In typography, a slab serif (also called mechanistic, square serif or Egyptian) typeface is a type of serif typeface characterized by thick, block-like serifs. Serif terminals may be either blunt and angular (Rockwell), or rounded (Courier). Slab serif typefaces generally have no bracket (feature connecting the strokes to the serifs). Some consider slab serifs to be a subset of modern serif typefaces, while other slab serifs seem more like sans-serif typefaces with serifs added on.
Because of their bold appearance, they are most commonly used in large headlines and advertisements but are seldom used in body text. One recent exception to the general lack of the use of Slab Serif in body text is Guardian Egyptian, a font designed for the newspaper The Guardian in the UK, which is used throughout the paper and within its body. Another common exception to this rule is in the use of monospaced text, many fonts for which are modeled on the typefaces used by typewriters. Though widely utilized in the field of computer science due to their fixed-width nature, the everyday use of typewriter-like fonts is declining in the wake of electronic publishing and the spread of electronic reading devices.
As printed material began to branch out from the familiar realm of books, new and more attention-grabbing typefaces were needed for use in advertising, posters, and flyers. New genres began to appear: bold and ultra-bold type or fat faces, reverse-contrast, sans-serif and slab-serif. Writing in 1825, the printer and social reformer Thomas Curson Hansard wrote with amusement that slab-serif and other such display types were 'the outrageous kind of face only adapted for placards, posting-bills, invitations to the wheel of Fortune...Fashion and Fancy commonly frolic from one extreme to another.'
Following Napoleon's Egyptian campaign and dissemination of images and descriptions via publications like Description de l'Égypte (1809) an intense cultural fascination with all things Egyptian followed. Suites of contemporary parlor furniture were produced resembling furniture found in tombs. Multicolored woodblock printed wallpaper could make a dining room in Edinburgh or Chicago feel like Luxor. While there was no relationship between Egyptian writing systems and slab serif types, either shrewd marketing or honest confusion led to slab serifs often being called Egyptians, and many early ones are named for the subject: Cairo, Karnak, and Memphis. The common metonym "Egyptian" is derived from a craze for Egyptian artifacts in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century, which led typefounders producing Slab Serifs after Figgins' work to call their designs Egyptian. However, the term Egyptian had previously been used to describe sans-serif types in England, so the term 'Antique' was used by British and American typefounders. The term Egyptian was adopted by French and German foundries, where it became Egyptienne.
Sub-classifications of slab-serif
There are four subgroups of slab serif typefaces:
Clarendon typefaces, unlike other slab serifs, actually have some bracketing and some contrast in size in the actual serif. Many have similarity to 19th century serif designs in bold weight, with considerable variation in stroke weight. Examples include Clarendon and Egyptienne.
The most common slab serif typefaces, Neo-grotesque have no bracketing and evenly weighted stems and serifs. Examples include Rockwell, Memphis and Lubalin. The exact letterform types vary, with some similar to neo-grotesque or realist sans-serif fonts while others have a more geometric design.
In the Italienne model, the serifs are even heavier than the stems, forging a dramatic, attention-drawing effect. Some Italienne slab serifs, such as Playbill, have a characteristic Western appearance, likely as a result of their frequent use in western-era posters.
Typewriter slab serif typefaces are named for their use in strike-on typewriting. These faces originated in monospaced format with fixed-width, meaning that every character takes up exactly the same amount of horizontal space. This feature is necessitated by the nature of the typewriter apparatus. Examples include Courier (on the Neo-grotesque model) and Prestige Elite ( on the Clarendon model).
- Hansard, Thomas Curson (1825). Typographia, an Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing. p. 618. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
- James Mosley, The Nymph and the Grot: the revival of the sanserif letter, London: Friends of the St Bride Printing Library, 1999
- Carter, E., Day. B, Meggs P.: “Typographic Design: Form and Communication, Third Edition”, page 35. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
- "Sentinel's Ancestors". Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Retrieved 14 August 2015.