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[Typography] Typeface Classification

category: Design | course: Typography | difficulty:

So soon in the course, we’ve already hit a sensitive subject; how to classify all typefaces on earth – and that’s a lot – into a simple, easy to understand system. It is for that reason that no single, universal system exists. Being able to classify typefaces when you see them, however, is such an important skill that I still want to go over the classification that seems to have been agreed on by most.

Typefaces can be divided into the following groups: serif, sans-serif, graphic. The largest groups are the first two, which can then be further categorized by their style: humanist, geometrical or transitional.

Type Exercise: After reading this chapter, pick a few of your favourite fonts and try to classify them! Even better, try to pick two fonts from the same classification and see if you can make them work well together.

Humanist

TypographyHumanist

Often also called old style, it has rounded features and modulated strokes. The vertical axis for all letters is slightly slanted. Terminals are pear shaped, and lowercase counters relatively small.

These typefaces were among the earliest created, and are based upon efficiency. The forms of the letters are influenced by the human body and the nature of the pen tip.

Geometrical

TypographyGeometrical

Also called modern, these typefaces create their letters out of basic geometrical shapes (such as triangle, square, circle), and often have perfectly round counters. The vertical axis is upright, and extra features (such as serifs) are hair thin. They have no modulation, or extreme modulation. Nearly every part of every letter is geometrically rationalized.

Geometrical typefaces have also produced so-called monospaced fonts and bitmap fonts.

TypographyMonospaced

Monospaced fonts use the exact same width and height for all characters, making it ideal for places where the text is dynamic or subject to change. For example, manuscripts are usually send to the editor/publisher with monospaced font, and formatting happens later. Or, within video games or websites, dynamic counters often use monospaced numbers so that the width doesn’t change all the time.

TypographyBitmap

Bitmap fonts have been created specifically for the computer, and are built out of raw pixels, from the bottom up. On a computer screen the difference or usability is small, but on less-capable screens (such as that of microwaves or other devices) it’s the best option when it comes to practicality and legibility.

Transitional

TypographyTransitional

Also called realist, it tries to find a balance between humanist and geometrical typefaces. The vertical axis is upright (or nearly so), the strokes heavily modulated, the serifs sharp and relatively visible. While not always the case, transitional typefaces often have a larger natural x-height.

They are often regarded as ordinary or “invisible”, making them ideal if you want to place all focus on the text, but this can also result in boring design.

Serif

TypographySerifTypefaces

Not surprisingly, serif typefaces have serifs on their letters. Those are nothing more than any sort of decoration at the end of a stroke. Instead of just randomly ending a stroke or chopping it off with a square ending, a serif adds some subtle ornamentation to every letter, also increasing legibility.

In general, this makes them the best choice for when things are printed, displayed at a large size, or displayed on high-resolution screens.

Slab Serif

TypographySlabSerif

Also called Egyptian, these typefaces are a special kind of serif. They have very little modulation or contrast in stroke width, and an upright vertical axis (when apparent). They also sport boxy serifs that are generally the same weight as the rest of the strokes within the letterform.

Sans-Serif

TypographySansSerifTypefaces

As opposed to serif typefaces, sans-serif typefaces do not have these serifs, which makes them look drastically different. The stroke width is also more uniform and even, in general.

Because of this, there’s less “clutter” and the fonts look cleaner on screens or at small sizes. Those serifs actually add noise to the page, but that is actually a good thing; without a bit of noise, type looks cold and mechanical, but with it, it looks alive and breathing.

Graphic

TypographyGraphicTypefaces

Graphic typefaces can come from a lot of different backgrounds or themes. In essence, though, we can distinguish three categories:

  • Script: These typefaces look like they have been hand-lettered, like someone is using his handwriting within the design. Should not be used too much, because of its reduced legibility. When displayed large, however, it can look stunning.
  • Display: These typefaces don’t look like handwriting, yet display similar characteristics. They contain letterforms that are very useful for decorative purposes, such as within a special logo or a heading of one or two words, but not for long pieces of text.
  • Symbol: Everything that’s left over. These can be typefaces including only symbols or icons (instead of letters), or letters written in a style that’s unlike any of the others I’ve mentioned.

In general, graphic typefaces are more goofy, creative, unique, comical and better at attracting attention. More often than not, though, less is more.

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