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Font Types You Should Know

written by: Thursday Bram•edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•updated: 4/30/2009

Fonts are categorized into several different groups, like sans serif or fixed width. Knowing these categories can make finding the font you need for a particular project much easier. This article explains terms like serif, dingbats, and script to make it a simpler for you to sort through fonts.

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    Serif and Sans Serif

    On some fonts, like Times Roman, you may notice that there are small embellishments on each letter. On the legs of a capital 'A' for instance, there are decorations commonly known as serifs. They come from the the flourishes and marks created when you write letters by hand: depending on your pen's angle, there are different line widths and marks. Those marks were considered a part of the letterform when older typefaces were designed, which have evolved into the many serif fonts available today.

    In contrast, there are also sans serif fonts — which deliberately leave off serifs, as the typeface Helvetica does. Deciding when to use a sans serif font, as opposed to a serif font, can be an aesthetic decision, but it can also be a question of legibility. In many cases, large text blocks are considered to be easier to read when set in a serif font, while sans serif fonts are considered ideal for headlines and signage.

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    As font design has developed, a number of fonts have been created that closely resemble handwriting. These fonts are typically categorized as script fonts, a grouping that includes calligraphic fonts as well as those that appear to have been written with a brush. Many script fonts are elegant — a common use is for wedding invitations — but there are also less polished options like fonts meant to resemble a child's handwriting or graffiti.

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    Fixed Width

    The fixed width category of fonts is particularly useful if you're working on technical projects. Used primarily to set technical information — like computer code — fixed width fonts assign the same amount of space to each character. While there may be significant variation in the appearance of such fonts, the constraint of width makes it easier to process a large amount of information.

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    While generally available as fonts, dingbat typefaces contain images rather than letters and numbers. Many are just small pictures, as might be appropriate for embellishing a desktop publishing projects. However, some have larger elements that you can use throughout a document to create a certain look or style. Using a dingbat font is simply a matter of appropriately setting a character that corresponds to the icon within the dingbat font that you wish to insert. In some cases, you can also insert a dingbat as you might insert a glyph.