Although we tend to think of typography as a relatively modern invention, the practice of imprinting symbols into soft or malleable surfaces has been around for thousands of years. Examples can be found in ancient Mesopotamia, where clay cylinder seals were engraved with financial transactions, official signatures and even protection ‘devices’.
While in essence any letter or symbol written by humans can be called typography, we mostly associate the word with its contemporary definition, which traces its roots to 1450 and Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of the metal movable-type printing press.
But what transforms a letter into a unique and instantly recognizable sign? Can we identify common elements that are shared by all styles of lettering? Is there a classification system to help us make sense of typography’s timeline?
Join us while we take a closer look at the anatomy of type, from Roman square capitals and Venetian serifs to the Bauhaus movement and decorative fonts!
Type Distribution & Initial Forms
Before we get into details, let us first take a glance at how others divide and classify typefaces, and what some of the early developments looked like.
Perhaps the most widespread system is the one designed by Maximilien Vox in 1954, where typefaces are divided into nine separate categories based on common features or chronological periods. In 1962 this system was further expanded into 10 categories by the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), and it remains in use to this day. The divisions featured below are not ‘locked’, meaning that any font can exhibit features from one or more of them at the same time:
– Classical (Humanist / Garalde / Transitional)
– Modern (Didone / Mechanistic / Lineal)
– Calligraphic (Glyphic / Script / Graphic / Gaelic / Blackletter)
– Non-Latin (Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.)
Mediums of human communication are in perpetual motion, and writing is no different. It has taken humanity from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies to the very reaches of outer space, and together with mathematics occupies a vital part of our common knowledge and culture.
Before the arrival of heavy machinery many tasks were dealt with by hand, and in Europe this lead to the development of the chiselled Roman square capitals known simply as Capitalis Monumentalis. Boosted by the Roman Empire’s immense power and geographic spread, they set the stage for the entire Western type structure, later unfolding into writing styles of their own.
These included the dynamic Rustic capitals, as well as the unicase uncial, which helped shape the Carolingian miniscule lowercase ovals with their distinctive ascenders and descenders. An increasingly-literate population had a growing appetite for books, leading to some purely functional changes, such as letters becoming less wide in order to accommodate a faster writing style and save resources. The result was blackletter (or ‘fractures’), a style of medieval handwriting that uses a broad-nibbed pen to produce heavy, often angular letter shapes and condensed counters.
Incise examples: Trajan, Colus
Blackletter examples: Fraktur, Textura, Schwabacher
One of the chief reasons for writing’s ubiquity as a communication tool is Gutenberg’s printing press, and more precisely, the moveable type that first allowed for the composition of single glyphs into longer lines of text.
Its success was influenced by the precise and limited number of alphabetic characters, standing in stark contrast to the millions of possible glyph combinations in East Asian scripts, where woodcarving proved easier. Metal’s higher durability and the option for a consistent aesthetic across a single font further boosted the technology’s reputation and eventually established it as the prevalent form in Europe.
A special typeface was designed for the world’s first printed book – the Gutenberg Bible – based on Textura and Schwabacher due to their condensed counters and increased spacing. The technique would allow for more characters per line, and in turn, more information per page.
These bracketed and often asymmetrical serifs are sometimes called ‘Venetian’, after the Italian city famous for its active printing community. They tend to have consistent stress angles, moderate stroke contrast, and generally exhibit a strong connection between the actual glyph forms and the writing tool being used, in this case a broad-nibbed pen.
Italy in the early Renaissance period was a place of technological wonder and conceptual redefinition. As society’s focus shifted from medieval philosophies to the idea of free will, artists and artisans alike began experimenting in their own fields, defining the period in typography as Humanist.
Innovative printers like Nicola Jenson designed their work in opposition to the condensed blackletter-inspired type used in Germany, which suffered from poor legibility and cluttered, disorienting layouts. This practice formed from the merger of two separate styles – the Carolingian miniscule with its balanced and wide lowercase letters, and the triumphal and imposing Roman Imperial Capitalis.
Examples: Centaur, Jenson
The next typeface segment is characterized by uniform consistency with a larger contrast, as well as moderate weight and an oblique axis. Its name is a portmanteau of two typography greats and major figures from the Renaissance era – French punchcutter Claude Garamond and Italian publisher Aldus Manutius.
The French king Francis I proved to be a shrewd reformer, taking advantage of technological advancements to start a reorganization of the country’s language and grammar, earning him the title of “Father and Restorer of Letters”.
Examples: Bembo, Garamond
Transitional (Realist / Réales)
Historically related to the rational spirit of the Enlightenment period, these fonts had hints of calligraphy but mostly relied on a bigger stroke contrast, stylized shapes with bracketed serifs and round, bulbous terminals.
The name “réal” can be traced to the Spanish term for “royal”, and relates to the French king Louis XIV and his desire to produce an honourable successor to Garamond, as well as a worthy competitor/counterpart to Europe’s current printing trends. By this point engraving techniques had become more complex, allowing for bigger contrast and finer details, which interacted well with the prevailing art styles of the time – Baroque and Rococo.
Examples: Baskerville, Romain du Roi, Caslon, Plantin (predecessor of Times New Roman)
The arrival of copperplate engraving techniques opened the doors to much wider variations in terms of stroke thickness, and as a result many modern typefaces achieved levels of contrast that were previously thought impossible. Didone takes its name from the Didot and Bodoni type families, which were very popular during the period.
Characterized by non-bracketed serifs and very high contrast between thicks and thins, Didone was a direct result of the Classicist ideal for symmetric and minimal shapes that are free of unnecessary details.
Examples: Bodoni, Didot, Walbaum
The arrival of mechanistic typography coincides with the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the XIX century. Increased commerce and large-scale improvements in the mechanized printing process post-1811 meant that new typefaces were needed to fill the void.
The newly-found interest in engaging advertising meant that new fonts were designed with attention-grabbing headlines and irresistible slogans in mind. A notable presence amidst all the bold experiments from this period
Apart from the newspaper typefaces optimized for faster printing, the high interest in engaging advertising sparked the appearance of type for attention-grabbing headlines and irresistible slogans. This experimental period also introduced low-contrast typefaces with equally thick and square slab serifs, along with Ionics, or Clarendons, whose serifs were smoothly bracketed.
While the earliest known example of a slab serif dates from an 1810 London ad, the initial impetus was provided roughly a decade earlier during Napoleon’s famed campaign to Egypt. The voyage failed to achieve its military objectives, but the Emperor’s scientific expedition started an international trend of reinterpreting Oriental cultures, or simply borrowing fashionable names without direct visual input. The lack of convention for all the terms being used lead to a general confusion around slab serifs, thus generalizing the square unbracketed Egyptian and the bracketed Ionics.
Examples: Egyptienne, Giza, Farao, Rockwell, Nexa Slab (Egyptians) / Clarendon, Ionic No. 5 (Ionics)
By the early 19th century typography had begun to outgrow the possibilities offered solely by serifs, and a new approach towards font design became apparent with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The heavy and highly decorated typefaces of the past now had competition in the face of the lineals (or linéales) — a group that incorporates all sans/non-serif typefaces with low to zero contrast between their thick and thin segments.
The first use of the word ‘sans-serif’ dates from 1832, when the British type-founder Vincent Figgins included it in his specimen book. Just two years later William Thorowgood released Seven Line Grotesque, which was the first lowercase sans-serif, and the first recorded use of the term ‘grotesque’.
Newspaper publishers, store owners and official institutions were quick to adapt the new style, which was not only easier to read, but well suited to attention-grabbing headlines and signage. The evolution of sans-serifs continued during the 20th century, as they became the dominant force in typography.
The last few decades have been marked by the sudden and almost universal spread of information technologies, which further boosted the sans-serifs’ profile. They were preferred by software developers in the 1990s due to the low resolution offered by CRT monitors. Even though serifs have been significantly optimized since then, and contemporary screens have much higher technical capabilities, the sans-serif continues to rule the web.
Grotesque and Neo-Grotesque Sans
Retaining some degree of contrast between thick and thin strokes, grotesques were named after the Italian word “grottesche” due to their (at the time) unusual aesthetics. Among the first examples of the type are the ‘Two Lines English Egyptian’ typeface from an 1816 Caslon specimen, as well as the aforementioned Seven Line variation by Thorowgood.
With their raw appearance, solid geometric design and simple, but memorable letter forms, grotesques made for great display fonts. There was a wide range of variations, but many of them featured horizontal terminals on the curved symbols, as well as sometimes almost fully closed apertures in letters such as ‘C’ or ‘G’, or a curled leg in ‘R’.
In the 1920s a new form of visual expression called the International Typographic Style was developed in Germany, the Netherlands and Russia. Sometimes known as the Swiss Style due to that country’s role in refining it during the 1950s, it was a major influence on the modernist movement, and gave birth to a number of concepts in architecture and art. Amongst its telltale signs are a preference for clean, minimal forms, an emphasis on readability, and an almost religious belief in the power of objectivity.
In the post-war period, prominent designers like Adrian Frutiger and Max Miedinger were advocating for a functionality-driven approach to mass production practices. By increasing and balancing the proportions of the old Grotesque fonts, and then carefully distributing the width and weight, they created a brand new class of fonts. We have come to call these by the umbrella term Neo-Grotesque, and they have been a commanding force in typography ever since.
Examples: Akzidenz Grotesk, Franklin Gothic (Grotesque) / Helvetica, Univers (Neo-Grotesque)
Hailing from 1920s Germany, the Geometric Sans style is characterized by smooth shapes and a widespread use of geometric forms, including near-perfect counters and an efficient appearance. The period was a hotbed for cultural experimentation, and gave rise to a number of avant-garde movements that wanted to merge crafts across mediums and formats. Perhaps the most notable among these was the Bauhaus school, where the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work’) concept was born in an attempt to combine art, industrial design and architecture.
The urge to bring functional and simplified creations to the wider public extended into typography as well, where designers were aiming for utilitarian, clutter-free fonts. Herbert Bayer and László Moholy-Nagy were among the early proponents of the style, gaining recognition for their work on Universal Typeface (unreleased) and Erbar (1926).
A year later Paul Renner released Futura, which remains one of the most recognizable geometric sans-serifs even today due to its elegant design and great legibility. The font draws heavily from the proportions of Roman capital inscriptions, and is constructed entirely from basic geometric shapes. It is used in most modern airplanes, and was the typeface chosen for the commemorative plaque left on the Moon by the Apollo 11 mission in July of 1969.
Examples: Futura, Eurostile, Mont, Nexa, Intro
While modernists were busy with their reforms, another group was more interested in a softer approach to handwriting and calligraphy. Drawing from Renaissance typefaces, Roman capitals and Carolingian miniscule alike, this new style had much lower contrast, mostly open apertures, curves with slanted stress, and terminals that closely mirrored the strokes.
In general humanist sans fonts exhibit a much wider variety of design than grotesque or geometric ones, and are well suited for modern displays and viewing at larger distances. Some cases feature a combination of narrow and wide strokes, while others are closer to handwriting or calligraphy. Since the 1980s the category has expanded significantly, in part as a response to the immense popularity of neo-grotesques like Helvetica and Univers.
Examples: Johnston, Gill Sans, Syntax, Myriad, Squad
In the past few decades the borders between different typeface divisions have become increasingly blurred, to the point where we can now define a separate, ‘hybrid’ class. Existing as part of the wider post-modernist movement, these fonts can include features from several categories, and are often designed to be used for many purposes rather than a selection.
Examples: Optima, Gilam, Glober, Noah, Mozer
One of Vox’s original trio of categories, calligraphics includes typefaces with a pronounced hand-crafted or incised origin. We can distinguish between five types of calligraphic fonts – scripts, glyphic, gaellic, graphic and blackletter.
Script typefaces are, as the name implies, mimicking a style of rapid handwriting that uses pointed or broad-nibbed pens, brushes or other similar instruments. While there are variations in width and x-heights, scripts usually feature cursive slants, letter joints and ligatures, and are considered among the more dynamic typographic groups.
Examples: Bickham Script, Mistral, Intro Script, Madelyn, Nexa Script, Sensa Brush
Sometimes referred to as incised (or incise), these typefaces make generous use of tapering downstrokes and tend to focus on their capital letters, in some cases dropping the lowercase entirely. They draw inspiration from the aforementioned Roman square inscriptions, which were often found on stone or metal surfaces, and thus required a particular structure that would be more easy to apply.
Examples: Trajan, Copperplate Gothic
Graphic, or manual fonts use a hand-drawn reference which is later replicated with a writing instrument, though with a focus on design and at a slower speed than with scripts. Unlike the latter, in graphic typefaces the letters exist independently and without connections between one another. Manuals are usually reserved for large displays or headlines, and like their glyphic counterparts above, sometimes exist in uppercase only.
Examples: Banco, Klang
Gaelic typefaces were not included in the 1954 revision of the Vox classification, and had to wait until 2010, when the AtypI voted in favour of adding them to the calligraphic group. Though rarely used in official form anymore, these insular scripts were widely adopted in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries, and continued to appear in Irish typesetting until the middle of the 20th century. Nowadays they frequently appear on signage and greeting cards due to their decorative style and historical significance.
Blackletters, or fractures, are based on the medieval broad-nibbed pen style of writing which developed from Carolingian miniscule as a response to societal development. At that time, universities were being established all across Western Europe, and an increasingly-literate populace had a growing need for specialized literature, and the typography to go with it.
Defined by their angular, condensed and often broken forms, blackletters were initially characterized as a form of graphic type by Vox, since they also use a slow technique with the wrist above the writing surface. As part of the 2010 revision of his classification, however, AtypI gave them a separate category, and also made-sure to separate non-Latin typography in an additional segment.
Examples: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher, Fraktur, Fette Fraktur
Decorative / Display / Rust
Last but not least, we have a somewhat broad category that encompasses some more lighthearted and playful typefaces.
Many of these are used in poster design or advertising, where their ornamental nature can stand out. We’ve managed to add our own little bit of custom typography innovation to the mixture thanks to the Fontfabric Rust series with its signature handcrafted look and extensive assortment of additional features.
Examples: Cubic, Colo Pro, Cheque, Perfograma, Nexa Rust, Intro Rust, Zing Rust, Panton Rust, 36 Days
Thanks for reading!
This concludes our dive into the mesmerizing, and sometimes confusing world of typographic classification.
Fontfabric hopes you’ve enjoyed the journey, and even though the holidays are just around the corner, we’re not done with content for the year just yet – so keep an eye out!
*Images for the sans-serif galleries were provided by Denis Masharov.