Type Classification: Introduction to Typography #3

Now that you know what typography is and understand the difference between typefaces and fonts, you can start having some fun with type. No typeface is created equal, they come in all shapes and sizes, and each one has it’s own style and characteristics. While you can pick and choose typefaces as you like, it’s important to know how to categorise them so that you can know what you’re looking for and why.

“Building a good font collection is like populating one’s wardrobe. It requires a balance between versatility and expressivity, everyday accessories, and special outfits for special occasions.” — Jean-Baptiste Levee

Serif vs Sans Serif Typefaces

Serif

The two most prevalent classifications that you may have heard of, are serif and sans serif. Serifs are a slight projection finishing off a stroke of a letter in certain typefaces. They were established in the past when we used different methods of creating type, such as chiselling into marble, where the square shape of the chisel created excess lines at the ends of characters. They evolved as typography was developed and from there, the first digital typefaces created were serif typefaces.

Sans Serif

Since then, we have developed to also create sans serif typefaces. Sans means without, so sans serif typefaces are without serifs. These have emerged in more recent times with the creation of digital type design and are used predominantly in more modern designs. Since most typefaces either have serifs or they don’t, they will fit into either the serif or sans serif classifications.

The Many Styles of Serif & Sans Serif Typefaces

Within these classifications there are sub-classifications. Within serifs there are old-style, transitional, modern and slab serifs. Within sans-serifs there are humanist, transitional and geometric typefaces.

Display Typefaces

As well as these classifications, there are more decorative classifications, such as script typefaces which are like handwriting, monospaced typefaces where each letter uses the same width, calligraphic and blackletter calligraphy typefaces, pixel typefaces and more.

These classifications are great to help you find, use and create the right typefaces for your work. It’s also great for organising your typeface catalogue so that you can find the ones you need when you need them.

What Typefaces Mean

The reason there are so many classifications and kinds of typefaces is that they all give a vastly different mood or effect. For example, sans-serif typefaces are typically modern looking. They’re often clean, simple, easy to read on a large scale and fitting for a lot of things today.

Serifs are often considered old-fashioned; they look older and give an older vibe, but they are easier to read for more long-form content such as blogs and books.

Monospaced typefaces are often used in computer programming and coding, so are going to give a technological vibe to your design.

Script fonts feel more hand-written and personal but can vary from cute, modern brush lettering, to quite ornate, fancy calligraphy.

Blackletter is associated with the gothic era and therefore feels darker, creepier and a bit moody.

How to Choose the Right Typeface

“Your choice of typefaces is as important as what you do with it” — Bonnie Siegler

The typeface you use massively affects the mood you’re trying to create, what you’re trying to say, how you’re making people feel and what you’re trying to remind them of, so it’s important to choose the right typeface for the job and know what you’re looking for. Choosing a gothic blackletter typeface for a child’s zoo themed birthday party invitation for example, is going to send the wrong message completely and probably scare people away from coming! And using a super ornate script calligraphy typeface for a web developers conference probably won’t attract the right audience. 

Max Phillips rightly explains that “type is what meaning looks like.” There are so many connotations associated with the typeface you use, so choose wisely, understand why you’re using each one and what it will convey to the reader.

“Display type is a visual voice. Without reading, it imparts its message” — Laura Worthington

Text vs Display Typefaces

Simple, straightforward serif and sans serif typefaces are known as text typefaces, while the more decorative, stylised typefaces are known as display. You most often wouldn’t use a display typeface in smaller text, as the additional details and decorations make them too difficult to read, however you can use text typefaces at a larger, display scale as they are still legible.

There is often also a difference between display and text versions of a single typeface, especially in web design. For example, San Francisco, Apple’s font of choice, has a display version for headings and the text version for body copy. Having these different variations means that the type designer can tailor the font design for it’s appropriate usage. Having it larger means they can include more detail, whereas when it’s smaller the goal is to make it as legible as possible. It’s important to make sure you’re using the right one in the right places to increase readability and use the best font possible.

Gaining a practical understanding of type classification will help you to choose the right font for the job, and save you a lot of time when searching for the perfect typeface. When lettering or doing type design, it’s important to know what style of typeface you are creating and how it will be used.

There are so many classifications of typefaces, but I hope this helped you to understand the basics. Take note of the fonts around you in your everyday life and try classifying them as you go. Think about the font this blog post is written in — how would you classify this?

To learn more in-depth information about different type classifications, try this Lynda course, or read this article on fonts.com.

Next time we will be dissecting letters and looking into the anatomy of type, so check back soon!