Thoughts on Classification of Typefaces

Master of cross-references and typedirector at Fontshop San Francisco Stephen Coles posted a question recently that bothers me for some years as well: How can we name typefaces with modern, classicistic structure like Didones but with bracketed serifs instead of straight, hairline ones?

There are subclasses like “Scotch” within this group, typefaces designed for the tricky printing conditions of newspapers like Ionic and the Legibility Group, or some sturdy workhorses derived from typewriters. But more importantly – where do we draw the line between bracketed Modern and bracketed Slabs like Clarendon (for which we need a good term as well)? At Madison?

In my work on classifications I always looked for “generic” terms which are not connected to a certain style/period in history for I experienced that this causes quite some confusion among beginners. What makes brand new cool xxx a Baroque typeface? (and what does Humanist, Renaissance and Garalde mean anyway?)
I based my classification and terminology on Gerrit Noordzij’s theory of writing, which distinguishes two major groups within textfaces (see his book The Stroke):

  1. Forms (contrast and structure) derived from writing with a broad-nib pen = Translation
  2. Forms derived from writing with a pointed pen = Expansion

Adding the traditional German approach of foundational writing – “drawing” the linear skeleton form with a round pen, like in Futura – we end up with three groups.

These three form models, the underlaying stuctural principle, can be found in almost all typefaces regardless whether they’re seriffed, sans, slab, cursive, fat or extended. You could call it a meta-attribute (see Noordzij’s 3d-type-cubes).
Of course, a beginning designer doesn’t understand terms like expansion or broad-nib pen any easier than French Renaissance. But what most of us can agree on is the general appearance of character shapes:

  1. Writing with a broad-nib, held in a certain angle, delivers an inclined course of contrast, open aperture and divers stroke width. This gives the letters a dynamic and varied general form and feel (also in the italics and caps, which follow the proportions of the Capitalis).
  2. In writing with a pointed pen the thickness of the stroke is related to the pressure put upon the nib while drawing a stroke. Because this is applied to the down-strokes only, the axis is vertical with high but less modulated contrast and rather closed aperture. This gives the letters a more static, stiff impression. The letter forms (e.g. q, p, d, b) and the proportions of the characters are rather similar, especially the width of the caps.
  3. the rounded-nib renders linear, more “drawn” looking constructed forms (e.g. circular o) like in Futura or monoline scripts. Caps often follow the classical proportions of Capitalis.

These meta-classes can easily be divided into subclasses for serif, sans and slab, and sub-subclasses as many as you’d like to.
To sum up some terms

  1. dynamic form model:
    broad-nib, Translation, Humanist, Renaissance (Venetian, French), Old Style, Aldine, Garalde, Baroque, Reales, Transitional; Humanist Slab; Humanist Sans; Cancellaresca, Chancery Script
  2. static/rational form model:
    pointed-nib, Expansion, (Neo-) Classicism, Didone, Modern, Scotch, Clarendon, Egyptienne, Slab, Italienne, Latin; Gothic, (American) Grotesque, Grotesk (Neo-Grotesque), Realist; Copperplate, Roundhand
  3. geometric form model:
    rounded-nib; Egyptienne, Geometric Slab; Geometric Sans; monoline Scripts

((oh, I’m there – have to get off the train … to be continued and illustrated one day))

See also: The difference between Humanist, Transitional and Modern typefaces

  • Accoording to Noordzij writing is an entirely scientific and objectively describable process.

  • While I originally thought Noordzij’s classification methods would never catch on (too many people had learned the „old“ ways and didn’t want anything new), I think we may have reached a point in time where a kind of new start (even though the ideas go back decades) is indeed possible.

  • Hallo Indra,

    I really like this approach but I would suggest one extension to the three lines of tool specific contrasts you already drew: the pointed brush. It has become extremely popular in recent years with the heydays of brush-scripts and it does not behave like any of the other tools really. The flat (broad) brush though is quite close to the broad nib pen …

    Grüße, Fritz

  • Ok, I tried to integrate the brush thing in a system myself and I hereby declare that it is very hard to do and in my opinion not helpful for the beginner. I think it only makes sense when you are looking at script fonts but not in general terms as the other categories. Groetjes !

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