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Classifying Type


blackletterBLACKLETTER (“Old English”)

Features: ornate capitals, roughly diamond-shaped serifs, and thick lines

Usage: display, headlining

History: Evolved from the Carolingian by a gradual movement towards narrowing and thickening of lines. Textura is a form of blackletter used by Gutenberg in his first Bible. Other sorts of blackletter are fraktur, bastarda and rotunda. Fraktur was in use in Germany well into the 1900s, though it was gradually being superseded by Roman typefaces. The Nazis at first fostered a return to Fraktur, then outlawed it as a “Jewish typeface” in 1940.

Examples: Cloister Black, Fette Fraktur, Textura


old style


Features: angled serifs on lowercase letters, moderate thick/thin transitions, and diagonal stress

Usage: body copy, any long selections of text (the “warm” moderate transitions make these typestyles the easiest for the eye to read)

History: Based on the hand lettering of scribes in 1500s, a wedge-tipped pen shaped the letterforms. Italics were still independent designs, and were generally used completely separately; a whole book could be set in italics.

Examples: Centaur, Bembo, Jenson, Garamond, Caslon



Features: vertical stress and slightly higher contrast than old style typefaces, combined with horizontal serifs

Usage: titles, body copy

History: With the change from woodcut to copperplate engravings in the 17th century, the lines of the letters became more fine and rich in contrast.

Examples: Baskerville, Fournier



Features: sudden-onset vertical stress and strong contrast, modern serifs and horizontals are very thin, almost hairlines; a technical and exact appearance

Usage: Though very striking, these typefaces are sometimes criticized as cold or harsh, and may not be quite as readable for very extensive text work, such as books.

History: Arose with the distribution of copper and steel engraving techniques in the 17th–18th century. Named Didone after Didot and Bodoni. A number of designers created the first modern typefaces in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The most influential was Giambattista Bodoni, of Parma, Italy. Nowadays, most common “modern” typefaces are reinterpretations of Bodoni’s labor.

Examples: Didot, Bodoni, Walbaum

sans serif

SANS SERIF (also: Gothic or Grotesque)

Features: no serifs, no thick/thin transition in strokes, no stress

Usage: The low contrast and absence of serifs makes most sans typefaces harder to follow for general reading. Italics are often simply a sloped (mechanically obliqued) version of the roman letters.

History: When first issued in Britain in 1816, these typefaces were regarded as awkward since they lacked the traditional serif, and called Grotesque. A hundred years later, in the 1920s, the Bauhaus movement popularized them.

Early and Neo-Grotesque: Arial, Helvetica, Swiss 721, Univers, Franklin Gothic
Geometric (Bauhaus): Futura, Avant Garde, century Gothic
Humanist: Gill Sans, Optima, Frutiger, Albertus, Myriad


slab serif

SLAB SERIF (Egyptian)

Features: horizontal and tick serifs on lowercase letters, vertical stress, very little or no thick/thin transition or contrast in the strokes.

Usage: casual body copy and display, generic manuscript format (Courier)

History: Developed for advertising, posters and flyers in the early 1900s. The name “Egyptian” is derived from its use in a publication about booty from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.

Examples: Clarendon, Memphis, New Century Schoolbook, Courier, Rockwell

Subgroups of Slab Serifs:
Ordinary: square, unbracketed serifs
Clarendons: square, bracketed serifs
Typewriter: similar weight in stems and serifs and a constant character width




Features: all typefaces that cannot be assigned to any other group, including: historic, decorative, typewriter, display, and experimental type

Usage: sparingly, for stylized titles and headings, and minimal amounts of text

History: Advertising needs striking typefaces matching the product. For this use graphic or commercial artists invented decorative typefaces.

Examples: Arnold Böecklin, Codex, Hobo, Stencil




Features: axis clearly sloped, round and smooth outlines

Usage: sparingly, for stylized titles and headings, and minimal amounts of text

History: By the end of the 15th century, italic forms of the Roman type developed from the fast handwritten letters. At first the capitals were still showed upright, but later these got the same slope as the minuscules and numbers.

Examples: Tekton, Brush Script, Dom Casual



Features: appearance of handlettering with a calligraphic pen or brush (or pencil, or technical pen)

Usage: sparingly, for minimal amounts of stylized text

History: Developed from the handwriting styles that maintain the connections between the individual letters, e.g. cursive or calligraphy.

Examples: Shelley, Coronet, Snell Roundhand, Park Avenue, Present Script, Freestyle Script (monoline)




Features: based on letters carved or chiselled in stone

History: Languages and alphabets pre-dating paper-recorded history.


”Brief History of Type” by Thomas W. Phinney (Fonts Program Manager, Adobe Systems)
The Elements of Typographical Style by Robert Bringhurst
The Non-designer’s Type Book by Robin Williams