book *Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes* is as good?

    Bad design books seem to be everywhere. How do these things get published? Even the ones that aren’t designed badly are often vapid. Sometimes it seems that all you need is a pretty cover and then lots of images inside, and that’s supposed to qualify as pedagogy somehow.

  27. No, I’ll have to add the Wheildon book you mention to my list. Thanks for that one, Alec.

    I have to say, bad as vapid, not-badly-designed design books may be, good books (thoughtful, at least, and sometimes thoughtful and well-written, books) that are designed dreadfully take the cake as worst of the worst.

  28. Stephen
    You make an especially salient point when you mention differentiating “preference” from “comprehension”. The former doesn’t easily surrender itself to scientific investigation; and I wonder how the latter, comprehension is influenced by preference?

    I’m trying to get hold of some of those studies; if I can track them down, I’d like to make them available here. I will also take a look at your post, Short Take: A Rant on Readability. Thank you.


    Laudable but…not particularly fruitful

    Yes, but as Steve points out, the results of these studies—though they do not really answer the readability question—shed light on other factors, such as the “context” in which we read, changes in reading and writing habits, and an ugly trend toward the printed sound-bite.

    Your third paragraph brings to mind Jung’s words,

    The more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the greater a disservice is pays to individual facts.

    I’m paraphrasing—wish I could find the original quote.

    Alec and Stephen
    Thank you very much for your contributions. Thought provoking and inspiring.

  29. No, actually, the ongoing study that Colin Wheildon’s book was based on did test for readability in the sense that it measured reading comprehension of different presentations of text. Really, if nothing else, this book is worth getting hold of just to check out the methodology.

  30. Nice Jung quote! I was thinking more Nancy Cartwright from *How the Laws of Physics Lie*, but the point is the same. (Jung is way more poetic than Cartwright, though!)

  31. ahaha, nice interview, Geometric Slab Serif looks sexy!

  32. n3rdski

    Right now I’m in a typography class and this website came in handy when it came to brushing up on some terms and learning a thing or two. Great site!

  33. Stephen
    I’ve just ordered the Wheildon book. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks for that.

    That sounds fascinating. Where can I source a copy?

    They do indeed!

    Thanks for the compliment. Which text book are you using in class?

  34. John,

    Be sure to let me know what you think of the Wheildon book. I’m close to done with Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Design. I have to say, that’s one that’s just fun to read the really fine writing of it. Aside from that, I’m amassing notes on what I like and what I’d want to include in the design of a font. I appear to have gotten FontForge up and running, and maybe potrace (an automatic tracing tool), too. I’m hoping to start sketching (or something, as I can’t draw draw a lick; but letterforms, maybe) and be done with my reading in a coupla weeks. Then I do believe I’m going to design a typeface family.

    God knows how long it’ll take. But I think I’ll document it periodically on my blog. I need to finish Bringhurst, read the Cheng book to the end, and get and read something called Letters of Credit by WIlliam Tracy. I’m told it’s all that the Cheng book sounds like it is but isn’t.

    But Wheildon is a great basis for doing some page design—that is, to keep in the back of your head as you’re designing. Remember, boys and girls—despite what’s hip right now—serif for long stretches of text on paper; sans only for long stretches on-screen.

  35. Hey, Stephen, I’d be very curious to hear how FontForge works for you —- I’ve heard both great and terrible things about it. I use Fontlab, and it’s really great. But not free, of course. (And not for Linux, of course.) Anyhow, good luck with the font creation!

  36. N3RDSKI

    Right now in class we are using, Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton and Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann & E.M. Ginger.

  37. Thinking with Type is one of my general favorites. An easy read and filled with good stuff that starts you thinking. And I can’t recommend Bringhurst enough. I remember Stop Stealing Sheep … from years ago. It’s still relevant, I guess. It’s a lot of fun o have a whole list of books to recommend, and I do. (I got a lot of them from suggestions made by people commenting on the thoroughly unscientific survey on my blog.

    I hesitated before installing FontForge, as some diehard FontLab users started out telling me it would be a waste of time. But others said know and that—if I understand correctly—FF is better with OpenType. I’ll prob’ly start to blog a little about the whole experience of getting into learning more about designing type in a week or two. I can see where it becomes all-consuming, but as a book designer it was a natural progression.

    I’ve been harping a lot lately in a number of places about how it is a major irritation that books on deign, of all things—especially good ones—don’t seem to feel any need to put their desire for a good-looking book behind the obligation at least make the reader’s experience tougher if they’re not going to make it easier.

    This current penchant for small, light sans serif type for long stretches of text on the printed page has got to go. I guess we may be turning into such a Web-centric society that the sense that designing for print is a different animal than designing for the Web has just gotten lost.

    All you fledgling designers and students frequenting i love typography … please remember that there’s a difference.

  38. Fred

    Rank discrimination!!

    Techies of the webdev and the software development persuasion need monospace fonts. You yourself use them. So where are the serifed monospace fonts? Where are the Unicode serifed monospace fonts?

    And where is your outrage at their absence? (There is one serifed monospace font. One. Non-Unicode)


  39. @Fred: There seem to be plenty of at least quasi-serifed monospace fonts out there. Courier, Tired of Courier, Prestige Elite Std, Anonymous, Smith Premier NF, Nimbus Monospace. Are you thinking of like taking a Garamond or Minion and turning that into a monospace version? That might be interesting. I might be experimenting with that this week…

  40. Sounds like an interesting experiment. Keep me informed of progress; I’d like to see the results.

  41. Well, there may be a reason there aren’t any Garamond-like monospace fonts — my experiment so far has been an unmitigated aesthetic disaster. There’s just something so wrong about it…

  42. shelly

    Hello… I am a fifteen year old student taking first-year journalism class…
    I was searching for information on certain headline fonts for an assignment… and I found nothing, but this site i found very useful. I love the way you explained fonts so easily.

    Are there any other sites I can reference to find out more about serif and other fonts, especially sans serif, script, and mono-space??

    Thank you~~~

  43. Well, since I may be the only knucklehead awake and working this morning, I may be as close as you’re going to get to a sane answer for a few hours yet. Anyhow, welcome, Shelly.

    You may not want to hear this, but as good as sites are—this one, certainly terrific; and Typohile.com awfully good if you can get past what sometimes seems to me a certain forgetfulness that designers who use type exist primarily because there are readers and writers of all kinds of things (books, ads, brochures, magazines, etc) trying to reach those readers—there’s nothing like a few good books.

    If you’re up for the intensity of really getting into this stuff, start with Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander S. Lawson, then maybe Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type. And Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.

  44. Shelly
    If you’re looking for specific typefaces, then FontShop is a good place to start. You can search by category, which is pretty useful.

    That makes two knuckle heads :) Those books are excellent choices.

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