This is an introductory Journal to a series of Journals to come about the different type categories, the history and how to recognize these type classifications.
Choosing a typeface
At times it seems very hard to differentiate typefaces and recognize from which time, style and designer certain typefaces or elements from a typeface are reminiscent of. It seems an issue which should only regard type geeks, but that almost couldn't be further from the truth. Understanding type and its evolution is in my opinion important to the average Joe as well, but predominantly it's a must for every graphic designer or artist working with text.
To illustrate the importance of understanding typefaces and their evolution, let me give you a specific example. Let's say you—as a graphic designer—are being commissioned to design the layout for a CD album of compiled works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and it should have an authentic look. In this case it's very relevant from which era the music is. If you go by appearance and personal taste in selecting typefaces to use you will risk making a fool out of yourself if you know nothing about the typefaces. For example, you could select Jenson, which looks quite authentic but is actually a Venetian typeface cut in 1470; 215 years before Bach was even born. Obviously it's not quite as crazy to use a typeface from before Bach's time as it is to use one after his time, but historically speaking Jenson wouldn't have been used during the Baroque. Garamond is also too old but it's becoming more authentic already. William Caslon I (1692–1766) lived in the same era as Bach and cut the Caslon typeface which became hugely popular and virtually every book at the time was set in Caslon or in typefaces based on Caslon. So it would be very appropriate to use Caslon (any of the many digitized versions of Caslon, though Williams Caslon Text by William Berkson is probably the most authentic Caslon for body text size).
It's important to note though that it's not absolutely necessary to choose a typeface which is culturally and historically authentic to the project, but you have to know what there is to know about typefaces in order to make a conscious decision to choose a different kind of typeface. The choice of your typeface shouldn't be a happy accident, and selecting a typeface "because you like it" is never a good argument. Choose consciously.
Even if you understand the history and evolution of type, it's still quite complicated to categorize typefaces, as modern typefaces are designed based on the cumulative knowledge of many generations of type designers and very different styles; it tends to blur the boundaries between type classifications. Still, you can roughly categorize all typefaces which will simplify a lot of things, like selecting 2 typefaces to work together harmoniously.
The Vox-ATypI classification is in my opinion a good start. It's not a perfect system and it's even a little outdated, but I've been using it for years as it's a simple system which is easy to expand for personal reference. Another system I quite like is the Thibaudeau classification. It's a lot simpler and more general, but perhaps that's just what you need. We're going to look at both systems. Note though that I won't be going into much detail about each category as a series of articles is planned for each category—including pictures.
The Vox-ATypI classification
The classicals are characterized by triangular serifs, oblique axis and low stroke contrast. In other classification systems, this group is often referred to as "oldstyle".
The moderns are characterized by a simple, functional feel that gained momentum during the industrial period.
The Calligraphics are characterized by a suggestion of being hand-crafted.
The Thibaudeau classification
This family contains typefaces with triangular serifs.
This family groups typefaces with linear or hairline serifs. It generally corresponds to modern or Didone categories.
This family contains slab serif typefaces, called Mechanistic in the Vox-ATypI classification.
This is the sans serif family. In Vox-ATypI classification, this family corresponds to the Lineals.
Hence, the Thibaudeau system makes a lot of sense but in my opinion gives too little information to be a valuable system. Vox is the best I know of, but I will publish my own system later.
One question though, you said that in the Vox-ATypI classification "Classicals" are characterized by oblique axis. what does that mean?
Actually that's a bit of a generalization because the Transitionals have a weight distribution according to a vertical axis. The Venetian and Garalde typefaces follow the chirography more strictly, so the stroke weight is distributed according to the degree of slant of the nib of the calligraphy pen (if you would write the script).
Here's an illustration of this principle: [link]
I learned different names in college, but it may just be due to translation
But they lacked a lot in the Sans Serif fraction, as they were all taught as being in the same class
Isn't one decisive factor of classification how the font would be written? As in at which angle you hold the nib. Which probably shows most impact on the Serifs of a typeface as well as the axis of round letters.
"Isn't one decisive factor of classification how the font would be written?"
Quite, but not completely. It's particularly a relevant factor in the beginning of type evolution. The Venetian typefaces were based on the calligraphic roman script and you can see this in the details such as an 'e' with a beak and indeed a diagonal weight distribution due to the nib of the calligraphic pen. The angle in calligraphy is also why the cross bar in 'e' is diagonal in Venetian typefaces. It gets quite close to a following letter though (as seen here: [link]) which is why the cross bar became horizontal. The variety in widths of the letters are also very prolific; modern typefaces tend to have more consistent widths. The Garalde typefaces became more modeled and the Transitional typefaces are the first more mechanical typefaces. At that point it became more technical than chirographic.
Yeah, it's like a sketching process I guess.
I guess there also should be a new classification for the insane display typefaces you see so often nowadays
Oh, that reminds me: we were trying to redo the categories for the Resources & Stock Images > Fonts gallery. It desperately needs to be redone. We already have collected ideas and if it would be okay, maybe you can share some input?
Thank you! My group Temple-of-Typefaces is an attempt to raise the general quality of type design on DA and to create a place where type designers can meet/talk/critique and amateurs can learn. With your exposure of my articles that goal should be a lot closer.
I would love to give input on the categories of the fonts gallery. Should I state my ideas here or somewhere else?
The whole process was started by a CV who is no longer in that position, so it's a bit hard to keep track
FAQ #18: Who selects the Daily Deviation and how is it chosen? and #communityrelations explain it quite well
I would actually love to have a bit more to say about the font design category and its content. Do you need to do maintenance on DA every day or do you choose your own level of activity?
It's as much work as you want it to be
Basically what we do is showcase art (set DDs or feature works in articles/journals), introduce artists (interviews for example) or educate the community (news articles/journals).
There is no real "maintenance" going on; many people think it is our "duty" to move miscats, but that is not the case.