Guide to 10 font characteristics and their use in design

1. Font Weight

The font weight is often the first thing we notice. The main types of font weight are light, regular, and bold. Regular font styles are neutral; they are least affected by optical distortion or poor sharpness. They have the most readable grapheme, which is why regular weight is perfect for reading. Light and bold font styles are more expressive as they convey a whole range of emotions, from delicacy to perhaps even rudeness.

Thin, Regular, Black styles of Kazimir Text typeface.

2. Font Width

Width of the font characters, just as their weight, is quickly recognized and strongly affects readability and visibility of a piece of writing. Regular width font styles are preferable for reading, while other variants — condensed and extended — are very specific and have distinct emotional associations.

Extra condensed font — Reforma Grotesk Medium, regular width font — Pragmatica Book, extra extended font — Europe Extended.

3. Font Contrast

The difference between the main and additional strokes is called font contrast. Contrast defines a font’s position on a legibility/appearance scale. Low and medium contrast is helpful during long reads and doesn’t always evoke a special mood; in return, extreme values — monoweight and high contrast — create distinct imagery.

Monoweight font — Stem, medium contrast font — PT Serif, the highest contrast — DietDidot.

4. X-height

The height of the lowercase letters against capital letters and their own ascenders or descenders is one of the main font properties that define its usage. Mood and character of the message depend on X-height.

Small x-height — Metropol font, medium x-height — Orbi Sans font, large x-height — Hermes font.

5. Corner Rounding

Intersections and connections of strokes inevitably form corners. Square corners like in T, H, E, or sharp ones like in A, V, Z, N. The end of any stroke also has its own outline: sharp, square or rounded. Corners, intersections, and edges are natural visual irritants. Usually, people notice each corner and focus; without this skill, our ancestors would run into sharp stones and branches. So, the sharper the corners in an inscription, the easier it catches the attention of the viewer.

Sharp corners — Acsioma font, square corners — TT Souses font, rounded corners — Sans Rounded font.

6. Serifs and Slabs

Font serifs is the most important characteristic in any font classification. Serif shape depends on the overall logic of font building, and this logic has been developing from the Ancient Rome to present day. Due to ancient origins, fonts with serifs are called Antiquas. You appreciate serif fonts like you appreciate good wine and there are heaps of books on this subject, but here we will speak about what their overall meaning and their proper uses are.

Concave serifs — Lazurski font, linear serifs — Petersburg font, slab serifs — Pragmatica Slabserif font.
Trajan font in cinema

7. Italics and oblique

Italic and oblique font styles are common in modern font families in addition to straight ones. However, they have different functions and meaning.

Italic font style — Kudryashev Italic, oblique font style — Pragmatica Italic.

8. Geometry

In digital fonts, every letter is built according to a geometric formula. But this formula has different meanings for function and character of a font. In decorative typefaces that imitate handwriting (blots, and paint brush strokes), geometry is rejected, and their form is sort of spontaneous. But the most part of general-purpose fonts created since the invention of book-printing till nowadays are well calibrated and have either humanistic or geometric proportions.

Humanist sans — Leksa Sans, geometric sans — Futura PT, modular font — Robotesqa 4f.
Geometric Sans Serifs in modern logos

9. Statics and dynamics

The letter shape of the font can be static or dynamic. The more there are horizontal and vertical lines in a text line, the more static the font looks. While lines and bows that are not parallel to the text line add dynamics to a font. Dynamics are affected by the following: stress axis slant in letters o, e, c, p, b, d, slope of bar of е, stroke endings of letters s, c, a, and serifs shape. All these elements can be vertical, diagonal, or curved. Italic or oblique font styles make the drawing even more dynamic.

Static typeface — Din PT, dynamic typeface — Venetian, maximum dynamics — Liana font.

10. Openness of letters

Open letters, like c, can be wide open, moderately open or almost closed. Openness of letters (aperture) affects the shape of characters: c, a, e, s. Wide open letters are more compact than closed ones; their width affects font capacity to a great extent. Frequency analysis of languages shows that letters e, a, s, c amount to over 30% of English. So, due to larger aperture and slight squaring of oval elements o, p, d, b, q you can get very compact font, which won’t look tight and will keep good readability (like PT Sans, for example).

Open typeface — PT Sans, moderate aperture — Textbook New typeface, closed aperture — Helvetica typeface.

Summary

Each font characteristic affects a person on the level of optics, ancient instincts, and cultural experiences. These hidden messages help your design work, but they can also hinder, so your font choice should be related to a message communicated, brand values, or preferences of your target audience. It’s better to use minimum of properties, adjusting them as precisely as possible rather than missing the target completely with too many adjustments. Then your design will be understandable to target audience, useful for the clients, and interesting for other designers.

  1. Weight affects the level of insistence: from tender delicacy (Thin) to persistent rudeness (Black).
  2. Width affects message urgency: from a screaming headline (Extra Condensed) to long-awaited appearance above the horizon (Extra Expanded).
  3. Contrast levels the artistry of a message: from a speech synthesizer (Monoweight) to Grand Opera actress (Extra high contrast).
  4. X-height is associated with a wish to impress the viewer: from a love letter (small x-heights) to indifferent “Break” sign (large x-heights).
  5. Corner rounding influences over tenderness level: from sleeping babies (Rounding) to noisy teenagers (Sharpening).
  6. Serifs and Slabs create cultural context: from idealism of timeless classics (Serifs) to pragmatism of factory stamping (Slab serifs.)
  7. Italic and Oblique ask for a moment of attention: to make a polite comment (Italic) or to communicate an urgent message (Oblique).
  8. Geometry reflects life values: from respect to a person’s peculiarities (Humanist fonts) to admiration of futuristic machines (Geometric and Modular fonts.)
  9. Statics and dynamics show individuality and richness of inner world: from neutral Helvetica (Static pattern) to Old Style Serifs, embodying pathos of their time and country (Dynamic pattern).
  10. Aperture affects sociability and progressiveness: from liberal extrovert (Open fonts) to conservative defender of borders (Closed fonts).

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Yevgen Sadko

Yevgen Sadko

I have a dream that one day, font designers will be able to join hands with font users as sisters and brothers.