At first glance, it seems that so many fonts have been invented throughout the history of writing that it is simply impossible to understand the classification of fonts. In fact, everything is much simpler and all these endless variations of circles and sticks easily fit into a coherent and simple system. Most typefaces can be classified into one of four basic groups: Serifs, Sans Serifs, Scripts and Decorative styles. Knowing the classification system may be helpful in identifying, choosing and combining typefaces for your projects.
Their form originates from the font of ancient Roman monumental inscriptions (capital letters) and from the book humanistic minuscule of the Renaissance (lowercase letters). The first type-setting serif appeared in Italy and Germany in the second half of the 15th century.
These typefaces are formal, and strict and have been widely used in books and newspapers for centuries. You already know one of the most famous serif fonts, and it’s Times New Roman – the one used by default in Microsoft Word.
Old-style serifs are relatively old, it’s true. They represent the first stage in the development of serif (or antique) fonts from the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 18th century. The shape of the characters of these fonts is based on the handwritten principle and it is characterized by moderate contrast, rounded serifs at the points of junction with the main stroke and inclination of the axes of oval elements.
Examples: Garamond, Centaur, Arno Pro, Goudy, Palatino, Minion
The difference between the main and connecting lines in the transitional serif is more explicit than in the old style but less clear than in the new style serif. They tend to have vertical strokes and vertical stress. The contrast between thin and thick strokes of the letters gives it a very strong, stylish and dynamic feel.
Examples: Baskerville, Perpetua, Merriweather, Georgia
The main features of modern serifs are a stronger contrast between the main and connecting lines, strictly vertical ovals, and thin and long serifs. This strong contrast creates a very structured clear and elegant feel. These types of serifs are often used in fashion magazines, think about Vogue or Harpers’s Bazaar logotypes.
Examples: Bodoni, Didot, Playfair Display (even though it’s often called transitional)
Also called mechanistic, square serif, antique or Egyptian. The difference between the main and connecting lines is either hardly noticeable, or there is no difference at all. The serifs are powerful, and rectangular in shape. Characterized by thick, block-like serifs, they have an authoritative and powerful feel.
Examples: Rockwell, Museo Slab, Clarendon
Sans serif fonts
The word Sans means “without” in French, and sans serif fonts are, generally speaking, fonts without serifs. Sans serifs are the most modern and widely used fonts. Typefaces of this particular style are used in interfaces and websites, as well as in posters, billboards and window shops. Simple at first glance, neat and versatile, they took over the world and became widely popular being opposite to more book-style serif fonts.
There are geometric, old, humanistic and neo-grotesque sans serifs. Common characteristic features of all groups are the lack of serifs, a wide range of applications and versatility.
These are the first grotesques that originated in the Victorian era. Such typefaces, although without serifs, had a rather extravagant appearance compared to later sans serifs. They came up as a transitional link in the font evolution from antiqua (serif fonts) to grotesque. The letters in them have a slight contrast.
Examples: Franklin Gothic, Akzidenz Grotesk.
Neo-grotesque sans serif
Neo-grotesques are non-contrasting and monospaced sans serif fonts. They appeared in the 1950s and were brought to life by the needs of the functional Swiss school of typography. They look much sleeker and stricter than their predecessors and have almost no distinguishing features, which allows these fonts to be characterized as standard and neutral. These fonts are more functional and highly adaptive for any use case. Helvetica and Univers became extremely popular and were widely used in identity, poster design and wayfinding.
Examples: MS Sans Serif, Arial, Helvetica, Univers.
These sans serifs were created to be more legible and are based on the proportions of Roman-style fonts. They have great contrast in the thickness of the strokes. They are called humanistic not by chance, these typefaces are calligraphic in structure, often with higher stroke contrast than other sans serifs. They have open forms that lead the eye horizontally.
Examples: Gill Sans, Frutiger, Tahoma, Verdana, Optima
Geometric sans serif
Geometric grotesques are fundamentally based on the simplest geometric shapes – a circle, a square, and an equilateral triangle. These typefaces appeared in Germany in the 1930s under the influence of constructivism and the Bauhaus design school. They have no contrast between strokes. They are simple universal and are widely used both for headings and for big blocks of text.
Examples : Futura, Avenir, Century Gothic
This group includes fonts that imitate someone’s handwriting or calligraphic style. They can range from being extremely formal to very casual. Script fonts are divided depending on the instrument they imitate, for example, usage of a wide-nib pen, pointed pen, brush and other tools (pencil, felt-tip pen, ballpoint pen, etc.). These fonts can be connected (where each letter is connected to its neighbours) and disconnected (where each letter stands on its own). They are really great for adding a human touch to your design. but it’s not a great idea to use them in body copy in website design as they don’t have good readability.
Usually have letterforms that are connected to each other. They look elegant and intricate and are often used in invitations and postcards, but could be extremely difficult to read. Don’t use them for big blocks of text.
They have a brush-like appearance with strong strokes Letterforms are usually connected to each other. They can add a human and nice touch of hand-lettered calligraphy, but as all other scripts shouldn’t be used for big texts.
Monospaced fonts are non-proportional as every letter in them takes the same amount of horizontal space. They have specific use cases – for example, they are widely used in code editors, for typesetting tables and interfaces.
They vary so widely that there is no one particular feature to describe this group. They could imitate different historical fonts, they could have distorted proportions and be very decorative. These fonts are suitable for headings and logotypes, and it’s better to avoid using them for big chunks of text in the sense of readability.