The Taxonomy of Type

Originally posted on February 23, 2010 Filed Under:

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The Taxonomy of Type

Preface

This is not a detailed overview of typography, and was not intended to be. Instead, this article’s purpose is to help us as designers to distinguish basic properties of types. Typography encompasses a large field of interests, and to put it all into one article would be difficult and unnecessary. If you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to check out the reference materials we provide at the end.

This article doubles as a giveaway contest. We’ve teamed up with the folks at Bohemian Coding, Hex, and Mark Batty Publisher to give prizes to Phuse readers. If you want to win a free copy of Fontcase (the premiere font organizing app for Mac), a one year subscription to Subernova (the premiere project management tool for rockstar freelancers), or a free copy of Type, Trends and Fashion, so make sure you read on!

Also, if you haven’t already, follow us on Twitter and grab our feed. We’re going to be giving away more prizes and discounts over the coming months, along with more great content!

Background

The origins of typography trace back to about 1,200 years ago. The Diamond Sutra is the first document for which a typeface was created to print it. It was made in China using woodblock printing. Since then, countless new typefaces have been invented, and the people who use the typefaces (e.g., designers) have been trying to classify them by era (The Lawson System), foundry, and serif and sans-serif. As designers, we are always looking for new typefaces. Now, typefaces are being created every day by amateurs using store-bought programs, so that the number of typefaces expands more rapidly than ever.

The old classification systems, however, are no longer relevant to the modern typography. While some are able to note distinctions between eras of typography, the majority of our clients won’t understand that typefaces from the medieval era have a certain emotion attached to them that wouldn’t work with a modern type. Our classification needs to be one that our clients and other designers can understand and work with.

Many will even argue that classifying typefaces is impossible because we are applying a linear system to non-linear data. Because of this, no one can agree on which form of classification is best.

Why Classification Is Important for Designers

I realize it would be ludicrous if I were to suggest and think that everyone will agree to use the same method for classifying fonts. But as designers, classifying our fonts can save us a lot of time. Different typefaces were made for different situations; sans-serif and display types for headers and titles, serif typefaces for long blocks of copy, and display fonts for particular styles.

Classifying typefaces based on their physical properties also helps us to communicate our choice of typeface to others which, we all know, makes it easier to deal with other designers and clients.

Some of you may already be using your own classification model without thinking about it. For myself, I decided that having 1076 fonts, within 514 families (not a lot compared to some of my peers) was too much not to organize. That’s why our team has come up with a taxonomy for designers.

Introducing The

Below, you’ll find the outline of this classification system. It is a very simple taxonomy. Essentially, we have three “types” of faces: Serif, Sans-Serif, and Display. Each of these have morphological properties (as discussed below) that help to distinguish them. To keep the focus of this article clear, we will assume that you have a basic knowledge of typeface terminology.

The Types!

Serif

Serifs are very easily distinguishable. As we can see from the image to the right (highlighed in red), serif fonts have extra strokes coming off of their letters (“serifs”).

Some common examples of Serif fonts are Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia, and Baskerville.

Within this section as well, we have decided to include the recently-popular Slab Serif, as it is derived from a “smoother” version of a standard serif type with more abrupt serifs (see the blue highlight). Some sample typefaces are the Museo and Nilland families.

Serif fonts are generally used for smaller font sizes, like long bodies of text. This is because serif fonts have characters that are more easily distinguishable.

Example Serif Typefaces

Example Sans-Serif Typefaces

Sans-serif

It can be said that sans-serif typefaces are the opposite of serif. Created to use for headers and large text, sans-serif typefaces are “sans” (or, “without”) serifs. This makes for a cleaner, smoother, and more rounded typeface.

Some common examples of sans-serif typefaces are Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, and Calibri.

Display

As Matt Felten from our team so finely put it, “a display font is a styled font – one that you use when you’re going for a certain look.” Since we can have as many categories of display font as we please, this is where most people argue that classification is impossible because new categories are always being invented. This is where the Phuse Taxonomy separates itself from the pack. Or rather, gives the puppies names.

In this section, I have tried to invent general categories, however they may also contain sub-categories, if you wish. For example, Handwritten can include Kids, Print, and Script, while the Pixel sub-category would fit under Screen fonts.

Arguments have already been made that certain serif and sans-serif types have been made for display. However for classification, we intend to make the Display category as general as possible to include “everything else.”

We have organized the Display typeface into the following categories:

  • Blackletter - Including Lucida Blackletter, Blackmoor, etc.
  • Comic - Including Comic Sans, Chalkboard, etc.
  • Dingbats - Including the IM family, Bodoni Ornaments, etc.
  • Handwritten - Black Jack, Journal, Spill Milk, etc.
  • Monospaced - Courier, Prestige Elite Std, etc.
  • Screen - Mouse, FFF Atlantis, etc.
  • Script - Edwardian Script, Snell Roundhand, etc.

Example Display Typefaces

Final Notes

When I classify my typefaces, I also include four other “tags” that I don’t feel the need to include in the classification system: Thin, Heavy, Outline, and Uppercase. If you’re as addicted to typography I am, you may want to organize your typefaces in tags that state their license (e.g. Commercial, Non-Commercial, Shareware), whether they are web-safe, and whether they are System Fonts (ones prepackaged on your computer).

What? Prizes? Oh, right!

I’m a Mac user (and apparently a good 48% of you are as well). So when I wanted to take my typeface collection to the next level, I put my money into something elegant and simple that saves me time. What I found, and use almost every day, is Fontcase. The folks at Bohemian Coding made a beautiful application for your fonts that promotes tagging and collections. It’s fast and easy to customize, and quickly compares your fonts.

When I started writing this article, I spoke to the folks from Bohemian Coding and they offered to give Phuse readers 2 free copies of Fontcase! So, if you want to enter to win one of two free copies of Fontcase, here’s how:

  1. Post to Twitter
    • Tweet using the hashtag #phuse about how/why you want to win a copy of Fontcase. An example Tweet would be:
    • Want to win a copy of @Fontcase from @thephuse? http://bit.ly/bVOS1J #phuse
    • Click here to post your Tweet!
  2. Make sure you’re following @thephuse and @BohemianCoding on Twitter. That way, we can DM you if you’re a winner!
  3. Leave a Comment with a link to your Tweet, why you want to win a copy of Fontcase, and/or what you think about the Phuse type classification system!

Fontcase!

Subernova!

I Don’t Use a Mac

I feel bad for leaving out the 50% of you that don’t use a Mac, so I’ve lined up another amazing prize. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Subernova grow over the last year now, and am very happy with the quality releases it’s founder Ben from Hex keeps coming up with. Subernova really is a freelancer’s wet dream for project management – everything from invoicing to keeping track of milestones in one easy-to-use sleek web interface.

I’m really excited to also be offering our readers a one year subscription to Subernova. How do you enter?

  1. Post to Twitter
    • Tweet using the hashtag #phuse about why you think Subernova is awesome. An example Tweet would be:
    • Want to win a one year subscription to @Subernova from @thephuse? http://bit.ly/bVOS1J #phuse
    • Click here to post your Tweet!
  2. Make sure you’re following @thephuse and @Subernova on Twitter. That way we can DM you if you’re a winner!
  3. Leave a Comment with a link to your Tweet, why you want to win a subscription to Subernova, and/or what you think about the Phuse type classification system!

I DON’T USE A COMPUTER AND/OR THE INTERNET

For all of you who want something to improve your knowledge of typography, we’ve teamed up with Mark Batty Publisher to offer our readers a copy of Type, Trends and Fashion: A Study of the Late Twentieth Century Proliferation of Typefaces.

That’s right. So, if you’re in North America, then please follow these instructions to enter:

  1. Post to Twitter
    • Tweet using the hashtag #phuse about why you want to get a copy of Type, Trends and Fashion. An example Tweet would be:
    • Want to win a copy of Type, Trends and Fasion by @markbattypub from @thephuse? http://bit.ly/bVOS1J #phuse
    • Click here to post your Tweet!
  2. Make sure you’re following @thephuse and @markbattypub on Twitter. That way we can DM you if you’re a winner!
  3. Leave a Comment with a link to your Tweet, why you want to win a copy of Type, Trends and Fashion, and/or what you think about the Phuse type classification system.

Type, Trends and Fashion!

Ready, Set, Go!

Big shout out to our sponsors for being so awesome. We’re going to leave this contest open for a week – that means we’re closing entries on March 1st, 2010 at 11:59:59 PM (EST), and announcing winners on March 2nd, 2010. The more entries you make, the better your chances of being chosen, but we ask that you not enter more than twice a day!

And yes, you can enter for more than one prize – just make sure you separate your entries and don’t enter more than twice a day (in total)!

This contest is closed! Thanks to all who entered. We’ll be announcing prizes in the next post at 10:00AM EST March 2nd!

Further Reading

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James handles creative direction and business operations at The Phuse. He spends most of his time trying to bring our design and coding standards to the next level, and believes there is always room for improvement. When he isn't figuring out how to improve our work environment or make sense of Excel he enjoys playing board games with loved ones.

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