A Practical Approach To Classifying Fonts
My goal in this little series is not to give you an academic dissertation, but a practical guide to fonts you can use on a day to day basis—or not.
One of the more entertaining resources on the Web was Jonathan Hoefler’s Typography 101 writings on typophile.com. Regrettably, I can’t find it there this morning. Like Bringhurst, his classes make a lot of sense and we’ll include them in our practical list as we go through. He starts with two that are fun. They really have no place in a general classification system other than the fact that they show the historical roots of type in European culture. Remember, the study of type was, and mostly still is, a European thing.
Our carved roots
Jonathan distinguishes Greek Inscriptions from Roman. Basically, the Greeks did not use serifs. He uses Lithos by Carol Twombley from Adobe in 1989 as his standard here. It was the fashion standard of the early ’90s.
Here’s the Roman variant. Hoefler uses Twombly at Adobe again with her font called Trajan, from the Trajan column in Rome.
It is difficult to overrate the effect Carol has had on typography in the past couple decades. She “retired” just before the end of the last millennium.
“American calligrapher and type designer, a graduate from Rhode Island School of Design where her professor was Charles Bigelow. Joined the digital typography program at Stanford University, also under Bigelow. Working from the Bigelow & Holmes studio she designed Mirarae, which won her the 1984 Morisawa gold prize. Since 1988 she has been a staff designer at Adobe. [MyFonts.com]
These two styles are fun, but not too important to an overall classification system, because there are so few of these fonts. The rest of Hoefler’s classes we’ll cover in the practical list that follows in upcoming weeks.
Thomas Phinney, now gone from Adobe, wrote a nice little historical piece [which is again lost to the Web AFAIK]. In it, he uses the more common set of categories currently taught in most design schools: Old Style, Transitional, Modern, Slab Serif (or Egyptian), fat faces, wood type, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, synthesis, and grunge. This covers the basics nicely and we will follow that basic lead. However, let’s get real.
Bringhurst’s List of font classifications
There are many font classification systems. Robert Bringhurst, in the currently accepted standard reference on typography, The Elements of Typographic Style, Hartley and Marks, 1992, uses historical markers.
He sets up categories based largely on the historical periods of fine art as you can see below. It is, indeed, a fascinating journey through history. Robert presents his case extremely well. He’s an excellent writer and a poet. You will acquire a great deal of useful knowledge by reading his book. It is a bit over the top, though. Plus, he skips a lot. Bringhurst clearly does not like Victorian letter styles, so he does not mention them. He skips all of the modern variations like Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the more extreme elements of the early twentieth century. He barely mentions the slab serifs of the late nineteenth century because he thinks they are coarse. In other words, he presents the type he likes in an excellent setting.
- Scribal or Carolingian
- Geometric Modernism
- Elegiac Post-Modernism
- Geometric Post-Modernism.
The important thing is not historical accuracy, it is readability and decorative style.
The importance of classification has to do with appropriateness. Bringhurst’s categories are more like an art history lesson. Bringhurst is even further over the top when he suggests using French type for French products and so on. What we should be using is historical type in context. You cannot pull off a Western “Wanted” poster with anything but Victorian type from the late 1880s. All of the recent Retro looks have specifically used fonts from a historical period placed in a hip, fashionable setting. Within a few months there were Retro fonts specifically designed to match the style. At this point in graphic design, the fonts appear along with the new fashion.
Next week, I’ll get into my more practical list of font types and categories
Here’s a visual treat: