Graphic design is more than about making your work look good, it is about understanding how individual design components work together to communicate a message. This is where typography comes in. Long known as a daunting and complex art form for many designers, typography is at the core of creating impactful work.

Choosing a font is a tricky thing. They are imbued with personality and are crucial in setting a brand’s tone. The right one can go a long way in establishing a brand’s reputation, which is why a designer’s main task is matching a font’s personality to a brand’s message. There are thousands of fonts out there, so for the purposes of this article we’ll be looking more closely at serifs, one of the five basic groups.

A brief history of the serif

The word 'serif' was said by some historians to have originated in the 18th century from the Dutch word 'schreef', which meant ‘marks of the pen’. However, serifs did not receive much acknowledgment until the 19th century when sans serifs (sans meaning 'without') rose in popularity. Over time, they were used to make “writing appear individualistic and intricate… and give the eye a curve to hug. When carved into stone, serifs [allowed] words to appear aligned.”

So what is a serif?

A serif is the little decorative stroke that continues after the end of the stems of letters. It could be compared to feet or wings.

Serif fonts, fonts which contain serifs, can be broken down into four subgroups, each with their own unique features: old style, transitional, Didone, and slab serif. Old style serifs, like Serif 420, are placed at an angle and are highly readable because they contain less of a distinction between their thick and thin lines. Transitional serifs, like Giveny, are stuck somewhere between the old and modern (or Didone) style, with more contrasting lines than in the old style, yet not as pronounced as in the modern. Didones, like La Truffe or Canvas, have highly contrasting lines accompanied by thin serifs, which makes them less readable. Lastly, slabs, like Finador, are characterised by bold serifs “often as wide as the vertical lines”, making them a “common choice of poster designers.

Font psychology

Now that we have covered what makes a serif, the next step in our journey is to dip into the psychology behind type choices. There is no illusion that choosing the right font is hard, but it helps when you have the foundation nailed down.

Just as colour invokes certain emotions and associations, so does typography. Because fonts carry personalities and messages, people react to them much in the way that they would to colour. Fast food chains use red to trigger hunger, car brands use a rich blue to connote intelligence and reliability, and the list goes so on. When tested correctly, fonts can be just as potent.

Since fonts impact our emotions and act as signs, it is worth examining what a serif will say about your brand. The study of font psychology shows that if you would like to portray your brand in a respectable, traditional, or reliable image, you might consider trying a serif.

Serifs & tradition

As a rule of thumb, “Serif fonts portray tradition, sophistication, and a formal tone. Sans serif fonts are modern, humanist and neutral. Slab serifs are bold and contemporary. Script fonts are elegant, classic, stylish and formal.”

Because the main adjective associated with serifs is ‘traditional’, it is no surprise that they are used by well-established brands that have built their empire over decades. Companies like Tiffany and Co. and Prada, as well as news titans like The New York Times, cleverly use serifs to convey a professionalism and authority that has stood the test of time.

But as often happens with tradition, it is replaced. Times change. Companies like Google and Apple have dropped the serif and gone with the futuristic and minimalist sans, which is more attention grabbing and reads better on lower-resolution displays.

That is not to say that the serif is obsolete - far from it. Although serifs are considered decorative, studies show that these typefaces can increase “both the readability and reading speed of long passages of text because they help the eye travel across a line” and make individual letters stand out. This is in part why serifs are often found in wordy texts like newspapers or books, and in both formal and scientific contexts.

Due to their association with tradition and authority, serifs also do well when incorporated in logos looking to convey quality and class (think: Rolex). Lastly, because of their sharp angles, serifs are also the choice font for many web designers looking to create digital displays.

Now, onto you

With all that said, what matters most in the process of choosing the right font is examining whether it works for your brand. Just like typography is unique, so is each brand, and what works for one might not work for the other. Before you begin scouring the Internet looking for your signature font, it would be worth sitting down and brainstorming some of the qualities and values that truly define your brand, as well as the medium in which you hope to communicate it. If you can nail this part of the process, you will be well on your way to creating your dream brand.

To get your gears turning, check out our list of 23 elegant serifs to use in your designs!