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Typeface classification is not easy because typographic tradition is self-referential – type designers often use older forms as a basis for experimentation and innovation.
Typeface design is also related to technology. From early Roman to 15th Century Western type was drawn by hand, either with a brush, a flat reed pen or a chisel. From mid-1500s casting letters in lead allowed new precision in form. In the 20th century use of cheap mass produced paper stock for eg newspapers and telephone directories meant that legibility had to allow for some bleeding of ink. Digital technology and type design software in the last decade has led to a rapid proliferation of typefaces by individual designers and artists.
The impossibility of a truly complete classification system has led many people to dismiss any attempt to classify typefaces — there are simply too many variables to make anything close to a practical, comprehensive system. Essentially, classification describes typefaces; it does not define them. It’s not inflexible, and is more of an aid than a rule.
20th Century classification systems
Over the past century, quite a few classification systems have been proposed. Most are generally believed to be subjective and incomplete, and many of them use the same terms for similar but slightly different classes.
An early system by French typographer Francis Thibaudeau, which provided the base for Vox’s later more thorough classification, includes four broad categories: Antiques (sans serifs), Égyptiennes (slab serifs), Didots and Elzévirs (faces with triangular serifs).
Bringhurst, in his Elements of Typographic Style — perhaps the standard in typographic textbooks today — categorizes typefaces loosely after periods of art history; for example, Baroque, Rococo, Romantic, etc. A book designer himself, Bringhurst focuses on text typefaces and practically ignores display type.
Currently the primary “official” classification system is the Vox-ATypI system originally put together in 1954 by Maxmilien Vox. Originally a ten-part classification, Vox revised his original proposal within months to a more compact nine-part scheme. These were subsequently expanded to 11 general categories, including non-Western type, with some subdivision. This classification tends to group typefaces according to their main characteristics, often typical of a particular century (15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th century), based on a number of formal criteria: downstroke and upstroke, forms of serifs, stroke axis, x-height, etc ???. Although the Vox-ATypI classification defines archetypes of typefaces, many typefaces can exhibit the characteristics of more than one class.
The Vox-ATypI system was adopted in 1962 by the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), and in 1967 as the basis for British Standards Classification of Typefaces (BS 2961:1967). But at the 2010 ATypI general meeting, the association stated that the Vox-ATypI system was seriously flawed, and to create a new working group on typeface classification.
Adobe, Wikipedia and the growing numbers of font websites also have their own classifications.
Classical or old style
characterized by triangular serifs, oblique axis and low stroke contrast
Humanist or Venetian
Humanist, humanistic, or humanes include the first Roman typefaces created during the 14th and 15th century by Venetian printers, such as Nicolas Jenson. These typefaces sought to imitate the formal hands found in the humanistic (renaissance) manuscripts of the time. These typefaces, rather round in opposition to the gothics of the Middle Ages, are inspired in particular by the Carolingian minuscule imposed on his empire by Charlemagne.
short and thick bracketed serifs, ascenders with slanted serifs
stress that approximates that of a broad-nibbed pen held at an angle to the page
a slanted cross stroke on the lowercase ‘e’,
low contrast between horizontals and verticals and thick and thin strokes.
Examples:Centaur, Adobe Jenson, Berkeley Old Style and Cloister.
Garalde typefaces represent the late Renaissance evolution from the earlier Venetian style, and include some of the most common typefaces of today. Also called Aldine, this group is named in homage to Claude Garamond and Aldus Manutius. In France, under King Francis I, the garaldes were the tool which supported the official fixing of grammar and orthography.
finer proportions than the humanists
horizontal cross-stroke on the lower case e
stronger contrast between downstroke and upstroke, thick and thin strokes.
The transitional, realist or réales represent a transition between Garalde and Didone typefaces, embodying the rational spirit of the Enlightenment. They were the first typefaces to be drawn as shapes in their own right. Louis XIV wanted to invent new typographical forms to find a successor of the Garamond and at the same time compete in quality with the different printers of Europe. The term realist derives from the Spanish for “royal”, because of a typeface cast by Christophe Plantin for King Philip II of Spain.
vertical, or near vertical, stress
marked contrast between main and connecting hairline strokes
The moderns can be broken down into Didone, mechanistic and linear categories, and are characterized by a simple, functional feel that gained momentum during the industrial period.
Didone or Modern
The Didones or modern typefaces from the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century draw their name from the typefounders Didot (1764-1836) and Bodoni (1740-1813). They were a response to improvements in late 18th-century paper production, composition, printing and binding, which made it possible to use typefaces with strong vertical emphasis and fine hairlines.They correspond to the Didot of theThibaudeau classification. The didones in particular made it possible for the First French Empire to employ typefaces very different from the typefaces used by the kings from the Ancien Régime.
very strong contrast between full and connecting strokes (the connecting strokes being extremely fine
Also called mechanical, slab serif, or mécanes, the name of this group evokes the mechanical aspect of these typefaces. Until the late 18th century, type was used primarily for books. But with the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century came an increased use of billboards and other forms of advertising. These required bolder typefaces that stood out from the competition. They correspond to the Egyptiennes of Thibaudeau classification, reflecting the public’s enthusiasm for the archaeological discoveries of the time.
very low contrast in stroke weight
includes both typefaces with bracketed serifs (clarendons or ionics) and typefaces with heavy square/rectangular or unbracketed serifs (egyptians).
Lineals, or linéales, combine all typefaces without serifs (called sans-serif, gothic, or grotesque), all of which correspond to the Antiques of the Thibaudeau classification. But they were not widely adopted until the end of the 19th Century. The British Standard 2961 broke this group into 4 subcategories: Grotesque, Neo-Grotesque, Geometric, and Humanist.
Grotesque typefaces are sans serif typefaces that originate in the nineteenth century.
some contrast between thick and thin strokes
terminals of curves are usually horizontal
frequently has a spurred “G” and an “R” with a curled leg.
Examples: Franklin Gothic, Bell Gothic and Bell Centennial, Frutiger, Headline, Monotype 215, and Grot no. 6.
Neo-grotesque or realist
Neo-grotesque typefaces are derived from the earlier grotesque faces, but generally have less stroke contrast and a more regular design. “Realist sans-serif” is a commonly encountered synonym for neo-grotesque.
they generally do not have a spurred “G”
terminals of curves are usually slanted
often have a large degree of subtlety and variation of widths and weights to accommodate different means of production (Hot type, foundry type, phototypesetting, see History of typography, 20th century).