Today I would like to introduce the world of Typeface Classification. Since the beginning of Typeface Design, there have evolved many different types of fonts, which can be sorted according to certain rules. I want to give you a short breakdown of the most famous categories and introduce some terminology as well.
The most wide spread system is the Vox-ATypI classification. This system was started in 1957 and finalised under this name in 1967. It is probably not a perfect system, as it was out for ciriticism quite a lot. Especially for people that are not very familiar with the terminology or history of Typefaces, this system proves to be hard to understand and confusing.
A second is the Thibaudeau classification, which provides a simple structure and is easier to comprehend. Yet it might be too simple to work properly nowadays.
I personally prefer a more practical and easily understandable system in the main classes. Typefoundries like FontShop or Linotype offer an easier system, that especially helps finding the right Typeface for your need.
Some Basic Terminology
This guide is not a finalised classification, it is merely an overview of the most distinctive Typeface characteristics. There are many ways to distinguish Typefaces, one can look look at how they were (traditionally) created, what characteristics can be found or what the Typefaces are going to be used for. It may not be the best idea to mix those 3 factors, but it helps to create a useful system.
The most helpful characteristic to decided where a typeface belongs, are the Serifs. A Serif is an element that can be found at the end or beginning of the characters stroke. Stroke, because Typefaces were drawn with a nib pen or brush. Even the Roman inscriptions were first drawn onto stone with a brush and ink and the engraving followed those brush strokes. Adding pressure at the beginning or end of that stroke, creates Serifs. During the Renaissance, a refreshment of the Antique, artists and typographers used this style for their Typefaces; especially as in the Middle Ages Blackletter scripts were used for writing and most early Typefaces had that appearance.
What is a Serif?
In the example below you can see the two fonts Museo Sans 500 and Museo Slab 500. I chose these as an example to illustrate Serifs, since they are part of the same Typeface family, but have very distinctive characteristics. You will notice how the general stroke of both is almost identical, and how the addition of Serifs gives a completely different appearance to the font.
Serifs are marked in the last line.
The Stroke of a Typeface is not so much a characteristic element, more a descriptive part of a Typeface. It describes the act of drawing type with a brush or pen. One Stroke is the time your tool stays on the surface of your canvas. Letters like O and S are made in one one single Stroke, a T has 2 Strokes, H 3 Strokes and so on. In order to classify Typefaces, we differentiate between Horizontal and Vertical Strokes.
Check out this display of a Typeface's anatomy. These are the basic terms, that help us talk about Typefaces and how their characteristics lead to a certain classification.
Here is a short overview about the most common and general classes of Typefaces. I will not go into the sub-categories of each class in detail, but at least name them
Naturally their main characteristic are Serifs at the end of each Stroke. Additionally to this Serif fonts also display a medium to high contrast in Stroke width, usually with more weight on the Vertical Stroke (this depends on the angle of the nib/brush when drawing out the characters).
The classes differ in Characteristics such as the kind of Serif, the contrast between Strokes and the angle of the Axis.
This is a second class of Typefaces with Serifs, the difference here is that the Serifs have a much bolder and more rectangular shape. They can also be called Mechanistic, which indicates their origin in the time on Industrialisation, or Egyptiennes, even tho this might be more of a sub-category. There is less contrast between Strokes.
You will find the differences in the sub-categoires lie in proportion, Stroke contrast and the expressiveness of the Serifs.
These Typefaces do not have Serifs, from the French word for without = sans. Another characteristic is a low contrast between Strokes, adding to a more even appearance.
The differences between these sub-categories lie in the proportions of the Typeface (x-height in relation to Capheight), the contrast between strokes, the roundness of the letter O o, the structure of the lower-case a and the repetition of elements.
Chirographic Typefaces imitate Handwriting. They can also be called Script or Cursiva. Originally being influenced by Calligraphy, modern Chirographics have a less strict and more casual appearance.
Sub-categories take into account the duration of the stroke, whether letters appear to have been written without taking the pen off the canvas, the presence of Swashes, the casualness of the writing and the writing tool which is being imitated, which can vary from nib pen or brush to ballpoint pen or text marker.
The first Typeface used by Gutenberg was a Blackletter Typeface. It was the common script style during the Middle Ages in Europe.
Blackletter (also known as Broken or Gothic) Typefaces were still used for publications in Germany in the 20th Century, before they became forbidden by law in 1941. Despite popular belief, the Nazis actually made those laws to abolish Gothic Typefaces, which was based on a personal dislike for them by Hitler.
Generally Blackletter Typefaces can vary heavily, depending on their country of origin. They are usually seperated into German, French, English and Italian.
This is a far less strict category then that previous ones. Most of the Typefaces in here cannot be placed into the traditional categories and thus making this something like a Miscellaneous category.
It is hard to list all the possibilities here and give them proper names, so instead I will list some of the characterisitics or appearances that make a Typeface appropiate here.
- Imitations: Typefaces that imitate text appearances, f.e. LCD light texts, stencilled lettering, signage type, .
- Decorative: Typefaces which are heavily decorated by non-typographic elements or created from other elements entirely, shaped to look like letters.
- Fake Foreigns: Typefaces that seem to be non-western, but are making use of the Latin Alphabet.
- Geometric: These Typefaces are based upon a geometric shape and the characters are designed to fit into that shape. These shapes can be anything from circles to squares to octagons.
- Grunge: This is probably the favourite kind of Typeface for everyone who starts collecting Typefaces when they find out about Photosohop and Fonts. Typical for them is a sort of eroded, distorted, destroyed appearance to them. Very often it is an existing Typefaces that is edited to achieve this.
- And many many more… There is no way to list all the possibilites of Display Typefaces, they can basically look like anything!
Pixel Fonts need their own class, because, quite bluntly, they are
Fonts and not Typefaces: designed to work in a set font size. Scaling Pixel Fonts results in quality loss and distortion. They are also designed to be used without Anti-Aliasing to keep up their pixelled appearance.
These Typefaces do not contain letters, but symbols instead. There is no limit as to what they can contain.
This is for Non-Western writing, which does not use the Latin Alphabet. Technically they can also be seperated into the other previously mentioned classes, but as this list focuses on Western Typefaces I will collect them in one seperate group.
Different principles for categorising Typefaces
There are other ways, by which one could categorize Typefaces. One way would be the purpose or utilizability of Typefaces: a Book Typeface is meant to be used for Copy Texts in Books or Magazines.
Another option would be to seperate monospaced Typefaces, in which every character has the same width.
Codeor Typewriter Typefaces all are monospaced. They don't look as pleasing, because thin letters are widened and wide letters are squeezed, see for example
I hope you find this compilation of Typeface classes helpful and it makes you more interested in the whole processs.
For whatever project you are working on, it is of high importance to choose a proper Typeface. Knowing the history of said Typeface as well as the whole history of Typeface design and its classifications, can help you immensely in that process. Therefore knowing or at least being aware of things as these categories of Typefaces is of most utter importance.
I am not trying to establish a new system here!
I am merely bringing together different kinds of Typefaces and explaining their differences. Most of those groups of Typefaces appear logical to me, they may not appear logical to everbody else.
*MartinSilvertant published some very intersting articles on this subject The Silvertant type classification and Behind the typefaces, both journals about Typeface Classifications.
But I would also like to take this moment, to highlight that there are endeavours to bring a better structure to deviantARTs Stock & Resources > Fonts gallery, as the current one does not display anything properly at all. (No offense to whoever set it up!)
Thank you for reading!
Project Educate: Typography – Overview