I Love Typography

A Brief History of Type—Part 5

Slab Serif / Egyptian

Welcome to the early 1800s and the birth of the Slab Serif, otherwise known as Egyptian, Square Serif, Mechanical or Mécanes. What’s with the name Egyptian? Upon Napoleon’s return from a three year Egyptian expedition and publication in 1809 of Description de l’Égypt, Egypt was all the rage, and it appears that type founders simply used a term that was on everyone’s lips, a term that was in vogue. The nomenclature has absolutely nothing to do with Egyptian Hieroglyph Slab Serifs—because there’s no such thing.

egyptian or slab-serif


Like the industrial revolution, the Slab Serif was born in Britain, and was no doubt inspired by a new wave of advertising, and those beefy letter forms that could be found on just about every billboard, pamphlet, and poster of the day. Until this time, type was designed to serve one purpose—it was designed for long stretches of texts, for books. But with mechanisation, and major innovations in printing technology (e.g. the Steam Press, 1814), advertisers in particular were looking for a type that stood out from crowd; a type that shouted, look at me! Thus was born the the display face—type for use at large sizes, for short bursts of copy.

…there is sometimes a lack of understanding of the fundamental difference between types designed for display and types meant for text. The difference can be expressed as a maxim: text types when enlarged can be used for headings; display types, if reduced, cannot be used for text setting.—Walter Tracy**

Those posters were a riot of big type, often a half-dozen different styles on a single page. If the Didones are a lissom Audrey Hepburn, then the Slab Serifs are those guys one sees all too often on construction sites around the globe—trousers half-way down their posteriors. What I’m getting at is that the early Slab Serifs weren’t discreet. They were designed to be noticed.

The Slab Serif or Egyptian is also home to further subsets of typeface styles, like the Fat Faces which are fundamentally Didones (or Moderns) on steroids. Take a Modern style typeface, give its thicker strokes even more weight, triangulate some of those serifs, and you have a Fat Face. You might be familiar with types like Poster Bodoni. Bodoni is of course a Modern style type but, carrying all that extra weight, it’s a Fat Face. The Fat Face, then, is basically an Obese Didone.

fat face

If, as some commentators remarked, the Didones were parodies of Baskerville’s types, then the Fat Face types are parodies of parodies. The first Fat Face was designed by Robert Thorne (c. 1800), who was also responsible for coining the term Egyptian to describe what is generally known today as the Slab Serif.*

fat face (photo by Michi)

By the mid-1800s, another sub-set of the Slab Serif class of types began to emerge—the Clarendons. They were an attempt to reign in some of the extravagences of the Fat Face display types, making them fit for use as text faces. Contrast was reduced, the serifs thinned somewhat and up with the x-height for legibility at those smaller sizes.

clarendon

Strictly speaking an ‘authentic’ slab serif has unbracketed serifs (an abrupt serif that meets the stem at a 90° angle), though there are numerous examples that come with bracketed serifs. Then, of course, come the Geometric Slab Serifs that look like the early Sans Serif types with the serifs broken off.

The Geometric is a twentieth-century riposte to the Antique. Informed by the same kind of rationalist thinking that inspired the great sans serifs of the Bauhaus, Geometrics abandon traditional forms in favor of mathematical strategies.Jonathan Hoefler

The Slab Serif Today

There are thousands of slab serif types available today; some are simply digitised oldies; others are sans serifs and geometric sans serifs with slab serifs stuck on; others still, rise above the crowd and bring something fresh to this style of type.

archer, the elegant slab serif

Archer from H&FJ is perhaps one of the best slab serifs for setting extended text. It comes in numerous weights, has an excellent italic accompaniment, and just looks damn good. And, of course, the heavier weights and caps work beautifully for display.

One of my other favourite slab serifs is Erik Spiekermann’s Officina Serif, a very robust, very legible type that just doesn’t break—you could print it on toilet paper, and it would still look good (no, I haven’t tried). If you don’t have Officina Sans and Officina Serif in your type library (or you have a stolen version), then I strongly recommend you purchase a license—it’s a simple type that will never let you down.

Typewriter Types

Just about every typewriter face is a Slab Serif. There are hundreds to choose from, from Courier to ITC American Typewriter immortalised in Milton Glaser’s I ‘Heart’ New York logo.

i love ny logo ITC american typewriter

The heavy-weight, no-nonsense serifs of the typewriter types are well-suited to this particular form of printing, and perform well on even the poorest quality paper.

We’ve taken just a very brief look at the Slab Serif. Upon completion of this series, a more comprehensive version will be included in the free PDF.

So what do you think of the slab serif? Do you have your personal favourites? In part six of A Brief History of Type we move on to the Sans Serifs, so stay tuned.
 

Footnotes:

* To confuse things, the Slab Serif types were initially called Antique; confusing—now—because, Sans Serifs are also referred to as Antique. See pages 80-81 of Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit—a view of type design.
**Ibid., page 27

Read part one | two | three | four


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  1. Fantastic.

    Egyptian certainly is an odd alternative name — just another example of a misnomer that stuck.

    And yes indeed, Archer is gorgeous. H&FJ rarely disappoint.

  2. Thanks, Hamish.
    Yes, unfortunately type classification is littered with myriad ill-fitting terms. Even terms like Modern or Antique are not very helpful. The VOX-ATypI classification is perhaps one of the few exceptions.

  3. Ahhh, the slab serif. My favorite of all serifs!

    I remember the first time I glanced at Archer, it was love. My bank quickly emptied soon after.

  4. Good to see you, Cody. You already back in Canada? If so, are you missing Japan?

  5. Johno
    Yupp, I’m back in Vancouver =( I do really miss Japan, but it’s also good to be back home.

    Searching for work is killing me… haha

  6. Thanks for this gorgeous article, Slab Sherif is a great font & Archer has its own charm.

  7. Another great article!
    I really love those slab serif (perhaps my favorit style of typography).
    My favorite ones are clarendon, archer & oficina… so you’ve chosen well the fonts that you presented!

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Hi Pedro. Thank you.
    Love that cover you did for the Amélia Pais book.

  9. Thank you.
    It’s nice to know that you have seen my website!
    (Just a bit embarrassed for it to be an old unfinished version!)

  10. Excellent series! I’m learning & enjoying at the same time. Keep it coming!

    Only one improvement suggestion: go back through parts 1 through four and get the links at the end of the article (and kind of linking - forward or new window) consistent.

  11. Dan

    Interestingly enough, i *have* printed Officina Serif on toilet paper, and it worked out really well (no offense to Erik Spiekermann, of course)

  12. Matt, that’s a good suggestion.

    Dan, I won’t ask why you did that ;)

  13. I don’t, generally, care for slab serifs. For extended text—mostly what I do—they feel like quick-drying cement to me. That said, in a vacuum, I like Archer.

  14. Do you ever think about going into design education?

  15. I have always been a fan of the slab serifs, Im so happy I got my hands on Archer. And who can forget Clarendon, the Starbucks body copy typeface :P

  16. Great post! I really enjoy the history of type-series, hope you keep them coming. Archer and Clarendon also happen to be two typefaces that are quite dear to me :) Oh, and I really like the Egyptienne F family as well.

  17. haracas

    Ahh, now i know exactly what egyptian fonts are. I’ve been lusting after the (soon to be available for license) Guardian Egyptian by Christian Schwartz. Its not a true slab serif i guess (serifs don’t meet the 90 degrees) but its a very modern and friendly serif typeface to me.

  18. Nice article John. Thanks!

    My first encounter with a slab serif that made an impression was PMN Caecilia. I liked the craftmanship of it … it is beautifully drawn, but I never found a good use for it.

    I don’t useally buy type because I’m far too busy creating it. Archer looks great. Maybe I should make an exeption an buy it to study it. A thought that came to my mind also when I saw Newzald.

  19. Hi John:

    Officina serif is OK and its sans a little bit less annoying (esp. lower case g) than the ubiquitous Meta. I really like Nexus Mix which is part of the Nexus superfamily. Costs a fortune though. I told somebody a fortnight ago how much I’d spent on it and they nearly fell over from stupefaction! Clarendon is realy nice too (if you can stand things looking like a Starbucks brochure) but I can’t see it being used for extended text. Hey, what about Rockwell? It’s even included in Office 2007, which must be good news.

  20. Hey! It’s been a long, long time since I’ve looked at this site, at least in Internet-time. (Really it’s only something like two months.) It’s like entering a house you haven’t been in for a while, and seeing some of the furniture moved but mostly the house hasn’t changed a bit, which is good.

    Did Martha Stewart commission Archer? It looks a lot like a typeface she uses in some of her stuff.

  21. Lean your right! Archer was commissioned for Martha Stewart Living magazine.

  22. Right now I’m a huge fan of Romeral. I feel like its very sturdy, but a lot of fun with tons of personality. The best part is… it’s free!

    On the ‘Egyptian’ naming: I suppose we should expect to see ‘green’ typefaces soon huh?

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