Type Classification Demystified: 11 Kinds of Letterforms

Don’t know your old style from your transitional or your sans serif from your slab serif? Get a brief primer on classifications of common letterforms from Denise Bosler’s book, “Mastering Type: The Essential Guide to Typography for Print and Web Design.”

Certain typefaces have historical origins. These origins, along with knowledge of the parts of the characters, can help you determine relationships between typefaces. Understanding how similar letterform characteristics go together can help you establish a complete look for your typographic design job. If you can determine the kind of look you want, such as clean, sophisticated, bold, heavy, modern or vintage, it will be easier to hone in on the particular typeface you want to use. Sometimes the historical context of the letterforms adds to the effectiveness of a design.

Please note that the classification of letterforms is not an exact science. Early type designers had no classification rules to follow, and type designers of today often follow no rules. As a result, there are many fonts with characteristics of one classification that overlap with the characteristics of another. This type classification roundup covers letterforms that are generally recognized as the most common and widely accepted.


Drawn from the Roman lettering found cut into marble and stone, these typefaces were originally created as metal type for early print­ing processes. Modern-day Old Style versions are based upon the metal type and many still carry the nuances of originally being created and forged by hand. These typefaces are characterized by letters with serifs that run straight or cupped along the edge and that have noticeable brackets. The ends of the serif range from straight to rounded. The letterforms have a biased stress and low contrast between the main strokes and hairline strokes of the let­terform. The letters feel somewhat heavy, as the original metal type needed to hold up to the rigors of primitive printing techniques. The x-height tends to be tall in relation to the cap height. The ball terminals are shaped like teardrops, and the ascenders of the low­ercase letters tend to be taller than the cap height. Well-known examples of Old Style typefaces are Garamond, Bembo, Janson, Palatino, Sabon, Weiss and Goudy.


Transitional typefaces are letterforms from the late eighteenth century that serve as a transition between Old Style and Modern lettering. Printing processes became more refined around this time, allowing the type to move toward more subtle and elegant details. These typefaces have letters with serifs that have a straighter and sharper feel and have fewer or smaller brackets. The letter­forms have a slightly biased or vertical stress and medium contrast between the main strokes and hairline strokes of the letterform—more contrast than Old Style. The x-height tends to be tall in rela­tion to the cap height. The ascenders of the lowercase letters can be taller than the cap height. Well-known examples of Transitional typefaces are Times New Roman, Baskerville, Bookman, Corona, Georgia and Mrs. Eaves.


Modern typefaces are products of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and are the result of further improvements in the printing process. Increased accuracy of presses, more refined inks and better paper allowed for more delicate characteristics. The letterforms of Modern typefaces have serifs that are straight along the edge, with small or no brackets. The letterforms have a vertical stress and high contrast between the main strokes and hairline strokes of the letterform—in some cases to the extreme. The x-height tends to be medium to tall in relation to the cap height. Well-known examples of Modern typefaces are Bodoni, Bernhard Modern, Didot, Walbaum, Modern No. 20, Fenice and Mona Lisa.


Better presses, inks and paper also allowed for increased ink cover­age. Commercial demand for bolder, heavier fonts led to the creation of Slab Serif fonts. Also called Egyptian, these typefaces have thick, heavy serifs (slabs) that are straight across the edge with small or no brackets. In many cases, the serif is the same thickness as the main stroke, giving the font a monoline look. The letterforms have a vertical stress and little contrast between the main strokes and hairline strokes of the letterform. The x-height tends to be medium to tall in relation to the cap height. Well-known examples of Egyp­tian typefaces are Clarendon, Courier, Memphis, Rockwell, Playbill, American Typewriter and Egyptienne.


Sans Serif letterforms are also derived from ancient Roman lettering that was cut into marble and stone. Roman lettering was found in two forms: formal (with serifs) and informal (without them). Type­faces in the Sans Serif category are characterized by the absence of serifs. The strokes end in square, rounded, angled or cupped termi­nals. The letterforms generally have a vertical stress and no contrast in the strokes of the letterform. The strokes tend to be uniform throughout the entire letter, also giving it a monoline look. The x-height tends to be tall in relation to the cap height. Well-known examples of Sans Serif typefaces are Helvetica, Univers, Eurostile, Gill Sans, Trade Gothic, Futura and Avant Garde.

Though the classification provides a general overall look, there are exceptions to every rule. One example of a non-typical sans serif is Optima. Designed in 1958 by Hermann Zapf, this typeface takes the qualities of the main and hairline contrast of serif stroke weights and combines it with the cupped end terminals of a sans serif. It has become known as a very versatile font, suitable for both headline and paragraph text.


Modern-day Blackletter, also called Gothic, is based upon European script lettering dating back to medieval times. It was used in Germany up through the twentieth century and is most associated with that country. Blackletter brings to mind knights, monks and ancient manuscripts. Blackletter was used in illuminated manuscripts and was the lettering style for the Gutenberg 42-line Bible. Drawn with a flat pen or nib held at an angle, the typefaces are created using sharp vertical, horizontal and angled strokes. The letterforms have a vertical stress and extreme contrast between the main strokes and hairline strokes of the letterform. The x-height tends to be tall in relation to the cap height. Well-known examples of Blackletter typefaces are Old English, Lucida Blackletter, Fette Fraktur, Blackmoor and Chaucer.


Display type covers a wide range of fonts and is generally used for headlines, initials and logos. These typefaces tend to read well at larger sizes but are illegible when smaller or when used in long line lengths of text. Characteristics can include experimental, distressed and handwritten elements. Many budding type designers tackle these kinds of typefaces first because they don’t have to be as accurate or well formed as the other classifications. Addi­tionally, many budding graphic designers overuse and misuse Display typefaces. It is best to exhibit restraint and use Display typefaces for emphasis only. Some examples of Display typefaces are Addled, Curlz, Neuland, Willow, Naughties, Airstream, Ran­som and Skinny.


Script typefaces have their origins in handwriting and calligra­phy. Found both as formal elegant letterforms and as more casual handwritten-like letterforms, Script typefaces generally have a fluid, cursive feel and can include minimal or elaborate swashes. Scripts can also have extensions that connect letters together, giv­ing them fluidity. These typefaces tend to read better when used sparingly. They work well as headlines or in designs with limited text, such as wedding invitations and posters. They are almost impossible to read when used all in caps. Well-known examples of script typefaces are Snell Roundhand, Edwardian Script, Zapfino, Shelley Script, Black Jack, Mistral and Linoscript.


Decorative typefaces have illustrative and ornamental characteris­tics that enhance or have been added to an underlying letterform structure. Victorian and Art Deco influences can easily be seen in many Decorative letterforms. Other influences can be found in architecture, nature, human form, fashion and fine arts. As with Display typefaces, Decorative typefaces work best as headlines, initials or logos. They do not read well at a small size. Many of these fonts are expressive, creative and can be looked upon as art. Examples of Decorative typefaces are Rosewood, Cabaret, Car­navale Delight, Matra, Cottonwood, Critter and Monterrey.


Dingbats break away from being a typeface in the traditional sense. Dingbats are strictly illustrative elements that can be typed out on a keyboard. Some Dingbats are fun little illustrations that can be used as clip art elements; others are more decorative and ornate in nature. Originating in wood and metal type, Dingbats serve as enhancements to a typographic design, though they cannot be read as letterforms. Examples of Dingbat typefaces are Big Cheese, Adobe Wood Type, Bodoni Ornaments, Zapf Dingbats, Wingdings, Child’s Play, Cheerleaders and Botanicals.


Early desktop computers used dot matrix printers for output. Dot matrix printers produced printed text by running a print head over an inked ribbon “punching” out a series of dots to form letters. It worked much like a typewriter. The resolution was quite low but was, at the time, a breakthrough in technology that gave printing capabilities to the home user. The original dot matrix fonts were lim­ited and plain. Apple Computer made great strides in digital type design by creating fonts that worked with the limited dot technology. Type designed specifically for Apple by Susan Kare, including Chicago, Geneva, Monaco and New York, became the new standard of font design for dot matrix printing. Other typefaces included San Francisco, Toronto and Los Angeles—all in keep­ing with the theme of city-based names. These fonts could also produce solid, rather than dotted, output and held great appeal for graphic designers. As time went on, laser printers gradually replaced dot matrix printers. Laser printers work with much higher resolution and accuracy for producing type and images. This opened up a whole world of new typeface design since resolution was no longer an issue. The original dot matrix fonts were never eliminated from the Apple font lineup and are still standard fonts found on their machines today. The designs of the dot matrix typefaces were not optimized for laser printing and therefore look “clunky” and out of date. Unless a design job calls for an old-school computer look, a good rule of thumb is to disregard fonts with city names in order to avoid inadvertently using a dot matrix font.


There is a whole category of typefaces that resist classification in any one group. This is because they either incorporate mul­tiple distinguishable characteristics or have a complete lack of recognizable parts. Many of these experimental letterforms are deconstructed versions of well-known typefaces, or combinations of two or more fonts. Some don’t work well at either a large or small size, deeming them more of graphic elements as opposed to type. There is little doubt that members of the Dada movement would appreciate these fonts. Examples of these typefaces are Blue Eyeshadow, Chophouse, Cretino, Darwin, DIY Foundations, Do Fuse and Osprey.