Display typefaces will often have more eccentric and variable designs than the simple, relatively restrained typefaces generally used for body text. They may take inspiration from other genres of lettering, such as handpainted signs, calligraphy or an aesthetic appropriate to their use, perhaps ornamented, exotic, abstracted or drawn in the style of a different writing system.
Several genres of font are particularly associated with display setting, such as slab serif, script font, reverse-contrast and to a lesser extent sans serif. Walter Tracy defines display typefaces in the metal type sense as "sizes of type over 14 point" and in design that "text types when enlarged can be used for headings, display types, if reduced, cannot be used for text setting."
For the first centuries of printing, display type generally did not exist. Printing was used primarily to print body text, although there might be use of some larger-sized letters for titling. Typefaces not intended for body text remained rooted in conventional letterforms: roman type, script typeface or blackletter. Signs were created as custom handlettering.
The arrival of the poster and greater use of signage spurred the arrival of new kinds of letterform, both as lettering and in print. Historian James Mosley has written that “big types had been cast in sand, using wooden patterns, for some centuries [by 1750] but there is evidence that English typefounders only began to make big letters for posters and other commercial printing towards 1770, when Thomas Cottrell made his 'Proscription or Posting letter of great bulk and dimension' and William Caslon II cast his 'Patagonian' or 'Proscription letters’.”
New technologies, notably riveted "sanspareil" matrices made printing at large sizes easier from the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the same time, new designs of letter began to appear around the beginning of the nineteenth century, such as "fat face" typefaces (based on serif faces of the period, but much bolder), slab serifs (first seen from Vincent Figgins around 1817), sans-serifs (already used in custom lettering but effectively unused in printing before the 1830s) and new blackletter faces. An important development that followed was wood type, which could be pantograph and allowed cheap printing of large type on posters. Many nineteenth-century display typefaces were extremely, aggressively bold and condensed in order to attract attention. Equally, some display typefaces such as Cochin and Koch-Antiqua have a particularly delicate build with a low x-height, and this style was very popular around the start of the twentieth century.
With phototypesetting and digital printing methods allowing fonts to be printed at any size, it has become possible to use fonts in situations where before hand-lettering would be most common, such as on business logos and metal fabricated lettering. Many modern digital typeface families such as Neutraface, Neue Haas Grotesk, and Arno include both text styles and display companion optical sizes with a more delicate design. Walter Tracy comments that in adapting a text face to display use such as in a headline "a judicious closing-up of the letters" improves the appearance.
Styles of display typeface
Common genres of display typeface include:
- Lettering with a design intended to seem hand-drawn, such as script fonts or designs with swashes
- “Shadowed”, “engraved”, “inline” or “handtooled” lettering, with a blank space in the centre intended to suggest three-dimensional letters in relief. An early genre of display type, inline sans-serifs were also very popular in lettering of the inter-war period. "Shaded" or hatched designs have also been made which appear grey when viewed at a distance.
- Unusual or abstract redesigns of the alphabet, such as those drawn by the Bauhaus school of design, Milton Glaser’s Baby Teeth or Indépendant.
- “Distressed” lettering, intended to seem damaged or distorted, such as Shatter or Electric Circus
- Ultra-light or ultra-bold adaptations of conventional letterforms, such as "fat face" types, Cooper Black or Gill Kayo
- Mixed case lettering that mixes upper- and lower-case letters in unexpected ways for an unconventional effect
- Reverse-contrast typefaces that invert the contrast of conventional writing, with the horizontals made thicker than the verticals.
- Lettering made to suggest an aesthetic, such as modernism, the natural world, or another genre of lettering. Examples of the latter include use of stencil or embossing tape fonts to suggest an industrial aesthetic.
- “Mimicry” or “simulation” typefaces intended to suggest another writing system. These are often used by restaurants.
A more prosaic genre of "display typefaces" is those intended for signage, such as Johnston, Highway Gothic, Transport and Clearview. These often have adaptations to increase legibility and make letters more distinct from each other. For example, Johnston and Transport have a curl on the lower-case ‘L’ to distinguish it from an upper-case ‘i'. In German the term "Akzidenzschrift" (commercial or trade typeface) is used for faces not intended for body text but without implying a specific size range, so including small-size sans-serifs in uses such as on tickets. The famous sans-serif Akzidenz-Grotesk's name (literally commercial sans-serif) derives from this scheme).
The following gallery shows the historical development of display type, from type similar to body text typefaces to the highly decorative types of the nineteenth century.
1780 Norwegian notice using flourished blackletter type.
1797 notice of an opera by Méhul, Paris 1797.
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