What are different type classifications

As graphic designers, we talk about typefaces a lot. In talking with our clients, we realize that there are a lot of basics that are not commonly understood. So here are some type classifications should may help you sound knowledgeable when talking with designers:

Serif

Serif typefaces are those that have the little feet on the on the ends of each stroke. I have heard many stories as to why they exist but they are essentially an artifact of chiseled or carved letters. They typically tend to feel more classic and formal. In print based media, serif typefaces are easier to read at smaller sizes than sans serif typefaces. (This rule doesn’t apply to digital media as much because digital resolution is not as high as print which can muddy up the serifs)

Old Style

Visualization of old style lettersThese typefaces date back to the late 1600s to the mid 1700s. These faces have a very closer relationship to a calligraphers’ nib. The earlier Venetian Old Styles follow the calligraphic mannerisms of that period and can be identified by the slopping ‘e’ crossbar.

Examples for this are:

  • Adobe Garamond
  • Centaur
  • Bembo

Key Features are:

  • Left inclined axis
  • Low stroke contrast
  • Angled head serifs and bracketed serifs

Transitional

Visualization of transitional lettersTransitional typefaces date back to the mid 1700s. They are a sort of in between Old Style and Modern faces and contain characteristics of both. Jacques Jaugeon (1690-1710) is said to have created the first Transitional typeface called Romain du Roi or King’s Roman. This typeface was the basis for the very familiar Times New Roman.

Examples for this are:

  • Baskerville
  • Times New Roman
  • Georgia

Key Features are:

  • More vertical axis
  • Higher stroke contrast
  • Flat sharper serifs

Modern or Didone

Visualization of modern lettersModern typefaces were a departure from the classical typefaces and have very harsh differences in thick and thin strokes. Firmin Didot (1764-1836), a French printer followed by Giambattista Bodoni, an Italian typographer are credited with establishing this style. These are typically clean and elegant typefaces that aren’t generally suited for large body text (due to their high contrast and vertical nature).

Examples are:

  • Didot
  • Bodoni
  • Walbaum

Key Features are:

  • Very dramatic contrast in stroke weight
  • Vertical axis
  • Minimal bracketing of serif and ball shape terminals

Square

This group is also referred to as Slab Serif or Egyptian. Bold and decorative square typefaces came about in the nineteenth century for advertising purposes in Britain. These faces were meant to scream from the paper and really draw the viewers attention. A sub category of the Slab Serif are the Clarendons. Clarendons followed the same look and feel of the Slabs but were a bit more restrained to make them more appropriate for body text.

Examples are:

  • Rockwell
  • Serifa
  • Clarendon

Key Features are:

  • Heavy slab-like square serifs
  • No bracketing
  • Very low stroke contrast

Glyphic

Visualization of glyphic lettersGlyphic typefaces are those that try to mimic typefaces that have been chiseled or engraved into a surface instead of those that have been drawn by pen.

Examples are:

  • Friz Quadrata
  • Albertus
  • Elan

Key Features are:

  • Low contrast stroke weight
  • Flared triangular serifs
  • Vertical axis

Sans Serif

Sans Serif typefaces are those that do not have the little feet on the ends of each stroke. They feel much more contemporary and friendly. Sans Serif typefaces are often used at a large scale to have a straightforward big and bold impact.

Grotesque

Visualization of grotesque lettersThis includes most of the earlier sans serif from the 19th century to the early 20th century. They very often feel like serif typefaces with the serifs just chopped off. These typefaces were revolutionary for their time and were thought to be grotesque looking. Since they are a starting point for san serifs, they often have a few peculiar quirks such as uneven stroke thickness, spurred ‘G’s and curved ‘R’s.

Examples are:

  • Akidenz Grotesk
  • Ideal Grotesk
  • Franklin Gothic

Key features are:

  • Squared off curves
  • Some stroke contrast
  • Two story “g”

Neo Grotesque

Visualization of neo grotesque lettersThese typeface were designed to be simple and very straightforward. They are meant to function as anonymous and almost universal typefaces. They first came around with the development of the Intenational Typographic Style or the Swiss style. Many of these faces are based off the earlier grotesques but attempt to clean out the quirks to create very neutral typefaces.

Examples are:

  • Helvetica
  • Univers
  • DIN

Key features are:

  • Very low to no stroke contrast
  • Singel story “g”
  • Horizontal terminals

Humanist

Visualization of humanist lettersAs the name suggests, Humanist sans serif have a more friendly human feel to them and their varying stroke weight is meant to be reminiscent of the handmade calligraphic letter. These typefaces tend to pair well with Old Style serifs due to their shared base qualities. Edward Johnston (1872-1944) was a British craftsman who developed the typeface Johnston which was one of the first Humanist typefaces in 1916.

Examples are:

  • Optima
  • Verdana
  • Frutiger

Key features are:

  • Calligraphic stroke variations
  • Angled terminals and connections
  • Oval shapes and open counters

Geometric

Visualization of geometric lettersGeometric sans serifs attempt to further simplify letterforms by basing them entirely on geometric shapes like circles, squares, and triangles. Their structure makes it a bit difficult to read when set in large body text and letters like the circular ‘o’ and single story ‘a’ have a tendency to get confused with each other at a small size. Herbert Bayer, Jakob Erbar, and Paul Renner were the pioneers of this style. Fun fact – Paul Renner’s Futura is the typeface used for the plaque placed on the moon by Aldrin and Armstrong.

Examples are:

  • Futura
  • Erbar
  • Avant Garde

Key features are:

  • Geometric shapes
  • Low to no stroke contrast
  • Single story “a” and “g”

Script

Script typefaces are meant to mimic handwriting almost exactly. This includes writing with a variety of different tools (nibs, markers, pens etc.). They can all be classified into Casual, Formal, and Blackletter. Due to the nature of typefaces, the natural variation between each letter that occurs while writing by hand is difficult to translate to the computer. Some classic examples include Mistral and Zapfino. Contemporary foundries like Underware have created typefaces that have varying letterforms for repeated letters and feel closer to the organic experience.

Decorative

This is a far-reaching category that covers almost everything that does not fit under any of the previously mentioned categories. These typefaces usually have a lot of character and each individual typeface can convey a very specific mood. These are usually best used for display text. Some of my favorites include Beatrice Display, Noe Display, and MAD Serif.

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