6 Why do we need classifications?

I know this is a terrible analogy but please humour me. Let’s say you really like one type of mustard: whole grain. You just love mustard that’s essentially just semi-crushed seeds because of its delicious texture. You’ve run out so you go to the grocery store looking for this specific mustard but can’t seem to find it. But what happens if there wasn’t a name for this type of mustard? How would you ask a staff member when it will be in stock? If all you could say was “mustard” they could get it confused with Dijon, Grey-Poupon, spicy brown, yellow, French, honey, German, etc. These classifications help us quickly communicate a set of specifications so that people know exactly what we’re talking about. This is the same with typefaces. If we understand that our design calls for a certain feeling, and that this feeling can be found in the key traits of a Humanist Sans Serif, we’re better able to search out and find typefaces that match those traits because there is a classification that has given those traits a name. Similarly, typeface pairings can benefit from keeping similar type classifications together (i.e., pairing a humanist serif and sans serif typeface). In other situations, a respectful understanding of historical context is important to ensure a design is appropriate to the setting. Or, at the very least, a designer will be informed of typeface history, thereby giving them that all-important designer clout they so strongly desire. Please remember that these classifications are just a way to describe and group typefaces. They won’t guarantee you’re picking the best typeface for a project.

No method of classifying typefaces is perfect, with each attempt seeming to solve one problem while revealing another. For example, some group typefaces by year (e.g., Vox’s Classicals and Moderns classes). I feel it’s more important for a beginner to see the differences within classifications rather than understanding the century it originated in (though that information is also here). Though the Vox system has its flaws, this handbook uses it as a foundation but does some reorganizing. No, I don’t think I’m improving the work of Maximilien Vox; I’m just trying to help things make more sense for beginners.

This collection of classifications is by no means complete. There are many variations of labels and definitions that may be used, as well as sub-categories within sub-categories within sub-categories (it can be a bit too much). This document attempts to respect your time while honoring the complexity of typefaces and therefore does not go super deep and my descriptions are only a few sentences. If you feel this needs more detail, let me know through the tool on the right side of the page.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Typography Handbook Copyright © by David Piechnik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.