Typeface classification

marc's picture

I read an interesting piece last week on different views on type categories. Especially when it comes to Humanists and sans serifs.

How many categories do you believe there to be and what are their titles?

John Hudson's picture

How many categories do you believe there to be...?

According to 'a certain Chinese Encyclopaedia,' The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, typefaces are divided into the following categories:

1. those used to typeset the words of the Emperor,
2. no longer available ones,
3. those that are good for 'the small print',
4. the ones you used last week,
5. those that remind you of former lovers,
6. fabulous ones,
7. those in unknown formats,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those you have forgotten,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those that are too light to be used for the present job,
12. others,
13. those in which the g 'just looks wrong',
14. those that will be used to typeset this list.

[ Homage

Nick Shinn's picture

>when it comes to Humanists and sans serifs

...they consider them to be "serifically challenged".

Forrest L Norvell's picture

It's gonna be tough to get a straight answer out of people about this one. Categorizing fonts is one of those things that seems to attract an inordinate amount of attention, for results of questionable utility, and everyone seems to think everyone else's scheme is bogus.

I think creating any kind of taxonomic tree for type is a heroic and ultimately futile task. Likewise, categorizing type strictly according to a timeline loses a lot of nuance as well. The back end of Routledge's Classic International Typefinder talks about some British type classification standard that has lots of descriptors that look like a scheme only an old-style reference librarian could love.

Categorizing type reminds me a lot of the problems I face in categorizing my music collection: a lot of stuff just doesn't fit well into a single category. I like the way MyFonts does it, although they could probably stand to be a little more comprehensive, rigorous, and otherwise more ontologically coherent: every font has one or more keywords and categories to describe it. Deciding upon the set of potential keywords is the next hard problem, but that's an exercise for the reader.

As far as how many categories there are: how many typefaces are there?

dan_reynolds's picture

how many typefaces are there?

Forrest, there are

Nick Shinn's picture

OK, for a straight answer.

1. By designer
2. By typeface name
3. By foundry
4. By date
5, By medium (eg digital/photo/metal/etc.)
6. By geographic origin (usually home of designer/foundry)
7. By usage (where did I see that?)

This is not a "phylogenetic" system (ie based on morphological features of the design), but it IS how I categorize type systematically. You will note that there is a precise answer to all these categories (although attribution is often up for scholarly debate). With any morphological system, there are so many grey areas, that, beyond "Sans, serif, & script" the whole thing becomes quite subjective.

It's not to say that I don't mentally consider and sort typefaces according to morphological principles. Of course I do. But I don't rationalize and reify this process, because that would be impossible. That doesn't mean it's intuitive, in the sense of being a simple unstructured gut reaction. It's a highly informed, refined form of mental processing, beyond words. Known as design.

marc's picture

By categories I really mean classification. I'm trying to develop a clear set of type defonitions in my head.

If anyone can define the following terms it would be of great help.

1) Humanist
2) Neo Grotesque

hrant's picture

> With any morphological system, there are so many grey areas

But of course that's superbly matched to how humans think!


Forrest L Norvell's picture

The problem, Marc, is that most of the terms we use with great confidence when discussing type are actually pretty woolly in their definitions. They're based on things we know when we see, like Nick was saying.

All of my reference books are at my studio, so I can't give you an exact history or definition of "humanist". I will say that when it's applied to contemporary sans serif typefaces (as in, "Oh great, another humanist sans"), it refers to typefaces devised with an emphasis on legibility and gently modulated stroke widths derived from calligraphy. I think the archetypal humanist sans is Optima, but these days its contrast seems somewhat extreme.

"Neo-Grotesque" is easier: neo-grotesques are the line of sans serif typefaces that owe their ultimate derivation from Akzidenz Grotesk and the other "commercial" sans serif typefaces from the turn of the 20th Century: rational, legible forms, low contrast, consistent stroke widths (although neo-grotesques aren't generally monoline), a strong vertical emphasis. Helvetica and Univers are the definitive neo-grotesques.

John Hudson's picture

If you want a system of classification to help you think about type, then you need to figure out how you want to think about type. Classification systems, as Borges' classification of animals taught us, are arbitrary categorisations that reflect the priorities of the people who make them. Which is not to say that they are useless, but that they are useful only to people with a shared set of priorities or the same way of thinking about the classified subject. In some scientific fields, there are practical benefits to practitioners adopting the same system of classification, so that they can understand each others' work. But when a system of classification ceases to be an aid to thinking about a subject and becomes, instead, a means of forcing people to think in a particular way or, as in the case of some type classification systems, an esoteric means of excluding outsiders, then I think you have a problem.

I don't think there is anything critical enough in typography that compels us to all use the same classification system: if there were, we would have come to an agreement a long time ago, just as biologists (largely) have. I tend to avoid classifying type, on the basis that every design is its own category: what makes us interested in a particular typeface is the way in which it differs from all other typefaces, not the way in which it belongs to a class of similar typefaces. If I classify type at all, I tend to employ (western) art historical classifications -- e.g. renaissance, mannerist, baroque, rococo, neo-classical, romantic, Victorian, neo-gothic, early modernist, international modernist, etc. -- because I like to think about type design in the larger cultural context in which it happens and of which it is a part. The specialised terminology of many typeface classification systems -- transitional, Didone, Garald, neo grotesk, etc. -- cut type design off from its cultural context, and present type as an esoteric field of specialised knowledge to which outsiders can only gain access with difficulty. A reasonably educated person has some notion of what romantic music sounds like, what romantic poetry entails, what a romantic painting looks like, and in what period these things were made. Why shouldn't he also know what a romantic typeface, of the same period and cultural milieu, looks like and be able to identify such? [Indeed, I think our whole understanding of what constitutes e.g. romanticism is subtlty altered depending on whether we include or exclude type design, just as it would be if we arbitrarily excluded choral music or landscape painting. By including type design in our consideration of the cultural context in which it is produced, we not only make sense of type design, but also change our understanding of that context.]

Of course, I fully admit that the art historical classification of type breaks down as the 20th century progresses, and the catch-all 'post-modernist' category is very inadequate to talk meaningfully about a large body of recent work. This probably says as much about post-modernism as a cultural phenomenon as it does about the value of the classification system. But all classification systems fail eventually: the key is to understand their limits and make use of them insofar as they are useful, and no further. As our culture fragments further, classification systems based on cultural criteria will be less and less useful to the discussion of new works, but as a means of understanding the cultural artifacts of the past, including type design, they will remain useful.

But maybe you don't want to think about type in terms of cultural context. So the first question must always be 'How do you want to think about type?', and then you either look around for an existing classification system that assists your thinking, or you invent your own.

David Mundie's wonderful Field Guide to the Faces is worth taking a look at, by the way. It isn't really a classification system, per se,, although it results in one. It combines the principles of botanical taxonomy with dewey decimal cataloguing, as a means of identifying typefaces in the wild.

Forrest L Norvell's picture

I agree with everything John says, and I want to emphasize that systems of classification are also systems of thought.

Most of us inherit our basic notions of taxonomy or classification from our high school biology classes, where species slot neatly into the gigantic Linnaean tree of species, genera, phyla, families, and kingdoms, and you can unambiguously differentiate and classify individual organisms based on morphological characteristics via field guides or binomial keys.

The thing is, in certain areas of biology, this system causes more problems than it solves. My mother's a mycologist, and it turns out that genetic analysis is a much more reliable indicator of what constitutes a species than looking at characteristics visible to the naked eye. The vast majority of mushrooms are small, brown and slimy, and telling them apart without a microscope is often impossible. The problem is that identification via genetic markers takes the painstakingly-built, orderly "traditional" species tree, and replaces it with a messy network of organisms, where the size, color, and shape of a fungus is not necessarily a reliable indicator of its relationship to other fungi. As a result, amateur mycologists (who are generally observant, fussy, and in possession of a ton of hands-on field experience) get into passionate and sometimes vitriolic arguments with professional mycologists over what species something is all the time. Their classification systems are colliding, and the amateurs get frustrated that their common-sense notions of how to identify mushrooms are being refuted by something that doesn't make a lot of sense to them. That doesn't mean professional mycologists are condescending eggheads (well, it doesn't mean they're *necessarily* condescending eggheads), they're just facing the problem at a different level.

The problem for typographers is the same one facing any other technical practitioner: we need some way of talking to each other about what we're doing. All classification systems are essentially arbitrary at their roots; typography has a 500+-year history in the West, and is a history of tiny tweaks to familiar forms. Classification is a form of shorthand. It's what allows a working designer or typographer to say, "I'm redesigning a newsletter and I need a good humanist sans for captions".

The existing system of type classification (i.e. the one we all use here from day to day) is a mess, but it does have the advantage of being shared. John, there's a lot of value in tying type to its cultural context, but historical schemes get increasingly sketchy the closer you get to the present day. Also, at that point you're off-loading the problem of categorization and classification to the art / culture critics who name artistic movements, often long after the fact. Basically everything that happened after about 1940 is either "modernist" or "postmodernist", and that covers a huge range of innovation in type. Not to mention that the only working definition of post-modernist type I've ever been able to come up with is, "stuff that appeared in Fuse or Emigre".

That said, it seems like most of the time we work mostly by analogy: "I want a sans that goes well with Trajan. I already looked at Optima, TheSans, and Officina Sans and they're all too plain."

William Berkson's picture

Marc here are some brief definitions that should help you. Personally I find style classifications like these helpful, so long as you don't take them too seriously.

hrant's picture

> the grand old enfant terrible

I'm curious, why was he that?
Did he used to go to winter garden parties in a speedo or something?


raph's picture

Forrest: I found your mushroom analogy interesting. Would it also be fair to say that the vast majority of fonts are small, brown, and slimy?

To continue your analogy, the concept of species makes sense for organisms. In most cases, analyzing the DNA gives you a definitive answer. Perhaps a different answer than an amateur mycologist would get get by looking at the color and shape, but an answer nonetheless.

I think fonts want to be grouped into classifications because they're all copied from other fonts. I like terms such as "garalde" (meaning copied from Garamond and Aldus) because they capture this truth.

The problem is that you choose a dozen or so seminal fonts, from which a plurality or even majority of other fonts are copied, but that inevitably leaves out a significant minority. I don't think there's any good hierarchical solution to this problem.

I suggest naming the fonts that served as inspiration. To me, TheSans is Frutiger with Eras-y curves and a two-story 'g'. Spiegel is clearly Franklin Gothic with the trademark Luc(as) curve treatment. The curves and the underlying letter architecture contribute equally to the distinctive character of the font, but in any classification scheme you'd be forced to choose one as the primary defining characteristic.

I get the feeling that the tendency to find generic classification terms comes largely from a reluctance to acknowledge the sources for a font design, and a general touchiness about trademarks. Consider, for example, the fact that almost all of Bitstream's early catalog was copies of popular typefaces, with the name filed off and replaced by a generic classification term such as "Swiss" or "Aldine", with a 3 digit number added to make it all sound much more systematic. Even so, there are plenty of questionably categorized fonts: would you call Metro a Geometric?

Gotham is a larger x-height Avenir, which is Futura by the hand of Frutiger. Calling it a "Geometric Sans" loses specificity, but on the other hand avoids the possibility of running into trademark problems.

timd's picture

The BS 2961:1961 standard that Forrest refers to in Rookledge is discussed here http://www.stbride.org/conference2002/TypefaceClassification.html (as well as many other classification systems) as with any attempt to pigeonhole it is not satisfactory.

Mark Simonson's picture

Raph, I think you're muddying the waters a bit in your analysis.

Copying popular fonts and giving them a different name is a practice that was common in the days when fonts were tied to a particular manufacturer's equipment. Bitstream was a pioneer in creating a digital type library at a time when this was still the norm. Bitstream was formed by former Linotype people (including Matthew Carter) who were well aware of what they were doing. They licensed the name when they could, and when they couldn't, they used a generic name. The name was really the only thing that could be protected at the time. They also worked with the original designers in many cases, even when they couldn't use the name. You make it sound like they copied existing digital fonts and simply renamed them.

Now that fonts are distributed in (more or less) universal formats, not tied to any particular manufacturer's equipment, the need for this behavior has disappeared and the practice is much less acceptable. You'll notice that when Agfa Monotype yanked the license to distribute ITC fonts from Bitstream, Bitstream removed them from their library, even though they could conceivably have just renamed them.

Creating a new font based either closely or loosely on some other font is a different thing. Sometimes the similarity of two fonts is intentional, sometimes not. If you design a font in the Humanist style, you may well end up with something that looks like Gill or Frutiger. This can come from following the "rules" that constitute a Humanist type design as easily as consciously imitating an existing face.

When I designed Proxima Sans in the early nineties, my intention was to create a hybrid between grotesques like Helvetica and Franklin Gothic and geometric sans faces like Futura. At the time I worked out the basic design, I was not familiar with Avenir, even though it had been released a few years earlier. I nearly stopped working on Proxima Sans when I became aware of Avenir and noticed the similarities. In the end, I decided that the differences were substantial enough and finished the fonts.

In the same vein, I was surprised when Gotham was released at its similarities with Proxima Sans. However, I would not accuse them of copying Proxima Sans (or Avenir). I think it's simply a matter of having design goals which result in a similar solution.

This is not to say that type designers do not look at how other type designers have solved the same or similar problems. They do. But to say that Font A is just Font B with a different x-height (or whatever) oversimplifies the practice of type design to the point of being offensive. (Apologies if I've read more into your point than you intended.)

Nick Shinn's picture

>they're all copied from other fonts.

Not so. It is also possible to design fonts from scratch. I've designed a number of original faces which are based on the interaction of design principles, not on specific typefaces. Of course, it's always possible to say "looks like so-and-so", but that would be inadequate.

For instance Morphica and Panoptica. These could be described as "Post-modern", which is rather like the "Others" in the Borges-Hudson mode, a lazy catch-all.

William Berkson's picture

Wow, I like that grand old enfant terrible. Fresh, thoughtful, sharply drawn opinions - and typeface!
I am not sure what I think of either, but it sure is refreshing.

thelring's picture

When I designed Proxima Sans in the early nineties, my intention was to create a hybrid between grotesques like Helvetica and Franklin Gothic and geometric sans faces like Futura. At the time I worked out the basic design, I was not familiar with Avenir, even though it had been released a few years earlier. I nearly stopped working on Proxima Sans when I became aware of Avenir and noticed the similarities. In the end, I decided that the differences were substantial enough and finished the fonts.

In the same vein, I was surprised when Gotham was released at its similarities with Proxima Sans. However, I would not accuse them of copying Proxima Sans (or Avenir). I think it's simply a matter of having design goals which result in a similar solution.

This is not to say that type designers do not look at how other type designers have solved the same or similar problems. They do. But to say that Font A is just Font B with a different x-height (or whatever) oversimplifies the practice of type design to the point of being offensive. (Apologies if I've read more into your point than you intended.)

Say no more!!!

pjay's picture

How would one categorize Hans Meier's 'Barbedor'? It's humanist with very subtle modulations, but also tall and chaste (like the fonts of Eric Gill). It's a hybrid, a sort of serifed sans. The serifs are vestigial, more like flicks of the pen at the stroke ends. To my eyes it's one of the most elegant typefaces of the twentieth century, though apparently neglected. barbedorsamp

raph's picture

I would say it's a high-contrast Lydian copy, though no doubt some would find that offensive :)

More seriously, the assertion that all fonts are copies of other fonts is an overstatement. But I think it is important to acknowledge the strong influences from fonts that have gone before. I did not mean to trivialize the process of designing fonts. Doing something well, no matter how much invention is involved, always commands admiration.

I also think that truly original fonts are also the ones least likely to benefit from being pigeonholed by any classification scheme, except to the extent of acknowledging the fact that they're "postmodern" or "exotic".

marc's picture

Thanks for the the feedback by the way. This thread has exceeded the informaton which I wanted, but has led to other questions that I need to be asking myself about type.

I am studying graphic design and I have become interested in typography and type design. I started this thread because I wanted to understand font classification that exists. After stumbling on this site I have been introduced to an emourmous number of new typefaces and I would like to ask you another question:

I respect the fact that many of you are type designers who make a living from creating new typefaces. But is creating "Font B with a different x-height" of any use to me as someone solving visual communication problems?

I've heard of designers using only 8 typefaces throughout their entire career. Personaly I believe that each job requires the right font for it to communicate propperly and this requires a much wider range of typefaces.

However, the more I am exploring type design the more I am finding very similar designs which I believe I will never use. You could argue that such an overwealming number of typefaces is overcomplicating the design process.

I don't mean to offend anyone here but I am trying establish whether I (as a graphic designer not a type designer) I should be spending time looking at typefaces which are identicle in the eyes of our target audience, the public.

William Berkson's picture

The difference in typefaces is helpful partly for practical and partly for aesthetic reasons.

For example,one designer, Matthew Carter, has designed Bell Centennial, for phone books, Verdana, for computer screens and 'Postoni', a headline face for the Washington Post Newspaper. Use any one of these for the other purpose, and the result will be much inferior.

Aesthetically, such faces as Caslon and Zapfino will give very different impressions.

No doubt it is valuable to learn to use a few typefaces well. But the availablity of a variety for different puposes and moods represents an opportunity. Knowing a broader pallette and how to use it must be an advantage. However, typefaces are only one ingredient in graphic design, so obviously you have to budget how much time you want to put in on this one ingredient.

Nick Shinn's picture

Marc, think of type like colors.

"The public" has no names for colors other than a basic few. Yet most people can see the difference when two similar colors are put side by side.

As a designer, you use type as part of your design palette. You may even derive ideas from the formal or cultural properties of a typeface which can stimulate and inform the unique personality of you work as a whole.

"The public" is not your only audience. Any public work is seen by others who are not in the target market. There are also your peers, associates, and yourself, who derive value from the work. And the work has an integrity of its own. These are all responsibilites, contributing to the wealth of culture by making it rich, complex, and dynamic.

Mark Simonson's picture

>More seriously, the assertion that all fonts are copies of other fonts is an overstatement. But I think it is important to acknowledge the strong influences from fonts that have gone before. I did not mean to trivialize the process of designing fonts.

Thanks for the clarification. I was overreacting a bit.

Regarding the abundance of typefaces...

It depends on how you think about type.

On one hand, it has a very utilitarian aspect: To convey information. If this were its only use, we could probably get by with a handful of fonts and be done with it forever.

On the other hand, typography can be expressive, conveying mood, context, voice, attitude, etc. and for that there are never enough typefaces.

(The designers who use only eight typefaces their whole career are rare and probably only eat eight different things, too.)

Forrest L Norvell's picture

Barbedor doesn't really look that much like Lydian (or Stahl, Rudolf Koch's also unjustly-neglected take on calligraphic, humanist sans, which is currently only available via Gerhard Helzel). It looks more like a vertical take on cursive or italic forms, a chancery-influenced semi-serifed script. I agree, it's beautiful.

After reading Catherine Dixon's essay on typeface classification, I'd say the classification scheme she proposes is a concrete implementation of my own more inchoate ramblings. It combines sources (i.e. history) with formal attributes, and explicitly includes the notion of an unbounded list of type "patterns" (e.g. "textura" or "garalde") that are themselves combinations of sources and formal attributes. I personally like this as it reminds me of one of my favorite patterns of object-oriented software development: creation of new objects through the cloning of prototypes.

Raph, to return to mycology for a moment, the problem with DNA-based identification is that genetic analysis is still (and probably always be) an inexact way to discuss the origins and derivation of species. While we can learn a lot about where mushrooms come from by analyzing their genes, things like parallel and convergent evolution make it very difficult to build a comprehensive picture of the history of fungi from their genes alone. DNA will reliably give us the identity of an individual organism, but each step you take way from establishing identity gets you into ever-more-dubious waters.

The analogy to type is clear: especially in this, the High Era of the Humanist Sans, design constraints are going to result in the persistent reinvention and reuse of seemingly distinctive design features, and the intersection of craft and commerce means that people are still going to have to defend themselves from claims of plagiarism and uncredited influence (which are often properly made, but also often not: I honestly think the Today / Cronos kerfuffle of a few years ago is a good example of where this may be undecidable to outside observers).

So yes, most fonts are small, brown, and slimy, and a classification system like Catherine Dixon's is never going to definitively affix a typeface in its proper place in history. It might, however, allow all of us to have a more meaningful conversation about our tools and our craft, which has a lot of value. I'd love to see her scheme adopted as a standard.

Marc, it's entirely possible for a designer to build their career upon a very short list of typefaces. Jan Tschichold managed to reduce his list to one item near the end of his career, believing there was no problem in book design his own typeface Sabon couldn't solve. Derek Birdsall has gotten a lot of mileage out of Gill Sans, Van Dijck, Poliphilus, and Blado. For a long time Neville Brody used his own display typefaces almost exclusively.

However, if you start browsing the Web for designers' lists of "essential typefaces", you'll quickly realize there's a disturbing lack of consistency among them. Typefaces, as products of premeditated acts of creation, inescapably have their own personalities, and different people will respond to different personalities. I personally think Gill Sans, Clarendon, American Uncial, and Wilhelm Klingspor Gotisch are typefaces all designers should have available to them (among others), but I don't expect many other designers to share this conviction. Obsessively prowling through specimen books or font websites can be a distraction and cloud designers' minds when they should be working on other things, but it can also be its own reward. The best way to learn about type is to play with it and work with it, and if you just take somebody else's recommendations on faith, you'll miss a lot of opportunities for creative design.

Forrest L Norvell's picture

Not to prolong everyone's agony needlessly, but the horribly designed, questionably edited, and erratically proofread portmanteau volume that is Steven Heller's Texts on Type has two excellent essays on the classification of type as a theoretical discipline: one of Beatrice Warde's tart, concise essays from The Crystal Goblet, "On the Choice of Typeface", and Jonathan Hoefler's "On Classifying Type". Hoefler covers most of the same ground we've hit in this thread, including a discussion of Cynthia Dixon's work, and Warde's just plain fun to read.

Nick Shinn's picture

>Jonathan Hoefler's "On Classifying Type".

He makes the point that type designers are always trying to create new typefaces to "fill in the gaps". They are also trying to invent new gaps to fill in.

So part of the reason for classification systems to exist (in whatever form, even without words, inside typographer's heads) is to stimulate new type designs, and then to help understand how they fit in with what's gone before.

Regarding the "over" abundance: you can't have a few good new successful designs without a lot that fall by the wayside. (some of which, undeservedly so). The strange thing about digital media is that the warehouse and the museum are the same thing: the stuff that never sells is not melted down and the materials recycled, it remains on the catalog -- hence the gazillions of fonts to confound the neophyte. I once took a face of mine that didn't sell much (and that i didn't particularly like) off the market, and of course, a distributor soon emailed me that a cutomer wanted it.

And you never know what the market will do. One of my earlier faces that has hardly sold for 7 years has recently started to sell regularly. Beaufort, a sans serif with small serifs, one of those "fill in the gaps" ideas, or, as Allan Haley once said (of another typeface) "the answer to a question that no-one asked".

In that case, does the answer provoke the question?
Or was the question coming anyway, but the answer just arrived first?

timd's picture

I would classify Barbedour as modern pen-drawn Roman non-flowing script.

pjay's picture

Tim, I think this type of constuctive characterization of type, i.e., your description of Barbedor, is meaningful (immediately comprehensible) and precise.

Who needs desconstuctive gobbelygook?

Forrest L Norvell's picture

The only problem I have with systems is when they become ends rather than means. I'm interested by attempts to systematically classify type because those attempts provide me with prepackaged perspectives on what type is, how it is to be used, and how it ought to be designed. There is no system for categorizing knowledge that is ultimately successful in all situations, or else the Library of Congress would be using the Dewey Decimal System. We all have to take in these systems, evaluate them, and make what use of them we can.

I think one of the most important uses of classification schemes is communication. I know very little about type next to a lot of the people on these boards, but I know enough to notice that whenever we try to discuss or compare type designs, we're forced to grasp for terms, to haltingly try to synchronize our differing vocabularies. It would be nice if there were a common jargon we could use that was both precise and ambiguous enough to encompass the rule-based but essentially amorphous creative enterprise of type design. I don't want to be stuck with prescriptive gobbledygook, but it seems to me we can do better than we have. And if we can discuss things with each other more intelligibly, the odds are good we'll be able to think about them more clearly too.

It would be neat to see a wiki built up around Cynthia Dixon's type classification scheme; I think the inhabitants of Typophile could collectively populate one with enough information to be useful relatively quickly. At the same time, any categorization scheme that tries to finally and ultimately nail down the category or type of a typeface (in other words, to completely remove ambiguity) is doomed to failure: again, type design is a field of tiny changes to very familiar forms, and attempting to objectively nail things down is likely to shed more heat than light. We spend too much time worrying about provenance as it is.

Nick Shinn's picture

>description of Barbedor, is meaningful (immediately comprehensible) and precise.

Not really. It could also describe Gert Weischer's ff Bodoni Rough, which is "modern" because it is a Didone, pen-drawn and a "script" because it looks like a drawing, and Roman, of course.

> type design is a field of tiny changes to very familiar forms

That describes the bulk of any area of design -- and ignores the more radical work.

> too much time worrying about provenance

But that is the refinement of connoisseurship, the business of typophiles.

Forrest L Norvell's picture

Gah! Paul!

Fine, I was done with this thread anyway. ;)

timd's picture

Gert Weischer's ff Bodoni Rough - I couldn't find a sample of this, but based on Bodoni Classic for me that would be Modern with a capital M.
BTW I think you meant Wiescher.
But this serves to indicate how difficult it is to make a comprehensive universal classification system when precision is most important, and of course classification changes through time. I would associate Humanist with sans faces like Gill, but in some classification systems would it would refer to serif faces with a sloping bar on the lower case e (aka Venetian).

Miss Tiffany's picture

Humanist is equal to Gill Sans. Being of a form containing stroke modulation which follows, generally, the same modulation of a nib pen.

Neo Grotesk is equal to Helvetica and Akzidenz Grotesk. Little to no stroke modulation, but the basic shape still hearkening to the humanist ideal.

Ok I could be very wrong but I wanted to take a stab at it anyway.

John Hudson's picture

It seems worth resurrecting this old discussion to post this Spanish translation of my homage to Jorge Luis Borges, prepared by Miguel Catopodis:

Se atribuye 'a cierta enciclopedia china que se titula Emporio Celestial de conocimientos...' que las tipografías se dividen en las siguientes categorías:

1. aquellas usadas para componer las palabras del Emperador
2. las que ya no estan disponibles
3. aquellas que son buenas para 'la letra chica'
4. las que has usado la semana pasada
5. aquellas que te recuerdan a tus ex amantes
6. las fabulosas
7. las de formato desconocido
8. aquellas incluidas en la presente clasificación
9. aquellas que has olvidado
10. innumerables
11. aquellas que son demasiado livianas para usar en este trabajo
12. etcétera
13. aquellas en las que la 'g' simplemente se ve mal
14. aquellas que serán usadas para componer esta lista

blkkkkk's picture

Guess I'll bump this one as I am interested in this topic myself. Attached is a photo I grabbed off the net with the "main" classifications. Would we agree that this is the starting point ?

the paratype link above is also helpful.

John Hudson's picture

Would we agree that this is the starting point?

No, we would not.

guifa's picture

John: I like the Borgesian stuff. But this calls for the Andrades.

Quando se diz que um rio corre para noresto, não se que evidentemente indicar que o curso do rio seja invariavelmente êsse, nem que o rio não tenha outras coisas ineressantes senão a direção de seu curso. Nem que não possa e deva ser encarado sob outros aspectos. Nem que baste saber a sua direção para o conhecermos. Nada disso. Mas a orientação geral é essa, e indicando-a já damos do rio uma noção vaga mas exata. (Os Andrades, I, O Jornal, 29.I.1928)

Rough translation:
When it's said that a river runs to the northeast, it's not said to indicate that the course of the river be invariable so, nor that the river doesn't have other interesting things, but rather that the direction of its course is that. Nor that it's not possible nor should be seen by other means. Nor that it suffices to know its direction to be familiar about it. Not at all. Rather the general orientation is that, and by indicating it we get a vague yet exact notion of the river.

Classification obligates generalization, which is a necessary evil at times I think. Sometimes saying "I want a Didone" is far more effective and conjures up a clearer picture then "I want a font that has vertical stress, extremely high contrast, with slab serifs that doesn't have motifs or flourishes and decidedly modern" (which of course just generalized modern ha).

Nick Shinn's picture

Starting point.

Category Theory

"Objects, arrows, composition." Sounds like graphic design!

John Hudson's picture

Matthew: Classification obligates generalization, which is a necessary evil at times I think. Sometimes saying "I want a Didone" is far more effective and conjures up a clearer picture then "I want a font that has vertical stress, extremely high contrast, with slab serifs that doesn't have motifs or flourishes and decidedly modern" (which of course just generalized modern ha).

I have no objection to generalisation nor to labelling, but I do object to an inconsistent and overlapping set of labels being touted as a classification system. It isn't a system, it's just a set of names applied to variously defined categories. I can detect at least five different ways of defining categories in the ‘classifications’ that Jared (blkkkkk) posted.

‘Didone’ belongs to the Vox/ATypI classification, which makes a better effort at being systematic with regard to the criteria of categorisation, but is still inconsistent in how those criteria are applied.

Graphic Ghost's picture

Read most of the comments in this forum. Interesting stuff.

But I am a user of fonts, and a would be designer. I designed the font for my business, and had my wife render it for me when it was all done in pen & ink (the 1980's, in this case).

I sell promotional products, and am often trying to find the font someone used for their logo so I can either quickly remake their logo (if it is simple enough, I can often do it quicker than asking them and getting a good/better/acceptable version of it (and, actually, most of the time, they cannot provide me with one).

Also, my attempts are at getting business with many new clients, over the internet. And showing them a virtual sample of a product I would like to sell them with their logo (or at least a font used in the headline on their website) is what I am working to try to do VERY QUICKLY! (for not all will buy).

But I am becoming ever more proficient at my task (at hand).

When I am trying to find what font is what, I don't care about the history of it. I simply want to find the font! (Pragmatic).

If you want on another forum and at another time sit down with me and discuss Judeo-Christian religion (or any/all religion, for that matter), I believe I could give anyone here or anywhere a pretty interesting viewpoint on what came from where, and why, and how.

Or, if you want to discuss where people come from, taking into account both the great and minor migrations of tribes, ethnicities, etc, why they moved, and the ultimate purpose/s of them, I would love to both learn from you and convey to you some of my ideas on the topic.

And of major interest to me and perhaps many of you, I can tell you (IMO) major things that have and are contributing to the growing economic depression, without hardly even talking about money, I think I could make more than a few of you sit up and listen, though you may tire of me quickly in this vein, because we all have to look in the mirror hard when considering some issues.

BUT WHEN I WANT TO FIND WHAT FONT IS WHAT - I am more interested in knowing which serif font has a thingy on top of the 'g' that bends this way or that; or which fonts have capital 'C's' that have a top serif that goes straight up and down, and whether that serif ascends at all, or only descends; and if the bottom end of that same 'C' has a serif or not. Which serif fonts do have certain attributes for a given upper or lower case character, and which do not.

I think that some kind of a format whereby individual characters within a font could be compared to each other quickly and easily, that would help a lot!

If we knew, for example, the x-height proportions of any given font, that would help a lot!

Don't get me wrong, I am really interested about the history, evolution, contributions, stealings, borrowings, etc of given attributes of one font to another, of one designer from another, etc. IT IS JUST THAT WHEN I AM ON THE CLOCK (for myself), AND HAVE TO TURN A LOT OF DOLLARS FOR MYSELF - I MORE OFTEN THAN NOT COULD REALLY USE SOMETHING SUPER EFFECTIVE & EFFICIENT in finding that very elusive FONT - so I can USE that Fabulously Ontologically Nifty Thing (or F.O.N.T.)!


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