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The term font is technically used to refer to a specific style of a given typeface. For example, while Arial might be a typeface, Arial Regular, Arial Bold, Arial Italic, and Arial Bold Italic would comprise four distinct fonts. For the purpose of this piece, however, we will use a broader, more common, meaning of font, understanding that we are actually referring to the general typeface.
There are literally tens of thousands of fonts available in the modern age, with the advent of computers making them proliferate wildly. Of these fonts, there are perhaps a hundred that are truly common fonts, making up the vast bulk of printing and screen presentation that is done. Of these hundred, ten or fifteen are extremely common fonts, making up the lion’s share of all that is done with type.
In signage, the most recognizable of the common fonts is undoubtedly Helvetica. Designed by Max Miedinger in the 1950s, this sans-serif typeface was built as a truly neutral type, giving it the versatility to be used anywhere, and the legibility to be perfect for signage. Helvetica was originally known as Neue Haas Grotesk, but by 1960 it was known as Helvetica.
Helvetica has many similarities, in terms of character width, for example, to another of the most common fonts, Arial. Arial is included with both Microsoft Windows and the Mac OS, and is the default sans-serif font on many computers, making it common to see on the internet. Arial was designed in 1982, and was built off of Monotype Grotesque, using many of the same ligatures and general shapes as that font. Arial is often denounced by typographers, as it is seen as Microsoft’s method of getting around paying royalties to the creators of Helvetica.
Courier is another of the most common fonts, intended to mimic the look of a typewriter. The typeface was first designed in the 1950s, in order to be used on actual typewriters. With the advent of computers, Courier found a renewed popularity, as the fixed-width between its letters means that lines of text align perfectly.
Georgia and Verdana are another two of the most common fonts, designed for Microsoft in the 1990s. Verdana is a sans-serif font, designed by Matthew Carter. It has some similarities to Frutiger, and was built to be legible even at small sizes on screen. Georgia was built as a companion to Verdana, and was also designed by Matthew Carter. It is a serif font, and is also aimed to be legible at small sizes.
Perhaps one of the most iconic of the serif fonts is Times New Roman. It was designed in the 1930s for the British paper The Times. Stanley Morison was commissioned to design the typeface, after lambasting The Times for their illegible typeface in an article. As a result, the focus was on legibility in a newspaper context. Times New Roman is the default selected font in many contemporary word processing applications, and as a result is by far the most common of the common fonts in papers printed from home.
Other common fonts include Comic Sans, Impact, Lucida, Palatino, Tahoma, Symbol, Trebuchet, MS Serif, Geneva, Zapf Dingbats, Monaco, Book Antiqua, and Garamond.