Styles shift and come full circle through the years, adapting to changing times, tastes and technologies, and typefaces are no exception to that rule. Just like the world of fashion, type revivals can make what was old become new again.

Old Style Fonts Are Humanist Revivals

Old Style typefaces are examples of handwritten scripts of centuries ago reclaiming their place in modern times. These contemporary revivals trace their roots back to Humanist typefaces created in the early Renaissance by Italian scribes and printers.

Picture of an Italian Renaissance scribe using a feather quill to write a manuscript by candlelight

The Dawn of Typesetting

The 1500s began the transition from handwriting to printing, so it follows that the typefaces of that period mimic handwritten script. Therefore, the pen strokes of Old Style typefaces often have:

  • Simple, wedge-shaped serifs
  • Little to moderate differences between thick and thin strokes
  • Low x-heights
  • A glyph axis that is tilted slightly counterclockwise from vertical
  • Wide m, n and h characters
  • Lowercase ascenders that rise above the top of capital letters
  • Numbers with ascenders and descenders
Image of three Old Style type samples labeled to identify titled axis, moderate stroke contrast and low x-height.

Humanist Popularity Through the Centuries

Humanist type was first used in printing by Nicolas Jenson in the late 1400s because he admired the handwritten script of Venetian scribes. They turned their backs on the ornamental Blackletter type embraced by Gutenberg and others, and developed their own simpler style that enabled them to produce manuscripts more quickly. While Humanist typefaces lost popularity in the 1700s and 1800s, they were reborn in the mid-20th century as Old Style faces used in books, magazines and newspapers since people found them easy to read.

Revival, Not Re-Creation

Despite the transitional nature of Old Style fonts, note that they were never meant to reproduce early Renaissance lettering. Instead, they are contemporary revivals with cleaner, more consistent glyphs that honor and improve their ancestral typefaces from centuries ago.

Popular Old Style Fonts

There are many modern typefaces whose roots date back centuries to the early Humanist movements of the Renaissance. Some of the more common ones include Garamond, Times New Roman, Goudy, Palatino, Jensen, Minion, Galliard, Caslon and Berkeley Old Style.

Many of them look very similar at first glance, but when you look more closely at their serifs, ascenders, descenders and x-heights, you’ll spot the personalities of each of the typefaces.

Six Old Style type samples, depicting their wedge-shaped serifs and low x-heights

Contemporary Type Masters

You might consider Old Style typefaces to be contemporary masters, aging hipsters, or Renaissance relics. Whatever your opinion, there’s no arguing that they pay homage to a time when the human hand played an indispensable role in spreading literacy, wisdom and principle across the face of the western world.