Before we look at type classifications we must first look at the two words which are often used interchangeably but are in fact very different.
When describing the style of a printed or digitally rendered word we often use the word typeface or font. In the modern era these two words have almost become synonyms but there are key differences between the two. A typeface describes the complete set of characters within a style, be it letters, numbers or punctuation. The font is the digital file that represents the typeface. This file can contain various font weights, sizes and give the user the ability to edit the typeface in terms of scale, therefore the font is the mechanism and the typeface is the look and feel.
Example: Typeface: Helvetica Font: Helvetica Bold. 15pt
Now we know the correct terminologies we can breakdown of some of the most well known classifications within type. A classification is essentially a grouping of similar typefaces based on some or all of the below aspects.
Some of the aspects considered in a classification? Stroke widths, curves, thickness, brush-stroke, x-height, clarity, readability, date-of-creation to name a few.
Seasoned Graphic Designers and Type Designers will be familiar with some if not all of the below typefaces and classifications but to the untrained eye, the minuscule differences are rarely recognised.
Old Style Serif
The old style typeface is figured within the 15th and mid-18th century. One of the key defining attributes of this Serif is the stress in the Stroke width which tends to be defined at 8 and 2 on a 12 hour clock, a nice and easy way to establish initial understanding of this style . Another key identifier is the Serif; Old Style Serifs are bracketed, this mean the joining feature between the Stem and Serif is always curved.
Below is an example of how the Facebook wordmark would look if the text was set in Garamond Old Style Serif.
Transitional Serifs were established around the mid 18th century. The key attributes blend between both Old Style and Modern hence the name. The founding father of this style was John Baskerville and his Typeface Baskerville is widely viewed as one of the most well-known transitional-typefaces from the original mid 18th century period. Newer styles such as Times, Georgia and Geneva may be far more well-known to the non-design eye than the originals. Key features within this style are the clear thick and thin contrasts in the lines of the glyphs (a character or symbol). They also seem to have an overall structure that lends itself to the Old Style rather than the dramatic renderings found in Modern examples. One last feature is within the Stress or axis, this tends to be vertical almost all of the time and terminals are rounded as opposed to the sharpness of Old Style.
Below is an example of how the Starbucks Emblem Text would look if it was set in Georgia Transitional Serif.
Modern Serifs are by far the easiest to recognise. The stark contrast between thick and thin is extremely evident in this group of typefaces. Bodoni featured below shows some of these clear variations brilliantly. Other key features include vertical stresses and almost non existent bracketing. The depth in contrast also makes these typefaces harder to read and it's for this reason that you will usually see them in display or headline format and never as body copy.
Below is an example of how the Nike Air combination mark would look if the text was set in Bodoni Modern Serif.
The slab serif typeface was created around the early 19th century and veered away dramatically from earlier serif iterations. The slab serif is thick in stroke and stem width with almost complimentary serif renderings. Common typefaces in this group consist of Rockwell, Courier and Lublin. The initial naming of these serifs in Britain was Antique which later changed to Egyptian. Some lighter weights do carry similar constructs to Modern serifs but most due to their thickness and geometry can be used at much smaller sizes.
Below is an example of how the Barclaycard combination mark would look if the text was set in Rockwell Slab Serif.
Some of the most recognisable san-serifs can be found within this type classification. The most notable and widely used is undoubtably Helvetica (Recommendation: View the documentary trailer below). Another key identifier of this type classification can be found via the double-story-lowercase-g on some of the typefaces. This glyph carries an easily recognisable loop that falls below the baseline. The strokes carry less variation in this class. The axis of glyphs are vertical within this classification and a final identifier can be seen by observing the horizontal ends of the terminals.
Below is an example of how the Tivo combination mark would look if the text was set in Helvetica Grotesque Sans Serif.
These typefaces use the world of geometry to create seamless and fluid constructs. This is another class with a clear identifier in the form of Bauhaus which links back to the arts and craft school in Germany. Simplification is a clear starting point when creating these typefaces and they are usually used as headlines or in large format. This less considered approach to construction means these faces tend to be harder to read.
Below is an example of how the Mercedes Benz combination mark would look if the text was set in Bauhaus Geometric Sans Serif.
Humanist letterforms have a clear illustrative form to them. They tend to be less structured with subtle calligraphic cues in form. Although these typefaces are san-serifs they tend to have similar elements that resemble some serif typefaces (see image below) such as terminals and Old Style Serif stroke width contrasts. This serif like form also means these faces have a higher level of legibility.
Below is an example of how the Coca Cola wordmark would look if the text was set in Gill Sans Humanist Serif.
When thinking about how you use type within your own projects, companies and brands always start from a point of understanding and perception. Think about how you react to different typefaces within your own visual forums and the emotions they may or may not carry. Type should be considered along with all other aspects of communication and by doing so you ensure your target audiences understand and maintain the visual message you have set out to give. Be sure to sign up to see how we carry on the conversation of typography and the things we find hard to identify in our up-and-coming post