A New System for Type Categories

There has never been a concerted effort on the part of typographers in the United States to produce a system of classification for printers’ types. Unlike the more methodical Europeans, American printers have been more or less content with haphazard terminology, with the result that every writer who discusses type classification involves his own procedures concerning the order in which types are presented.

Even the astute typographic historian, Henry L. Bullen, over 50 years ago referred to group types under such general headings as Body Types, Display Types, and Publicity Types. There was, however, considerably less need to be specific about type classification prior to World War I, for printers and type users were not engulfed by the myriad designs which issued from typefounders and typesetting machine manufacturers during the ensuing years. At the present time it is essential that the young designer or typographer be given logical guidance that he is to become familiar in all its variety with the basic tool with which he used to work.

During the last 20 years I have gradually evolved a method of classifying types which seem to work quite well for student typographers. I can claim no originality here, since there are no startling and unique categories into which types may be compartmented. Instead I have sought to utilize the standard terminology known by most printers, and to arrange the procedure along logical lines.

In the attempt to keep it simple there are a few loopholes, but the fundamental premise of any type classification system is merely to point the way toward reasonable competency in recognizing typefaces and must never be an end in itself.

The system follows:

Blackletter: Since movable types were the invention, about 1440, of Johann Gutenberg, who imitated the manuscript writing of his period and his locality (Germany), it is reasonable to start with that style. In United States we cannot use the true European term to describe this letter, which is properly gothic, so we must call it blackletter or textletter, either of which is satisfactory for the purpose.

Type Category System

(top to bottom) Goudy Text as an example of Blackletter, Eusebius as an example of Venetian, Garamont as an example of French, Caslon Oldstyle 337 as an example of Dutch-English, Monotype Baskerville as an example of Transitional, Monotype Bodoni 275 as an example of Modern, Ludlow Tempo as an example of Sans Serif, Craw Clarendon as an example of Square Serif, Virtuosa as an example of Script-Cursive, and Romantique 5 as an example of Decorative.

Blackletter styles are many and varied, but since this type is not widely used at the present time, there is no need to break the various historic models down any further. The type in the illustration is Goudy Text.

Venetian Oldstyle: when the German punchcutters first made their way to Italy in 1465, they quickly learned that the preferred lettering style in southern Europe was based on the Humanist penmanship, which was rounder and of less weight than the blackletter of the north. After some experimentation, a type was finally cut about 1470 which adhered to the Humanist pattern. This style is also called roman, to differentiate it from the blackletter. Since the most successful Italian printers were located in Venice, their types found the most favor, hence the description, Venetian Oldstyle.

The development of the Oldstyle types was spread over a period of 250 years. During that time there occurred certain basic changes which should be recognized. The Italian letter was quite monotone in structure and serifs were generally concave, or irregular. Toward the close of the 15th century, the types of the Aldine Press began to depart a little from this pattern as the punchcutters enjoyed their independence from the writing masters. It was the Aldine type which was greatly admired in France and widely pirated. The type in the illustration is Eusebius, a modern adaptation of the 1470 type of Nicholas Jenson.

French Oldstyle: during the 16th century the French types continue and improved upon the Aldine letter, providing greater contrast of stroke and wider serifs. This style is best known today by the various interpretations of the type cut by Claude Garamond about 1540. The type in the illustration is Garamont, designed for Monotype by F. W. Goudy.

Dutch-English Oldstyle: following the French typographic dominance during the 16th century, the printers in the Low Countries set typographic styles for the next century. The Dutch forms were widely used in England and became the inspiration for William Caslon when he established his great typefoundry about 1720. The type in the illustration is Caslon Oldstyle 337 of Monotype.

Transitional: By the middle of the 18th century, type designers were long past their dependence upon letters drawn by the broad pen. They were influenced by many forces which contributed to a changed style of letterform. Serifs became straighter and the stress of round letters was perpendicular rather than left-oblique commonly associated with the oldstyle types.

Transitional types, it is generally agreed, begin with the style of John Baskerville, who first used his type in 1787. There are a few earlier types which could be called transitional, but those of Baskerville had the greatest effect on European printers and punchcutters. This is probably the largest group of roman types presently available to contemporary printers, possessing characteristics of the oldstyles which preceded them and the modern which came after. The type illustration is Monotype Baskerville.

Modern: With this classification, the roman letter which began with the type of Jensen in 1470 attained its final structure. During the 1770s the Didot family in France and Giambattista Bodoni in Italy both produced types of great contrast, and with hairline unbracketed serifs. The type of the illustration is Monotype Bodoni 275.

Sans Serif: Simply, type without serifs. Introduced early in the 18th century in England as a jobbing or commercial type, this form was an immediate success throughout the world, enjoying a popularity which is not diminished up to the present time. The earlier forms were adaptations of the roman types, retaining a number of the characteristics of romans, but just eliminating the serifs. In the United States these fonts were called gothic, with reference primarily to their heavy weight. The name has stuck, but generally only for those forms developed during the 19th century and their more recent adaptations.

During the Twenties, a geometric design of sans serif letters achieved wide acceptance with the introduction of the Futura types which have been extensively copied. The type in the illustration is Ludlow Tempo.

Square Serifs: Another 19th century commercial type, primarily influenced by the sans serif designs, but with serifs of the same weight as the main strokes of the letter. Those square serifs which have bracketed serifs are generally called Clarendon’s. Following the success of the geometric sans serifs 35 years ago, there were a number of similar designs issued in the square serif category. The type in the illustration is Craw Clarendon.

Script-Cursive: types which are adapted from hand writing styles and are therefore extremely varied, fall into this group. Some printers prefer to call the former curses if the letters do not join, and script if they do join. The type in the illustration is Virtuosa.

Decorative: another name for this final group could be Display. An even more appropriate term would be Hell Box, as that is just what it is. All of the types which do not comfortably sit in the other groups end up here. Primarily, a variation such as “Open” or “Inline,” or the like, would best be placed with the basic letter form it resembles, but if the design follows no distinct style as described in the aforementioned groups, it belongs here. The type illustrated is Romantique 5.

It is important to remember that the principal purpose of the system of type classification is to begin to know the characteristics of the countless type styles now available, the end result of this being a knowledge of how to use type. If the system attempts to include every single type ever designed, then it becomes just too unwieldy to be practical, becoming instead another way of confusing the problem.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the December 1966 issue of Printing Impressions.

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  1. […] in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the December 1966 issue of Printing Impressions. That article is available here, on the web site of the Alexander S. Lawson archive. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the […]

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