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The Return of the Old Style Roman Typeface

Laura Busche October 15, 2021 · 6 min read
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While human beings have been creating letters and symbols since ancient times, modern typography truly soared after the popularization of the printing press in Europe. To understand where Old Style fonts come from, and how they became popular in the first place, let’s revisit the earliest chapters in the history of typography.

Leaving Blackletter Behind

The year was 1440: Goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg had left his home city of Mainz and started experimenting with printing from a small workshop in Strasbourg, France. Hundreds of years earlier the Chinese had developed moveable type as a technology, but Gutenberg took it one step further with lead types and a special box of letter blocks called a type case. Determined to perfect his process, Gutenberg moved back to Germany and printed his famous Forty-two-Line Bible. By 1500, printing presses had spread aggressively through Western Europe, producing more than twenty million book copies. Gutenberg Bible, Lenox copy in the New York Public Library. CC BY-SA 2.0. Being German, the early European printers leaned on the Blackletter style that was popular in their country at the time. The Germanic Gothic or Blackletter style is heavier, angular, and constructed with a broad nib.
As you can imagine, as these presses arrived in countries like Italy and France, printers started to design type that fit their own aesthetic preferences. That’s how Humanist, and later Old Style fonts, emerged.

From Humanist to Old Style

By the time the printing press reached (modern-day) Italy, a cultural movement called humanism was becoming popular. After centuries of prohibition, censorship, and war, Venice was leaving the Middle Ages by bringing back traditional Roman culture and values. Human achievements and independence took center stage again. Part of that humanism involved celebrating the handwriting style traditionally found in Roman statues and monuments. There was only one problem: that style was all uppercase, therefore illegible when it came to long texts. Those characters are also known as Imperial Roman capitals or Capitalis Monumentalis.
Fortunately, humanists started repurposing the uppercase letterforms by adding lowercase letters, reviving a 9th-century style known as Carolingian or Caroline minuscule. Enter Nicolas Jenson, credited by many as the creator of the first true Roman font. Jenson, a medalist by trade, had opened a workshop in Venice after learning about printing in Germany. Eusebius, Evangelica. Jenson, Venice, 1470. Via Tom Nealon, Hilobrow These serifed letterforms became the baseline for type design. While the earliest forms preserved a distinctively humanist character, serif typefaces would become more geometric and proportional over time. Today, we classify serif fonts based on unique features that evolved from that original Humanist style. Over time, type designers have created Old Style, Transitional, Modern, and Slab Serifs. Old Style type families were part of the first wave of refinement, and we’ll look at some of their defining features next.

Old Style Fonts: Main Features

Before Old Style fonts, Humanist (also known as Venetian) typefaces mimicked handwriting. Letters were fluid and looked a lot like a scribe or author had written them by hand. In contrast, Old Style (also known as Garalde) fonts departed from this style, looking cleaner and slightly more geometric. Rather than look like a person wrote them, Old Style fonts were created to appear more refined and mechanically made.
Old Style fonts were a slight move towards symmetry and away from the organic and handcrafted.
Today, type designers are still invested in this style and continue to create fonts inspired by it. While these new renditions were obviously not created in 15th century Europe, if they are patterned to match these traits, they are still considered as Old Style fonts:
  • Horizontal crossbars: In early Humanist fonts, crossbars were sloping or diagonal. In Old Style fonts, crossbars are completely horizontal.
  • Perpendicular position: Typographers intentionally made Old Style fonts look more perpendicular, sitting slightly more upright on the baseline.
  • Low weight contrast: In Old Style lettering, there is very little contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  • Wedge-shaped ascenders: In Old Style fonts, the serifs on the ascenders (the part of the letter that extends up above the letter) are wedge-shaped.
  • Head serifs are angled: In Old Style Roman fonts, head serifs tend to be angled instead of flat.
  • Serifs are bracketed: Serifs are often bracketed, meaning they are joined to the letters’ stems through some kind of curve.
  • Left-leaning axis: Old Style fonts have a left-leaning axis or stress.
Typography Basics Cheatsheet
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Fun fact: Old Style fonts are often called “Garalde”, a term that combines the names of two important type designers at the time: Claude Garamond and Aldus Manutius. There are many Old Style Roman fonts that are available digitally today. You’re probably familiar with some of them because they are popularly used in word processing software:
  • Garamond
  • Caslon
  • Goudy Old Style
  • Palatino

Examples of Old Style Fonts on Creative Market

More and more contemporary designers are creating Old Style fonts that you can use in your projects. Some of these fonts look like classic, quintessential Old Style fonts that you’ve seen for years. Others mix up more contemporary contrast or shapes, resulting in a more unique look. Here are some of the best Old Style fonts that you can find from designers on Creative Market.

Legion

Legion is a font created by Esquivel Type Foundry. This Old Style font is designed specifically for paragraphs and bold headlines. In addition to uppercase letters and lowercase letters, the font includes numbers, punctuation, and special characters. The designer updated the font to incorporate extended Latin characters.

Gauthier FY Regular

BlackFoundry created Gauthier FY Regular to look like a contemporary Renaissance-inspired typeface. The delicate italic letterforms were inspired by the French punchcutter Robert Granjon (1513–89), which were also a key source of inspiration for the italics used in Garamond.

Carrig Roman

Carrig Roman was created by designer Paulo Goode. This font was recently redrawn and redesigned, but it was originally inspired by classic letterforms that were carved into stone. When you download Carrig Roman, you’ll get a full European character set with 410 glyphs, and alternate letterforms for capitals O, Q, R, and U. The designer recommends using it for headlines, body text, logotype, and branding.

Neftalí Pro

TipoType created Neftalí Pro and it won a TipoType First Prize in 2015.  It was inspired by Pablo Neruda’s “Poema 20” and it incorporates both Baroque and Roman styles.

Design away!

Old Style fonts are one of the most essential typefaces to recognize and understand in your graphic design journey. This style exudes elegance and is ideal for projects aiming to convey legacy, heritage, and splendor. To learn more about type anatomy and classification, make sure to download this handy guide:
Typography Basics Cheatsheet
Remember key typography concepts
Typography terms made simple.

Grab this handy cheatsheet summarizing some of the most important typography terms.

Download the PDF

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About the Author
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Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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