Most typefaces can be divided into four basic groups: those with serifs, those without serifs, scripts and decorative. Over the years, typographers and typographic scholars have attempted to devise systems to more definitively organize typefaces — some systems have over a hundred different categories.
A classification system can be helpful identifying, combining and choosing typefaces. While four categories are clearly inadequate for design professionals, hundreds become self-defeating. We have put together somewhat of a hybrid system of 15 categories based on the historical and descriptive nomenclature of the Vox system published in 1954 — and still widely accepted as the standard today. Added to this, are 10 categories that are “fashion” based and show up remarkably often in Web-based, search engine requests. These latter categories will surely to change over time.
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Historical and descriptive classifications
Serif Type Styles
- Serif: Old Style
- Serif: Transitional
- Serif: Neoclassical & Didone
- Serif: Slab
- Serif: Clarendon
- Serif: Glyphic
Sans Serif Type Styles
Script Type Styles
- Futuristic Fonts
- Gothic Fonts
- Graffiti Fonts
- Grunge Fonts
- Handwriting Fonts
- Scary Fonts
- Tattoo Fonts
- Textured Fonts
- Vintage/Retro Fonts
- Western Fonts
Serif Type Styles
These are the first Roman types, faces which were originally created between the late 15th century and mid 18th century, or are patterned after typefaces which were originally designed in this period. The axis of curved strokes is normally inclined to the left in these designs, so that weight stress is at approximately 8:00 and 2:00 o’clock. The contrast in character stroke weight is not dramatic, and hairlines tend to be on the heavy side. Some versions, like the earlier Venetian old style designs, are distinguished by the diagonal cross stroke of the lowercase “e.” Serifs are almost always bracketed in old style designs and head serifs are often angled.
The English printer and typographer John Baskerville established the style for these typefaces in the mid 18th century. His work with calendared paper and improved printing methods (both developed by him) allowed much finer character strokes to be reproduced and subtler character shapes to be maintained. While the axis of curve strokes can be inclined in Transitional designs, they generally have a vertical stress. Weight contrast is more pronounced than in Old Style designs. Serifs are still bracketed and head serifs are oblique. These typefaces represent the transition between Old Style and Neoclassical designs, and incorporate some characteristics of each.
These are typefaces created within the late 18th century, or their direct descendants. The work of Giambattista Bodoni epitomizes this style of type. When they were first released, these typefaces were called “Classical” designs. Early on, however, it became apparent that these were not updated versions of classic type styles, but altogether new designs. As a result their classification name was changed to “Modern.” Since they are no longer modern, they are also classified as Neoclassical or Didone. Contrast between thick and thin strokes is abrupt and dramatic. The axis of curved strokes is vertical with little or no bracketing. In many cases, stroke terminals are “ball” shapes rather than the reflection of a broad pen. These tend to be highly mannered designs, which are obviously constructed.
Slab serif typefaces became popular in the 19th century as advertising display designs. These typefaces have very heavy serifs with no, or very little, bracketing. Generally, changes in stroke weight are imperceptible. To many, slab serif type styles appear to be sans serif designs with the simple addition of heavy (stroke weight) serifs.
As the name implies, these are the typefaces patterned after the Clarendon type styles that were first released in the mid-19th century. Clarendons were designed as bold faces to accompany text composition. Their stroke contrast is slight and serifs tend to be short to medium length. Later, many of these designs were released as display types. Character stroke weight that is more obvious, and serifs that tend to be longer than earlier designs, mark more current interpretations of this style.
Typefaces in this category tend to reflect lapidary inscriptions rather than pen-drawn text. Contrast in stroke weight is usually at a minimum, and the axis of curved strokes tends to be vertical. The distinguishing feature of these typefaces is the triangular-shaped serif design, or a flaring of the character strokes where they terminate. In some type classification systems this one category is broken up into two groups: “Glyphic” and “Latin.” “Latins” are the faces with strict triangular-shaped serifs.
Sans Serif Type Styles
These are the first commercially popular sans serif typefaces. Contrast in stroke weight is most apparent in these styles, there is a slight “squared” quality to many of the curves, and several designs have the “bowl and loop” lowercase “g” common to Roman types. In some cases the “R” has a curled leg, and the “G” usually has a spur.
There are also, more modern, sans serif designs patterned after the first grotesques, but more refined in form. Stroke contrast is less pronounced than earlier designs, and much of the “squareness” in curved strokes is also lost. Normally the most obvious distinguishing characteristic of these faces is their single bowl “g” and more monotone weight stress.
These designs are generally based on Grotesque character traits and proportions, but have a definite and, at times, dramatic squaring of normally curved strokes. They usually have more latitude in character spacing than their sans serif cousins, and tend to be limited to display designs.
Simple geometric shapes heavily influence the construction of these typefaces. Strokes have the appearance of being strict monolines and character shapes are made up of seemingly perfect geometric forms. Geometric sans tend to be less readable than Grotesques.
These are based on the proportions of Roman inscriptional letters. In many cases, contrast in stroke weight is also readily apparent. Many claim that these are the most legible and most easily read of the sans serif typefaces. Humanistic sans serif typefaces also closely match the design characteristics and proportions or serif types. Many have a strong calligraphic influence.
Script Type Styles
These are typefaces derived from 17th century formal writing styles. Many characters have strokes that join them to other letters.
These are script typefaces designed to look informal or as if they were drawn quickly. Many times they appear to have been drawn with a brush. Normally, character strokes connect one letter to the next.
These are script faces that mimic calligraphic writing. They can be connecting or non-connecting in design. Many appear to have been written with a flat-tipped writing instrument.
These are typefaces patterned to look like manuscript lettering prior to the invention of movable type.
These typefaces defy simple “pigeonholing.” They can look like letters cut in stencil, decorated with flowers, or appear three-dimensional. Some use unorthodox letter shapes and proportions to achieve distinctive and dramatic results.
Futuristic fonts are almost always sans serif designs. Sometimes stroke terminals are rounded or clipped on an angle. They also tend to be based on geometric or elongated character shapes.
Gothic fonts are another name for Blackletter fonts. In addition, Gothic fonts can be designs that are hip and edgy with a heavy dose of horror. They are also fonts that would be at home in “fantasy” publications and web sites.
Graffiti is usually appeared as images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in a similar manner on walls, fences, highway overpasses and similar structures.
“Grunge” was first to identify a specific type of music that originated in Seattle, a style that is influenced by punk, rock and heavy metal. Grunge fonts are aggressive, iconoclastic and often distorted designs. They are also commonly marked with a rough, jagged or distressed surface texture.
Handwriting fonts evoke quickly written notes — but more deliberately so than a scrawl.
They are also generally somewhat less sophisticated than formal scripts – while they lack the refinement of most calligraphic designs. Handwriting fonts differ from casual scripts in that their characters are not made from flowing brush strokes.
Scary fonts look like they could have been lettered by R. Hunter Thompson – on one of his bad days – or made of scrawled lettershapes or other unsettling forms. They are edgy, sinister and generally menacing.
Traditionally, tattoo fonts were Blackletter, script or simple, single stroke sans serif designs. This small palette has grown into one that incorporates virtually any kind of typeface design. The most prominent of which are scripts, calligraphic, and glyphic designs.
Surface texture is another variant of typeface design. Just a few of the virtually limitless surface textures are outline designs, typestyles that have the appearance of three dimensionality, incised, stenciled, Inlined, and distressed.
These are typefaces that were used for display applications between the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, and their revivals. They have a distinct feeling of “time and place.”
Western typefaces are advertising designed first made in the mid-to late 1800. They are also known as “Circus Type.” Fonts were usually decorative, often with surface texture and adorned with large and unusual serifs and stroke endings.