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Types of Serifs in Typography and Type Design

This list of serifs can help you pick a font for your project or inspire your next font design!

Serifs might seem arbitrary today, but they have their origin, as many things in type design, in physical writing. Serifs originally marked the entrance and exit of the strokes of the tool being used to create letters. Whether a quill, brush, flat pen, chisel, or other tool, all serifs harken back to the tool used to make them.

In general, there are two types of serifs: Reflexive and Transitive.

Reflexive Serifs

Reflexive serifs look like the abrupt change of direction found in Roman letterforms. When writing with ink-based tools, these came from a desire to give the letters a crisp, flat end to the figures. In stone carving, the serifs came from turning the chisel to, again, create a sharply formed stroke pattern.

Reflexive serifs can be subcategorized into more detailed groups.

Types of Serifs organized by Adnate and Abrupt categories.

Bracketed Serifs

Bracket serifs extend beyond the main stem of the font design, but are supported by, you guessed it, brackets. Used in carved metal type to create a physical letter whose serifs wouldn’t break as frequently, the bracketed serifs became the standard letterform used in most books and printing typefaces.

Calligraphy Serifs

Calligraphic serifs are the most natural serifs. Stemming from writing and scribes, calligraphy serifs take on the nature of the tool used to make them. They usually swell at the ends and keep the tilt of the brush, pen, or quill used to draw them.

Cupped Serifs

Cupped serifs still extend beyond the main stem stroke of the letterform and, of course, are cupped. These letterforms also have a humanist look because of the soft nature of the cupped serifs.

Slab Serifs

Slab serifs are large or heavy serifs added to the stem. While these don’t come from normal writing tools, slab serif typefaces were designed as early as 1815 to be used in larger print and advertising. Slab serifs are thick, and therefore usually best reserved for display fonts.

Hairline/Didone Serifs

Hairline serifs, originally invented in fonts like Didot and Bodoni, were invented to show off the expertise of the letter carver and the high quality of new paper-making techniques. Since both were expensive in the 1780s, these serifs could only be used by the financial elite. Thus, our association with high-class, or high value with the Didone fonts.

Wedge Serifs

Wedge serifs appear to be wedges added onto the end of the main font stroke. Oftentimes a wedge serif creates a regal look—authority due to the pronounced shape. Wedge serifs can be steep or gradual, but are indicated by the sharp change from stroke to serif.

Tapered Serifs

Tapered serifs are similar to wedge serifs except for how they’re attached to the stems of the font. Tapered serifs are still angular, but don’t have an obvious transition from stem to serif. Often the tapered serifs look like a stem that widens at the end of the stroke.

More types of serifs that are more ornate in nature.

Concave Serifs

Similar to cupped serifs, concave serifs have a small dent. However, concave serifs alone don’t necessarily have to extend beyond the stem of the stroke. The font Optima famously has cupped serifs.

Convex Serifs

Convex serifs are the opposite of concave serifs. Instead of an indent, convex serifs bulge as an extension of the main stem stroke. Convex serifs can make letterforms look softer while still keeping a technical look.

Flared Serifs

Perhaps minute in difference, flared serifs curve while tapered serifs remain straight. Both tapered and flared serifs flare out from the original stroke, but the flared serifs end with an outward curve away from the stem.

Rounded Serifs

Rounded serifs are a softer, fabricated version of the Didone serifs. Similar to calligraphy serifs, rounded serifs look to be more natural in form, but are usually created geometricaly in font design software rather than by the natural stroke of a drawing/writing too.

Tuscan Serifs

Tuscan serifs, like slab serifs, helped usher in the age of advertising typography. These serifs tend to slope back in the opposite direction of the stem stroke and are used to add the ‘pop’ to letterforms that clients always ask for.

Bifurcated Serifs

Bifurcated serifs are serifs that have been cut into two pieces (hence the bi- preface). Similar to slab and tuscan serifs, these serifs add visual flare and are often drawn retrospectively to the original font.

Trifurcated Serifs

As if bifurcated serifs weren’t enough, trifurcated serifs divide the serif into three pieces. I imagine an advertiser somewhere looking at a bifurcated serif and demanding that their be a center fork, thus creating the trifurcated serif.

Fractured Serifs

Fractured serifs often start as slab serifs, then have a notch removed from them. Fractured serifs create an interesting visual rhythm that is dependent upon the shape of the fracture. 

Transitive Serifs

Transitive serifs are those primarily found in Italic letterforms. These serifs are continuous in direction and can also be found in script fonts. These serifs are used to create a continuous look in leaning letterforms.

Anatomy of a serif, unilateral, and bilateral diagrams.

Reflexive and Transitive Serif font categories.
Types of Serifs in typography and type design poster.
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