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So I was reading two documents on typography and each classifies font types in completely different categories.

  • One document says we have : serif, sans serif, text, script, display and dingbats.
  • The other document says we have : roman, egyptian, sans serif, script and miscellaneous (to attract attention).

I went over different websites and each seems to "make up" their own categories (like slab serif).

So is there a standard way of categorizing fonts or is every one free to invent his/her own categories?

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Typefaces are a fairly rich area of creative evolution so there are a lot of different facets to them that can be described in a lot of ways.

The categories you give overlap each other, even within the same document. For example, a display typeface can also be serif or sans-serif. So they aren't all divided up into mutually exclusive categories; a typeface can belong to multiple categories based on its features.

Roughly put

  • Serif/sans-serif refer to the presence or absense of serifs.
  • Script typefaces are based on calligraphy (but usually not including blackletter, which is in a specific category of its own).
  • Display/book refers to whether the typeface is intended for large short words like posters and logos, or lengthy body text such as in a book. Not every typeface is one or the other, though.
  • Roman is often used to describe traditional/transitional serif typefaces that aren't italics.
  • Egyptian has been used in a couple of different ways; sometimes to describe a "slab serif" and at other times it's even been used to describe sans-serif.

There are also lots of other terms such as

  • Grotesque, grotesk and gothic have been used as alternative terms for sans-serif.
  • Blackletter is a specific type of hand-lettering very popular before the printing press. Sometimes also called gothic script (not to be confused with either gothic or script).
  • Italics are slanted forms of typefaces with some changes made to look more like hand-lettered text (that is a pretty basic, and inelegant, description).

and many more.

I'd probably generally group fonts into serif, sans-serif, script, and other (and possibly blackletter). Other may include stuff like this.

  • Okay! So what I must understand is that there is no consensus among type designers about what are primary, secondary,... font categories. That this is a field in constant evolution and one shouldn't cry for a typography crime when s/he sees a serif font categorized as display. This is a great answer... but I'll wait and see what others say. Thanks! – nt.bas Oct 3 '12 at 4:24
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    There will be a lot of consensus, but there will also be grey areas, that's all. For instance, everyone will agree that there are serifs and sans-serifs, and among serifs there are traditional, transitional and modern, and among sans-serifs there are geometric, varying degrees of humanist, and more. But different people will use different terms and categorisations for things that lie outside or between accepted categories. – thomasrutter Oct 3 '12 at 4:30
  • @nt.bas it also helps to understand that few of the categories listed are mutually exclusive. For instance, a typeface can be categorized as both a serif and display. – DA01 Oct 3 '12 at 8:20
  • @DA01 I don't follow. You said mutually exclusive but you say can be... which is inclusive for an example supposed to illustrate exclusivity. Are serif and display exclusive? – nt.bas Oct 4 '12 at 6:03
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    "Mutually exclusive" is when it is either one thing, or the other thing, but can never be both at once - there is no overlap. As I said in my answer, categories "serif" and "display" are not mutually exclusive. It's possible for a typeface to be both. This is also the case with a number of the other categories mentioned. – thomasrutter Oct 4 '12 at 6:08
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When it gets down to the really useful classifications, no there isn't consensus. The agreed upon categories are very broad and even there consensus is tentative.

Broadly accepted categories include:

  • Garalde
  • Venetian
  • Transitional
  • Scotch Roman
  • Slab or Egyptian
  • Modern
  • Clarendon
  • Grotesque
  • Humanist
  • Script
  • Blackletter
  • Fraktur
  • Inscriptional

There are countless variations within the realm of type used for display.

If you're really interested in this topic, checkout Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style. He has an interesting historical model that makes good sense.

  • Thanks. I actually ordered the book right before posting the question. Expecting it this Friday!!! I have read a lot of good things about this book, hope it is really worth the money. – nt.bas Oct 4 '12 at 6:01
  • It's one of the greatest books available on the subject. Well worth the price. I'm also a big fan of Tschichold's The Form of the Book -- a collection of essays that deal largely with classical typography. – plainclothes Oct 4 '12 at 20:41
  • I got the book and it is a great one! Thanks a lot for recommending this book! +1 for that - at least until i get 15 rep! – nt.bas Oct 6 '12 at 4:17

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