At first look, the term “grotesque fonts” sounds unappetizing. In fact, these fonts are quite delicious and should certainly be on your radar. With over 130,000 fonts in existence, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when it comes to font selection. There are so many to choose from, and picking the right font can completely enrich your design as a whole.
More than pretty much any other design element, a font instantly delivers a message, intention and mood to your audience. Selecting the right font is crucial, and while there are many types of alluring and useful fonts, it’s grotesque fonts, which have lasting appeal and stellar versatility.
There are five types of fonts: sans serifs, serifs, slab serifs, script and handwritten. Each type has its own purpose and its own unique appeal. One of the most common types is the serif, which gets its name from the little feet at the tops and bottoms of the letters. In contrast, a sans serif means that the letters are without feet. Grotesque fonts and neo-grotesque fonts are a subset of sans serif, and they’re often synonymous.
But first things first: why the name “grotesque?”
In 1748, the first sans serif was created by the foundry of William Caslon for the Oxford University Press. Grotesques are not the first sans serifs, but they were the first to be popularized. They continued to circulate within the mid 19th century, then became common in the 1920s and 1930s. These fonts earned the name “grotesque” because they were perceived as crass compared to their ornate predecessors and were not considered good for advertising. Fonts without serifs were considered extremely rare and unappealing during the 19th century. But what was once the ugly duckling of fonts has since flocked to many areas within design, marketing, advertising and branding, making its mark in a gorgeous way.
Here, we’ll explain how to identify a grotesque font, review the best ways to incorporate it into a design and share some beautiful examples of this style within the design world.
Anatomy of a grotesque font
Let’s dive into what makes a grotesque font identifiable as such.
Notable characteristics include:
- Uppercase letters of near-equal width
- Irregular curves and irregular proportions
- Awkward weight distribution around bowls within characters
- Spurl on the uppercase G and R
- Square-shaped uppercase M
- Curved aperture on the lowercase A
When to use a grotesque font (and how to find one)
Grotesque fonts are so popular and appealing due to their stylish versatility. They’re clean, efficient, economical and modern. These fonts can work in a multitude of places, including web design and printed materials. Honestly, there are few times to avoid using grotesque fonts. Just keep an eye on the overall intention and message of your design. For example, if you’re looking to create a design with a vintage aesthetic, this may be better expressed with a handwritten font.
Your computer will come well-equipped with many of the classic grotesque fonts. But with so many others available, it can be great to branch out and find some more unique options. If you’re hoping to expand your personal collection of grotesque fonts, there are many free resources for beautiful, high-quality fonts. To start, check out MyFonts, FontM and Font Space. And if you’re willing to fork over some cash for the sake of eye-catching fonts, Creative Market and Fonts.com have plenty of high-quality options to purchase.
9 Grotesque fonts in the wild
Now that we’ve explored the characteristics of grotesque fonts, let’s check them out in the wild. And let’s face it: they’re everywhere.
Since its release in 2002, Gotham gained quick popularity in the graphic design world thanks to its adaptable style and perfect symmetry. It became rapidly abundant in pop culture when it was featured in all of Barack Obama’s 2007-2008 political campaigns. But this font is for more than just the political crowd; we also see it on many popular movie posters, including Bridesmaids, Inception and Moonlight.
Dia is all about modern minimalism and has been making a stunning impression since 2014. The appeal of Dia comes from its ability to enhance a design without overtaking it. German fashion designer Christina Hilert used it for her Beyond Beige lookbook, where it perfectly complemented her minimalist design aesthetic. And for Esquire.com, it’s a great solution for when a news outlet wants an image to exist in harmony with its corresponding headline.
NBC used a clean, contemporary font called Nexa for their on-air typography during the 2018 Olympics. As the official font of the 2018 Olympics, Nexa boasts several interesting features. The uppercase characters J, P, Q and R have unique appearances. The J features a cap that extends to the left of the vertical ascender only. Meanwhile, the Q closely follows the path of the capital O with its short and distinctive tail. The overall effect is bold and beautiful.
Trade Gothic has been making an audacious statement since 1948. It features overall sturdiness and condensed weights, offering pleasing visual balance and a big impact. This font is prominent in the University of Kentucky’s “Wildly Possible” branding, along with Avenir and Blackbike. Its boldness also works great for louder advertising and messaging, like the website for the Push 511 gym. It really shouts.
An oldie but a goldie, the Akzidenz Grotesk font has been used since 1898 and still feels relevant today. While it’s in fact one of the oldest grotesque fonts, it has absolutely timeless appeal. Berlin-based artist Helvetikone used Akzidenz Grotesk for their 2009 “Bubble Hum” album cover. It is also the official font of the American Red Cross, making its way into all of their marketing and branding.
A newer grotesque font, Larsseit broke onto the scene in 2013. This font brings fresh perspectives and unique quirks to its letterforms such as its lowercase ‘g’. Larsseit is the go-to font for the ever-popular Slack app, which keeps over 10 million daily users connected worldwide. We also see it bringing style and flair to Rivian’s beautifully designed website for their electronic vehicles.
The Franklin Gothic font debuted in 1902 and has been a frequent player in the worlds of design, printing and more. Its noteworthy quality is its extra boldness which is ideal for those who want to make a big impression.
As one of the longest-standing grotesque fonts, we see Franklin Gothic anywhere and everywhere. Some key examples include the logo and branding for Columbia College Chicago as well as the iconic logo for the popular punk band, The Ramones.
Monotype Grotesque (sometimes known as MT Grotesque) made its debut in 1926 and has a lengthy history in the scope of font development and design. It’s basically the Honda Civic of fonts: it’s reliable and ever-abundant, plus there’s nothing it cannot do.
Whether it’s a print or digital environment, this font enhances any space you put it in. Monotype Grotesque brings clean and classic style to the George Kasparian furniture brochure. And for the Sculpture City Saint Louis initiative in 2014, the font offered a sophisticated addition to many printed materials.
Since its debut in 1994, Knockout has brought desirable flexibility to the world of grotesque fonts. The Knockout font comes in a wide range of weights, allowing wiggle room for designers who wish to send a message by making headlines and subheads in different weights.
And due to the symmetry of the letters, it’s a great font to stack on multiple lines. The varying weights are on full display in the promotional poster for Dr. Strangelove. And for a more scaled-down example, the stacked lettering brings elegance and flair to the Creekside Estate Winery label.
For over a century, we’ve seen grotesque fonts prove their worth. With a long-standing presence in many forms of design, grotesque fonts have displayed their longevity and will continue to be at the forefront of many designs for years to come. From album covers and posters to websites and logos, these clean-lined fonts have endless possibilities. Sure, the name sounds a bit ugly—but don’t sweat it. These attractive fonts really make you wonder, “what’s in a name?”