Slab Serifs: History, Types & Inspiring Examples

By on Oct 31, 2017 in Inspiration
Slab Serifs: History, Types & Inspiring Examples

Slab serifs are distinct and immediately remarkable. Their block-like, thick, massive serifs stand out in any sentence, billboard, ad, or webpage on which they’re displayed. Much of the time, their strokes and stems are equally thick and bold to create a typeface that’s at once aesthetic and imposing.

Part of the serif family of typefaces, slab serifs feature those one-of-a-kind feet or little attachments at the ends of the strokes of individual characters in a typeface.

Uniquely, these serifs took the world by storm all of a sudden back in the early part of the 19th century, when more and more typographers and designers began to use them in widespread fashion. Since then, these fonts have become almost ubiquitous in the design of the world all around us.

Understanding what these fonts are, what they’re intended to do, and their unique place in typography will empower designers of all stripes to learn how to use slab serifs with more awesome results than ever.

The Origins of Slab Serifs

As far as typefaces are concerned, these serifs are relative newcomers to typography and design in general, especially when we compare them to serifs in general. Serifs have really been around since Roman times—they initially came out of the Latin alphabet and inscriptional lettering.

When Roman-era letter outlines were first painted onto stone, the stone carvers followed these outlines of the brush marks, yet their methods caused flaring to occur at the corners and ends of the letter strokes. This resulted in the serifs as we know them today.

On the other hand, slab serifs, which can be thought of as a subset of serifs in general, only really came into prominence in the beginning of the 19th century: The explosion of print advertising material necessitated more and more unique fonts that immediately captured the attention of readers. Slabs—with their bold, thick and imposing nature—naturally filled this role quickly.

They were first commercially made available under the name of “Antique,” when they were introduced by Vincent Figgins in 1815 to 1817. In spite of the initial explosion in their popularity, slab serifs suffered a decline in popularity as the century went on, primarily because they were competing with sans serifs, which were becoming more popular at the time.

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Interestingly, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military leader and dictator, played a part in the burgeoning cultural awareness of slab serifs. You see, Napoleon actually brought 167 scholars and scientists with him on his Egyptian campaign of 1798 to 1801 to help mask the real reason for it: to increase his power. Ostensibly, the campaign was to defend the trade interests of France and stifle his arch-rival Britain’s interests in the region, but it was really about his quest for empire.

After his Egyptian campaign ended in disaster and failure, his scholars and scientists nonetheless brought back to the West a lot of previously unknown knowledge about Egypt. As a result of this, the Western world in Europe and beyond developed a fascination with all things Egyptian, namely because French publications disseminated descriptions and images of exotic Egyptian culture.

This, in turn, led to furniture and home décor at the time being heavily influenced by Egyptian overtones, with lines of furniture being produced that were made to resemble the artifacts and treasures found in Egyptian tombs. Companies were even producing wallpaper that could transform your ordinary Western living room into something resembling an Ancient Egyptian temple.

So…how does this all relate back to slab serifs? Here’s how.

Around this time, due to the cultural rage of all things Egypt, slab serifs were increasingly being called “Egyptians,” even though there was no connection between this typeface and traditional Egyptian writing systems. Nonetheless, by the close of the 19th century, slab serifs were regularly being called Egyptian! Whether this was an honest mistake or a devious marketing gimmick is anyone’s guess.

Needless to say, this Egyptian craze that Napoleon kick-started with his campaign and scientific expedition had long-lasting ramifications in typography. The legacy of this naming confusion is preserved today, as some slabs invented in the 20th century have Egyptian-themed names to commemorate this interesting period, with examples being Cairo, Memphis, and Karnak.

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In the 1920s, a second, major development occurred to slabs: They were increasingly being influenced by geometric design. As a result, more fonts of this kind were being created that featured a more monoline design that resembled some of the geometric sans serifs like Futura.

Today, slabs are some of the most popular fonts around that designers use with frequency in all sorts of projects.

Their Characteristics

Like all font families, slabs have their own, unique characteristics that make them unforgettable and ideal to use in specific situations. Designers will make better choices for their projects when they’re more familiar with the various elements of slab serifs:

  • Terminals – Terminals are defined as the ends of strokes that aren’t terminated with serifs. The terminals on slabs are either rounded (as in the case of Courier) or angular and blunt (as in the case of Rockwell).
  • Boldness – The boldness in slabs varies based on their purpose. For instance, slabs intended for ad displays have to be excessively bold because they’re meant to catch people’s attention. However, slabs used to be more legible at smaller sizes (such as for reading on devices or print) won’t be anywhere near as bold to still ensure readability.
  • Stroke Width – The stroke width is defined as the straight or curved line in a character (think of the diagonal line in a capital N). Slabs have varying stroke width, again for various purposes. For example, slabs with a geometric design (such as Rockwell or Memphis) have a more consistent stroke width, which makes them easier to read, so they’re great for text. Alternately, slabs like Clarendon feature thicker stroke widths in the stresses of the Cs and the bowls of the Bs, making them better for headlines.

You can inspect and admire these fine characteristics of slab serifs in even greater detail by checking out our slab serifs category. In the meantime, here are several examples from our marketplace of some of the stunning typography that’s possible with slabs and to show you how to use slab serifs in aesthetic ways:

Different Groups of Slab Serifs

Think of slabs as a font family that has subsets of unique styles that together make up the entirety of this typeface. Whereas slab serif is the name of the general category, there are subgroupings within this typeface that draw attention to the variety and individuality of the slab fonts.

Here are the main groups:

  • Egyptian or Antique – If you recall my abovementioned reference to Napoleon and his failed Egyptian campaign, you’ll remember this misnomer to describe slabs. This group mainly refers to the earliest styles of slabs, which were mostly monoline (featuring strokes that are monolinear or having little or no contrast at all between the vertical and horizontal strokes). They also bore a resemblance to 19th-century serifs like ball terminals.
  • French Clarendon or Italienne – This group is noteworthy for the heaviness and thickness of their serifs (much heavier than the characters’ stems). As a result, French Clarendon slabs exhibit an epic and attention-grabbing effect. Unsurprisingly, they’ve traditionally been used in posters and other sensationalistic print announcements. Look for this group to feature prominently in the typography of Western movies as well. Most widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it still remains in use today.
  • Clarendon – Clarendon is unique among the other subgroups because its fonts feature a degree of bracketing and size contrast within the actual serifs. Since the serifs in Clarendon frequently have curves, they accordingly change in size by becoming wider as they begin to approach the main stroke of the characters. Many Clarendon fonts also bear a similarity to the serif font designs of the 19th century; that is to say they feature a significant difference in the stroke width between the vertical and horizontal strokes.
  • Geometric Design – Here, there bracketing is gone, and the fonts in this group have evenly weighted serifs and stems. This consistency and balance make the fonts here a smart choice for cases where readability and legibility are a must—such as for smaller screens on devices. Some earlier well-known examples are Memphis, Tower, City, Rosmini, and Beton whereas later examples include Archer and Neutraface Slab.
  • Typewriter – Quite straightforward, this category features font families that are used in strike-on typewriting. A characteristic here is that every character takes up the exact, same quantity of horizontal space. You no doubt have seen Courier; another example is Prestige Elite.

How to Use Slab Serifs in Famous Media

Even though slabs have only been around for a couple of hundred years or so, their rapid rise to popularity ensured that they were eventually being used with high visibility in all manner of media. Now, we take a look at some of the more high-profile places where slabs have been featured, so you can get an even better idea of how to use slab serifs.

The Montgomery Ward Logo

Montgomery Ward was a huge American retail chain that was liquidated in 2001. In the 80s and 90s, though, its logo prominently featured Serifa, a slab serif.

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Because Montgomery Ward had a wordmark logo (or a text-only typographic treatment), it was easy for the company to use Serifa for its corporate identity.

Martha Stewart Living Magazine

Martha Stewart Living has been around since 1990, making it a long-running staple for home-decorating advice. For a time, the magazine experimented with slab serifs: It used the Archer font because the font was commissioned by the magazine for its typography.

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The font was initially thought to be a great fit for this lifestyle magazine since its designers described it as a myriad of things that magazine publishers would want: easy to read, well-balanced, aesthetic and seamless to work with.

Amazon Kindle

Amazon’s popular e-reader is also not safe from slab serifs. Its default typeface is actually a slab named PMN Caecilia that’s found across a range of Kindles, from the older ones (the Kindle 7s) to its newer Paperwhites (3rd Generation). One of the reasons that this slab was chosen for the Kindle is its humanist-influenced origins, which make it ideal for easy reading.

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Ironically, PMN Caecilia was designed for a print environment, but its adaptability to the screens of devices like the Kindle speaks volumes for its readability and legibility.

Thickness, Boldness and Versatility in Design

Now, you should have a much better idea of how to use slab serifs.

Slabs are a relatively young font style; they’ve only been around for 200 years or so. In that short timeframe, they’ve still been successful in making a huge impact in the design world. Naturally, it helps that none other than Napoleon Bonaparte and his infamous Egyptian campaign (for better or worse) helped to popularize these fonts in the public consciousness of the west.

Putting this brush with a noteworthy historical figure aside for a moment, perhaps what’s led to slab serifs’ popularity is their sheer functionality. This font family is great from everything like flashy and loud ad displays to much smaller reading sizes that are necessary for mobile devices and tablets. When a typeface features this much versatility, it’s bound to come to the notice of many typographers and consequently develop a large following.

If you’re looking to add some slabs into your designs and projects, simply head on over to our marketplace’s slab serif category, where we have hundreds and hundreds of slab serifs for any project.


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4 Comments

  1. As far as slab serifs, I like Chaparral Pro as a body typeface. What period-appropriate display typefaces would you recommend? Especially anything condensed.

  2. Thank you for this article, Marc! I loved the history part and also the options you provided. Slab serifs also scale really well, which is, I think, one of the key reasons why they have become so popular. Their hybrid-like features allow a great versatility in both headlines and body copy. Thanks! :)

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