Serif Definition

Serif typefaces are popular in newspapers and books

serifs and serif typefaces
Examples of serifs and Serif typefaces.

In typography, a serif is the small extra stroke found at the end of the main vertical and horizontal strokes of some letters. Some serifs are subtle and others are pronounced and obvious. In some cases, serifs aid in the readability of a typeface. The term "serif fonts" refers to any style of type that has serifs. (Fonts without serifs are called sans serif fonts.) Serif fonts are extremely popular and have been around for many years. Times Roman is one example of a serif font.

Uses for Serif Fonts

Fonts with serifs are particularly useful for large blocks of text. The serifs make it easy for the eye to travel over the text. Many serif fonts are beautifully designed and add a distinctive touch wherever they are used. Most books, newspapers and magazines use serif fonts for their legibility. 

Serif fonts are not as useful for web designs, particularly when they are used at small sizes. Because the screen resolution of some computer monitors is low, the tiny serifs can be lost or fuzzy, which makes the text difficult to read. Many web designers prefer using sans-serif fonts for a clean and modern, casual vibe. 

Serif Construction

The shapes of serifs vary, but they are generally described as:

  • Hairline serifs
  • Square or slab serifs
  • Wedge serifs

Hairline serifs are much thinner than the main strokes. Square or slab serifs are thicker than hairline serifs and can even be a heavier weight than the main stroke. Wedge serifs are triangular in shape.

Serifs are either bracketed or unbracketed. A bracket is a connector between the stroke of a letter and its serif. Most bracketed serifs provide a curved transition between the serif and the main stroke. Unbracketed serifs attach directly to the strokes of the letterform, sometimes abruptly or at right angles. Within these divisions, the serifs themselves can be blunt, rounded, tapered, pointed or some hybrid shape.

Classifications of Serif Fonts

Classic serif fonts are among the most reliable and beautiful fonts. Fonts in each classification (with the exception of informal or novelty fonts) share similar characteristics including the shape or appearance of their serifs. They can be loosely categorized as follows:

Modern serif fonts date to the late 18th century. There is a noticeable difference between the thick and thin strokes of the letters. Examples include:

  • Bodoni
  • Bernhard Modern
  • Walbaum
  • Didot
  • Elephant
  • Century Schoolbook

Old style fonts are the original serif typefaces. Some date to before the mid 18th century. Newer typefaces modeled on these original fonts are also called old style fonts. Examples include:

  • Berkeley Oldstyle
  • Stempel Schneidler
  • Bembo
  • Galliard
  • Caslon
  • Garamond
  • Palatino

 font development dates to the mid 18th century when improved printing methods made it possible to reproduce fine line strokes. Some of the fonts that came from this improvement include:

  • Baskerville
  • Perpetua
  • Utopia
  • Georgia
  • Caslon Graphique
  • Times New Roman
  • Slimbach

Slab Serif fonts are easily identified by their usually thick, square or rectangular serifs. They are often bold and are designed to attract attention, not be used in large copy blocks.

  • Bodoni Egyptian
  • Clarendon
  • Glypha
  • Rockwell
  • Memphis
  • Courier

Blackletter fonts are also referred to as Old English or Gothic fonts. They are recognizable by their ornate appearance. Useful on certificates or as initial caps, blackletter fonts are not easy to read and should not be used in all caps. Blackletter fonts include:

  • Notre Dame
  • Clairvaux
  • Old English
  • Goudy Text
  • Luminari
  • Cloister Black

Informal or Novelty serif fonts attract attention and are best used sparingly combined with another font that is easily legible. Novelty fonts are diverse. They invoke a mood, time, emotion or special occasion. Examples include:

  • Gist Rough
  • Type Keys
  • Country Western
  • White Rabbit
  • Snow Goose
  • DeadWoodRustic