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The 4 different types of fonts and when to use them

Mar 11, 2024 | Branding, Fonts, For Designers

Although there are thousands of different fonts, each one can be categorized into one of four main types of fonts. Understanding how fonts are classified, and what the differences between them are, is immensely helpful when deciding which fonts to use. Whether you’re choosing fonts for your brand, website, merch, wedding stationery, or any other design project, getting this decision right can make all the difference in how your project turns out.

In this post, we’ll break down the four main types of fonts and how they’re most commonly used. We’ll also look at the different sub-types of fonts within each of these main categories. Along the way, I’ll include some examples of my favorite fonts that I often return to when designing professional brands and websites for my clients.

Before we dive in, a quick disclaimer: Although I’m using the term “font” in this post, the technically correct term is “typeface.” A typeface is a family of fonts (e.g. Montserrat), whereas a font is a specific member of a typeface family (e.g. Montserrat Bold). These two terms are often used interchangeably, and I’m doing so here for the sake of simplicity.

4 Main Types of Fonts

Here’s a breakdown of the four different types of fonts, their sub-types, and a few classic examples of each.

1. Serif Fonts

Serif fonts are the most traditional of all the different types of fonts. These fonts are characterized by “serifs,” which are the little strokes at the ends of the letters. A classic example of a serif font is Times New Roman. Serif fonts are used in many different ways, perhaps most commonly on printed materials like books, magazines, and newspapers. Although this style is traditional, there are nowadays many modern takes on the serif font. You’ll see serifs used on many modern websites, where they add a touch of elegance and timelessness.

Garamond is an example of a serif font

Serif fonts represent the following traits:

  • Classic
  • Sophisticated
  • Editorial
  • Established
  • Authoritative

Favorite serif fonts:

*Available via Adobe Fonts
**Available via Google Fonts

Serif sub-types

There are many different sub-types of serif fonts. Here are three popular ones that are worth knowing:

  • Old Style – This style of font originated several centuries ago and has served as the foundation for many popular, modern serifs. Use this style if you want to convey a deeply traditional or historical feeling.
  • Didone – This style emerged in the 20th century and feels both “mid-century modern” and editorial. A classic example of a Didone typeface is Bodoni.
  • Slab Serif – The slab serif has a retro feel due to its popularity in advertising displays in the 19th and 20th centuries. This style is recognizable by its heavy and flat serifs.

2. Sans Serif Fonts

Sans serif fonts, as the name suggests, are fonts without serifs. In other words, they don’t have any strokes or embellishments at the ends of their letterforms. This type of font is generally considered the most legible of all the different types of fonts. Therefore, it’s a popular choice for websites, mobile apps, and software user interfaces. Two well-known examples of sans serif fonts are Arial and Helvetica.

Helvetica is an example of a sans serif font

Sans serif fonts represent the following traits:

  • Modern
  • Minimal
  • Clean
  • Friendly

Favorite sans serif fonts:

*Available via Adobe Fonts
**Available via Google Fonts

Sans serif sub-types

There are four different types of sans serif fonts:

  • Grotesque Sans Serif – This is the most popular sub-type with Helvetica, the “gold standard” of sans serif, as one of its members.
  • Square Sans Serif – These fonts appear more square-like and less rounded than other sans serif fonts.
  • Geometric Sans Serif – This style is inspired by geometric shapes and is considered slightly less legible than Grotesque sans serifs. A popular example is Futura.
  • Humanistic Sans Serif – Of all the sans serif font sub-types, this style most closely resembles serif fonts.

Related post: Top 20 modern fonts for logo design and branding

3. Script Fonts

Script fonts, also commonly referred to as handwritten fonts, come in a wide variety of styles that add a human touch wherever they’re used. These styles range from casual to formal, with the latter end of the spectrum typically used to create an elegant or luxurious feeling. Unsurprisingly, script fonts are commonly used for wedding stationery and other formal events. Since they’re not as legible as serif and sans serif fonts, script fonts are less commonly used for logos and web design. That said, there are always exceptions.

Examples of script font types

Script fonts can represent the following traits, depending on the style chosen:

  • Whimsical
  • Creative
  • Personable
  • Elegant
  • Romantic
  • Playful / Fun

Favorite script fonts:

*Available via Adobe Fonts

Script sub-types

  • Formal Script – These fonts are inspired by formal writing styles that pre-date typewriters.
  • Calligraphic Script – These scripts are based on calligraphic writing styles.
  • Blackletter Script – This style of script font is reminiscent of medieval texts with bold, embellished letterforms.
  • Casual Script – These fonts mimic informal handwriting.

4. Decorative Fonts

The fourth main type of font is decorative fonts, also known as display fonts. Decorative fonts are a creative type of font that come in a wide variety of unique styles. Although these fonts may incorporate elements of the other three types of fonts, they don’t neatly fit into any specific category. Some characteristics of display fonts include swashes, curls, and irregular or distorted letterforms. Decorative fonts don’t tend to work very well for long passages of text due to legibility issues; instead, they’re commonly used for logos, book titles, posters, and merch designs.

Examples of decorative font types

Favorite decorative fonts:

Related post: 20+ retro fonts for nostalgic branding and graphic design

Where to find different types of fonts for your brand

For premium fonts, my go-to websites are Creative Market and MyFonts. Between these two sites, you can browse seemingly infinite font options in every style. For more curated font inspiration, my go-to resource is Typewolf. This site is updated weekly with new finds from across the web. As an Adobe user, I also have access to Adobe Fonts, which comes in handy when I’m sourcing fonts for branding projects.

If you’re looking for free fonts, you can find many quality options at Google Fonts and Font Squirrel. Check out this post for some of my favorite free font pairings.

Another font resource worth mentioning is Pinterest. I save new typeface discoveries to my Typography & Fonts board pretty much every week.

Need help choosing the right fonts for your brand? Let’s work together to develop a beautiful and strategic brand identity for your small business.

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!

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Steph Corrigan Design Blogger

Meet Steph

BRAND AND WEB DESIGNER + FOUNDER

I’m here to break down everything you’ve been wondering about when it comes to starting and scaling a small business in the most aligned way possible. From branding basics to tried-and-true marketing strategies, you’ll get my unfiltered thoughts and advice on how to make your brand stand out.

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