Classification Categories

Classifying typefaces is simple for Jenson or Futura. The lines between categories can be blurred sometimes. Let's see what fits where.

Type classification categories were created in the 1800’s. They start with the origins of movable type. So before the categories listed below, all that existed was hand-written type and wood block printing. Both were very impractical.

The first movable type by Johannes Gutenberg was set in Blackletter, shown below (digitally).


Classification Blackletter

Blackletter, or Gothic Script, are modeled on medieval manuscript lettering drawn with a broad-nibbed pens. They have angular forms with extreme thick/thin stroke contrast.

Humanist Serif

Classification Humanist

Humanist serif type is inspired by Italian writers of the Renaissance. How to spot them: Note the slanted bar on the lower case e and the slanted axis on the upper case O. The strokes show their origins from a broad-nibbed pen. It looks caligraphic.

Old Style

Classification Old Style

Old Style type marks further refinement in movable type. Note the horizontal cross bar on the lower case e. The stroke weight contrast is less pronounced than those of humanist faces. Here the serifs are bracketed (curved). The O style has a bit less slanted stress. Old Style type brought the first occurence of italic type. The first italics were actually their own faces. Their purpose was to save space, since italic type is naturally denser. So whole pages were set in italics.


Classification Transitional

These are called transitional because they span the gap between Old Style and Modern. Their letterforms are more geometric than hand-drawn. There’s almost no remaining influence of the broad-tipped pen. They have a pronounced thick/thin stroke weight contrast. They too have bracketed serifs, though they are less slanted.


Classification Modern

We’ve left the Renaissance. Also known as Didone, Moderns have dramatic and abrupt contrast in weight between the vertical strokes and the horizontal hairlines. Terminals are ball shapes. Serifs are flat and not bracketed.

Note since we’ve evolved from Old Style to Modern, things have gotten more vertical.

Slab Serif

Classification Slab Serif

We take a sharp turn here. We go from big thick-thin contrast to slabs. There is little stroke weight contrast in slab serif faces. They generally have short ascenders and descenders. Serifs are chunky and with little or no bracketing. The axis of the capital O is vertical. As you can see, these are a real punch in the face. They originate from the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where posters were designed to really stand out.

Classification Slab clarendon

Clarandon’s are a sub-category of slab serifs. They’re kind of like a Slab Serif face with brackets re-added to the serifs.

Sans Serif

Classification Sans serif

This classification is a broad one which includes all designs without serifs. It includes Grotesque, Neo-Grotesque, Geometric, Humanist. Their characteristics vary widely.

The first Sans Serif was designed in the early 1800s. They were called Grotesque, as in deformed, misshapen, mangled, etc… Compared to serif faces, they were initially seen as vulgar.

In the graphic below, we move forward chronologically.

Classification Sans Variants


Classification Script

Script fonts also have sub-categories: Formal, Casual and Calligraphic. The first known script letterforms were identified as lettre courante in France and secretary hand in England. They originated as a formal genre of hand writing.


Classification Decorative

Inspired by wood-engraved initial capitals, decorative typefaces were used for advertisements, broadsides, and posters. Their appearance varies dramatically. What they do have in common is that they’re designed for limited use at larger display sizes.

By Any Other Name…

This was simple enough. Now, here are other names to some of the categories.

Humanist = Venetian

Old Style = Geralde

Modern = Didone

Slab Serif = Egyptian