What It Means
A serif is a part of a letter, a little flourish at the end of the main part of the letter that can make the shape of the glyph more beautiful and even more readable. More technically, a serif is a foot or cross-stroke at the end of a stem stroke. A serif (or seriffed) typeface is a group of letterforms that all share this property. The serifs are designed in roughly the same way so that the entire typeface has a consistent feeling. Serifs can be thin, wedge-shaped, rounded, arched, blunt, spiky, etc. These variations in serif execution give serif typefaces great variation in look-and-feel and appropriateness for different projects.
What It’s For
Traditionally, serif fonts have been used in print documents. Originally called humanist, these typefaces were breakthroughs in legibility (as opposed to the dense, calligraphy-like fonts used in earlier documents) during the relatively nascent days of the movable-type printing press. These typefaces often have long, colorful histories in printing and publishing, and many are revived for the electronic publishing age. In modernity, serif typefaces are considered best-used for large blocks of running text (again, especially in hard-copy print documents such as magazines, newspapers, and books), for any kind of correspondence, and for dignified ephemera such as business cards. Depending on font size and color, Action Fonts can also be great choices for Web use.
The most commonly used serif typeface for laypersons is probably Times New Roman; however, keeping in mind that every typeface is a choice, even laypersons should take the time to choose one or a few serif typefaces that express their personality and are appropriate for a variety of occasions, from business documents to personal correspondence. To put it another way, would you send in a completely bland, formulaic resume with blocks of text you know would be exactly the same as your competitors’? Then why would you allow yourself to blend in from the start by using the same, boring typeface? A small difference in type can make a large difference in a document’s uniqueness and unseen but deeply felt quality.
Best Free Typefaces
Those among us who are not professional designers need not have a great deal of money or expertise to make sensitive type choices. Free fonts are available everywhere online. Although there are several free-font clearinghouse websites, DaFont.com is very easy for most users to search and surf. Among the free serif fonts available here, two of the best are Day Roman and Roman Serif, both well-proportioned and good enough for almost any use. Browse through the Serif section, and be sure to insert your own sample text to get a better idea of how the font will work for you.
Best Non-Free Typefaces
However, as the grandaddies of modern typography, the classic serif fonts are inimitable and irreplaceable. Although a high-quality free serif is almost always a better choice than Times New Roman, none will likely approach the nuance, grace, and extraordinary provenance of such giants as Sabon, Caslon, Janson, and even well-connected newcomer Mrs. Eaves.
Off the Beaten Path
Now, removing my “type snob” hat, there are some less classical but still tasty and fresh faces available for free. Bodoni XT is a knockoff of a famous eponymous face and is loaded with personality, though probably best reserved for headlines, bullet points, or paragraph headers. Apple Garamond is a playful and slender typeface that stands apart from more traditional choices. Liberation Serif is a strong, solid face with thicker-than-usual, slightly blunted serifs. And any new, interesting typeface that comes out on the market is likely to spawn half a dozen free knockoffs of varying qualities.
The only precaution I can offer is to steer clear of anything that could be described as quirky, cute, fun, or decorative. Those faces are delightful and certainly have their place, but not in long blocks of running text or in correspondence. Decorative fonts are another article for another day.
For now, be sure to have at least one expressive but restrained typeface that would look just equally appropriate in a PowerPoint presentation for your employer, a recommendation letter for your niece, a thank you letter to your neighbor, or a personal calling card to give to anyone you meet. The face you choose will be as unique and as versatile as you are.
A quick note on how to download and install fonts
Downloadable free fonts usually come packaged in a ZIP file. Save this to a folder you will remember. Open the file, and drag the TrueType or Open Type files out. If you’re using a Mac, double click the files and click “Install Font.” If you’re using a PC, open the Control Panel, open Fonts, click File gt; Install New Font, then browse the directory. Find the folder with your typefaces, select the fonts you want to install and click “Install”. Remember to check the readme or .txt files with the face to ensure that your use will comply with the creator’s wishes.