Deciphering lettering styles, one historical font family at a time

Lettering styles have been around for centuries. For as long as the Latin alphabet has existed, humans have toyed with their expression of it. To get to grips with the most significant lettering styles in current use, I’m looking into how they originated and what makes each one aesthetically unique, feature-by-feature.

Lettering styles

The three major categories of type design are:

All three are distinct from each other and provide the design basis to our ever-expanding universe of fonts. In other words, any font you like—or don’t like—will be either classed as either a serif, sans serif or a script font.

Before you make a decision about which font you want to work with, it’s vital to understand what defines these font categories and what sets them apart. This informs your decision-making when using them for branded designs.

lettering styles introductory image
All lettering styles imagery you see in this piece was created by by Mky.

Serif fonts

The first of the main lettering categories is Serif. Taken literally, the term serif refers to the slight line or flick attached to the end of a letter stroke.

Back in one of their earliest conceptions from the 8th century onwards, the Romans used serifs to maintain alignment when carving letters into stone. As time has passed and technology and our skills have advanced, businesses began using serif typefaces to mimic handwritten text as early as the 15th century. This technique connects to target audiences (regardless of what century) in reassuring them of a brand’s humanistic side.

I’ve concocted a list of my favorite serif lettering styles to illustrate how and when serifs work best.

Inscriptional serifs

These letter styles refer to the square capitals that ancient Romans carved into stone monuments. One of their latin names is pretty straightforward but super dramatic: capitalis monumentalis.

The style is characterized by:

  • straight and sharp lines
  • graceful but imposing curves
  • angled stresses, which are the thinnest parts of the letters when aligned on an angle—they’re called stresses because if you put enough pressure on them, that’s where the letter would break.
  • bracketed serifs, meaning the serifs are connected to the stem through a curved line.

This lettering style was big in the Renaissance; they’re even bigger now.

inscriptional serif
Notice how pointy and sharp the shapes are, and how the letter O has a backward slanted diagonal stress.

Old-style serifs

Old-style serifs date back to the 15th century. The letterforms are characterized by bracketed serifs and low contrast, the latter means there’s not very much difference in the weight of the stroke. Oftentimes, the letters have a diagonal stress too, as the illustrated below.

You may notice that they feel pretty similar to inscriptional serif lettering styles. If so, you’re bang on! As they’re both serif fonts, ciphering through these means noticing the detail and thinking about the effect. Since it’s emergence, this style has enjoyed popularity due to it’s organic shape and readability.

Transitional serifs

The transitional serif, as the name suggests, bridges the old-style with more modern variations and can be placed somewhere around the mid-18th century.

transitional serif

The weight contrast becomes more evident, and the serifs start morphing into sharper ones.

Modern / Didone serifs

In the late 18th century printing and papers became more refined, allowing finer details on printing. Modern, Neoclassical or Didone typefaces wanted to draw attention to their newly found sophistication by magnifying the contrast between the thick and thin strokes.

People were so obsessed with pumping up the weight contrast of letterforms, that they named a subcategory ‘Fat Face’, which takes the immense thick-thin contrast of Didone fonts to a whole different level. This genre quickly became popular in luxury fashion ads and dominated printing until around the mid-19th century.

modern serif
Strong contrast and pronounced serifs are the go-to features.

Slab serifs

As printing advanced, designers enjoyed less constraints on things like the sizing and texture of what their fonts would be printed on.

Slab serifs, also called mechanistics, have incredibly bold serifs–sometimes even as thick as the letters themselves. They continue to prove ideal for enlarged copy that needs to catch consumers’ eyes, such as in headline position on posters, signs or even billboards.

This genre is rather flexible, meaning it isn’t limited to a single weight or style. Some letterforms are wide, others are condensed. Some letterforms may have no weight contrast at all and others may be very much rooted in the heightened curves of Didone.

slab serif
If the serif is the star of the show, it’s a slab.

Play with it!

There are so many other types of serifs out there! From glyphic to tuscan to wedged serifs, designers continue to experiment and innovate lettering styles and shapes.

modulated serif
When it comes to experimenting and creating new serif forms, there are no limits.

Sans Serif

The second main lettering category is the Sans Serif family. The term ‘sans serif’, literally meaning ‘without serif’, refers to a letterform without any expanding feature at the base of the stroke (i.e. a serif).

The first sans serif latin letters can be traced back to somewhere around 1809. Later, in 1816, William Caslon IV created a typeface called “Two Lines English Egyptian”. The “Egyptian” term was widely used in the early 19th century in Europe to describe this style of lettering. The use of this term is tied to the blocky nature of Egyptian art and architecture, as well as to the era’s Egyptomania (a deep fascination with everything Egyptian). Since then, the term became associated with slab serifs due to the blocky aspect.

Initially, sans serif faces were not at all characterized by having something unique to them, but solely by the fact that they were missing the serif. They weren’t stylized, they were purely used for advertising purposes: they had the power of being super bold, loud and highly condensed.

Let’s look at a few of the main sans serif categories.

Grotesque sans serifs

The term grotesque refers to most of the typefaces that emerged in the 19th century from the need of quickly creating big advertising pieces with lots of text on them. In the very beginning grotesque typefaces didn’t even have lowercase letters, but they did have a wid=e range of widths from super condensed to super wide.

Grotesque letterforms are characterized by having low contrast and most importantly, straight terminals, such as the Akzidenz Grotesque, which is pictured below. So, missing any freshness and that extra aesthetic when compared to the serif letterforms, people started calling them “grotesque”, a term that refers to something as being monstrous or malformed.

Grotesque faces are the simplest of the sans serif genre.

Neo-grotesque sans serifs

Neo-grotesque letterforms appeared in the 1950s, at the same time with the rise of the International Typographic Style.

Typographers of the time tapped into the neo-grotesque with the intention of adding some neutrality to the letterforms. Even though differences between grotesque and neo-grotesque are oftentimes quite subtle, this new direction is characterized by on-point anatomy and low but natural weight contrast.


Notice how the shapes start to get a bit more organic and refined?

Geometric sans serifs

Geometric letterforms are exactly what their name suggests: geometric. They are built on perfect shapes, so the letter “O” becomes a perfect circle, while the letter “A” has a sharp, upward pointed vertex.

Originating in Germany in the 1920s, they are characterized by a modern and polished look. Thanks to their absolute sleek geometry, they were perfect to be engraved in metal or plastic.


Sleek and sharp geometry is the core of this category.

Humanist sans serifs

The humanist style draws inspiration from traditional forms, such as inscriptional or old style lettering, and even calligraphy, and the first such face called Johnston appeared in 1916.

They are characterized by evident stroke width variation. The forms are organic, while the bowls and counters are nice and open. Some typefaces in this genre can get more geometric than others, but the one recurring element in all of them is the presence of the human touch, found in the organic flow of the forms and stems.

The forms here are calligraphy inspired.

Play with it!

As times change, designers and letterers are looking to push the boundaries of shaping letters. There are tons of letterforms and styles that cannot be assigned to one specific category, but that doesn’t make them less valuable.

modulated sans serif
Width, terminal shape and stem form are all elements you can play with to get to new results.


Finally, we have arrived to the last of the main lettering categories. Script lettering or calligraphy is based solely on cursive handwriting, and refers to letterforms that are joined together by a continuous line. For the purpose of this piece, we will be focusing on Latin languages and script families.

Handwriting is the most natural form of writing: the shapes are based on the organic movements of the hand and each style is influenced by the hand writing them. However, even if calligraphy actually is the closest relative to handwriting (which is basically artistic penmanship), lettering very often imitates its characteristics.

Mostly, the style and characteristics of this are influenced by the tools used–the style of pens or brushes. Some pen nibs may be flat, rounded or pointed, while some brushes may be sleek or rugged. The following examples provide a broad reflection of the most current script fonts in use today.

Formal script

Formal script is simply script that is formal, meaning it was the standard writing style for business correspondence starting from the 17th century until around the appearance of the typewriter.

Although we cannot define this style as having strict rules because it’s simply an umbrella for many many subgenres and fonts, letterforms of this era were associated with elegance and culture.

Some used swashes, flourishes and decorated drop caps, while others were more simplified. The terminology here might be a bit confusing, so let’s clarify:

  • A swash is a small flourish or an exaggerated serif even that is connected to the letter.
  • A flourish is basically also swash, but bigger.

If you would exaggerate a swash and make it look crazy swirly and intricate, it would no longer be called a swash but a flourish. At this point the flourish is no longer necessarily connected to the letter, but is able to stand alone and be used as a decoration.

Roundhand script

Roundhand is a form of Formal Script originating from around the 1660s. It has graceful joints, low width contrast, delicate hairlines and, as the name suggests, rounded and smooth shapes.

In the 17th century many writing masters of Rome has to move to Southern France due to the sack of Rome. Here, they began refining the Renaissance writing methods and developing the italic cursiva script into the italic circumflessa. Meanwhile, French officials have had enough of receiving tons of letters written with various styles and different levels of penmanship skills, and they often complained about not being able to read them. So, they took advice from writing masters of the time and decided to restrict all letters to three writing styles: the Coulée, the Rhonde, and the Speed Hand.

The appearance of the English Roundhand was strongly inspired by the French Rhonde, and in 1860 English masters popularized their own version of it–a style later known and referred to as English Roundhand.

Friendly shapes and smooth curves are what makes a script a roundhand script.

Spencerian Script

Spencerian Script was created in the 1840s in the US thanks to the desire of making writing a unified experience—very much like spelling and pronunciation. It was a penmanship style based on oval shapes, its minuscules were considerably smaller than the capitals and the joints were wide, making the letters spaced rather far away from each other. The thin-and-thick variation were often absent, with the exception of the wedge-shaped shades on the ascenders and descenders.

Shortly after the emergence of Spencerian script, it was taught in schools as a standard writing method to train students to gain rhythm and muscle memory in writing. In the 1880s, a more simplified version of the Spencerian Script was developed called the Palmer Method of writing. This became the new standard for penmanship and as you can see in the image below, creates an understated, flowing lettering style.

Carefully crafted, Spencerian is fairly a simple yet elegant style .

Copperplate script

The Copperplate script is a style often associated with the English Roundhand, and it originates from Europe in the early 17th century. As people started to learn penmanship and the art of beautiful handwriting—and as metal engravings became more accessible—scribes and engravers started to work together on beautifully crafted plates.

You might have figured it out by now: the most popular metal used at the time was copper, people started to have a specific style for writing on them and so the name of the style easily merged into Copperplate.

When you consider its formation, copperplate has regularly shaded letters, dramatic thin-and-thick contrast and sharpened edges and vertices, giving the letters a more formal look.

You can recognise Copperplate by its dramatic contrast.


The beginning of the blackletter style can be traced all the way back to Western Europe of the 12th century, when the use and demand for books started to increase. This meant that they needed to be produced quickly, and needed a script that was rather quick to write.

Before the emergence of blackletter, medieval Europe was using Carolingian minuscule—a calligraphic standard of the time—for writing manuscripts and books. This style, although highly legible, was way too wide and it took up way too much space on the paper, which was not great when it came to having a lot of text on a limited number of pages.

And so the blackletter, gothic script or gothic minuscula was born, characterized by narrow and tall letters, angular lines and sharp terminals. Enjoying a surge of popularity in current pop culture, some subcategories in this genre include Textualis, Schwabacher, Fraktur or Cursiva.

Even though some refer to Gothic as simply Fraktur, that is not correct. Fraktur is a subgenre of the Gothic family!

Brush lettering

Brush lettering refers to lettering done with a brush (duh!). It is similar to calligraphy, but instead of using nibs and ink, it is created using a brush and paint. The key element here is the flexible tip, which is very responsive to pressure and hand movement. This offers more flexibility and room to explore new letterforms.

The most popular form of brush lettering is probably sign-painting; meaning letters are painted directly onto buildings or signs by hand, with a brush, for advertising purposes. This practice fell somewhat out of use as computers and digital printing methods were developed, however, it never disappeared completely and is now considered a bespoke artform.

Returning to brush lettering; it’s nearly impossible to break down the genre into categories only because there are so many variations and styles. Let’s just say that a few of the most commonly used styles can be categorized into block lettering, casual lettering and script lettering.

brush lettering
Notice how every stroke has the characteristics of a brush stroke: flexible and with an organic, consistent rhythm.

Other variables of lettering that influence style

The styles above only scratch the surface of the complexity of the type and lettering world. The volume of information and history involved is so massive that one single article is simply unable to cover everything.

However, it serves as a great base if you want to get into learning about the topic and hopefully it opens up your appetite for diving deeper into this wonderful topic.

There are a lot more factors when it comes to lettering than just simply using some strict rules and following historical trends. You can customize each and every mentioned style by applying tweaks to the letterforms, leading to innovation and new letterforms. Let’s look at a few of those variables.


In typography weight refers to the volume that a letter takes up on a page. A letter can go from extra thin to ultra black, covering everything in between. Remember, you can play with weight in all styles! How thin or how thick the letter gets is totally up to you.

By changing a letter’s weight you also change the proportions a bit.


If you play with the thin-thick variations in a letter, you are playing with contrast. You can go from a subtle humanist style to the very boldest of Fat Face, or from a simple monoline script to a dramatic spencerian.

Notice how adding more contrast changes the style from something casual to something more formal and elegant-looking.


Regardless of width or contrast, a letter can be ultra condensed or super-wide. Condensed letters can have a tidy look, while wide ones tend to seem more confident and stable.

It’s really useful to play with widths and see how they fill up a page.


You can slant almost every letterform and style to any degree. But here is where things get interesting: there are true italics and then obliques. Both may seem similar, after all, they both are slanted, right? Well, kind of. Obliques are letters that have simply been skewed, but the base of the letter hasn’t been changed. True italics, on the other hand, are not skewed letters but drawn from scratch on an angle.

Always go for true italics!

Relation between elements

You can change a letter’s vibe solely by changing the relation between the elements. For example, by moving the crossbar (the middle horizontal line) in an E up or down, you can change its looks to fit in a mid-century, a Bauhaus or an Art Nouveau-themed poster.

Be careful when playing with the elements’ relation and consider what style and era you are referring to.

Level of decoration

Swashes, flourishes, terminals—these are all elements that can be added or personalized in a lettering piece. They create a romantic, intimate mood and shows off the writer’s—or brand—personality.

You can add any decoration to any letter. Just be careful not to overcrowd it with so many extra elements that the letter itself becomes illegible.

Speed of writing

Did you ever notice how pretty your handwritten notes look like when you take your time and relax your wrist, as opposed to the notes you have to take super quickly in a dictation, for example? Except faster doesn’t have to mean worse! By changing the speed and relaxation level in your hand, your lettering can express different feelings: from calmness to aggressive rage, and everything in between.

Notice how a relaxed and slow hand writes precise and smooth curves, while a frantic and speedy hand creates bigger, wider and not so precise forms.

Used tools

In calligraphy, one of the most important elements is the tool used. Sure, in lettering you don’t actually use these tools because you draw the letters, but knowing how different pens and brushes react is necessary if you want to accurately recreate the look.

Using different pens, nibs and brushes is going to drastically change a letter’s vibe.

Don’t underestimate letters

It is truly fascinating how the letters and styles have evolved, and how changes in people’s lives, technologies and ideologies shaped this evolution, don’t you think? By learning all these facts and how letters are formed, we get closer to understanding how society interprets language and letterforms.

The lettering styles we choose to embody our brand are hugely powerful in the messages they give out. They define who the brand is and who they connect closest to—with that in mind, I hope this article proves helpful in guiding you a step closer to creating or finding your dream font.

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