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Historical Classification of Typefaces

Today we look at the evolution of typefaces from the years before the Guttenberg Press through the early years of the twentieth century. The earliest  faces, very naturally, resembled the hand scripted style used in Europe during the thirteenth century. These are known as Blackletter and it is very hard to imagine reading an entire text produced with this heavy font style. Yet, for the few who were literate in that time this elaborate, heavy font seemed quite readable.

The following table outlines the typeface classes that mark the evolution of type over 600 years.  

Historical Classification System

The table is a mere summary of this very interesting story. We must add a plug for the blog called “i love typography,” the creation of John Boardley, a graphic designer. A link to that blog is here. It tells the story with flair and style and is well worth checking out if you are at all interested in knowing more about fonts— or just seeing how interesting the topic can be in the hands of a person who has deep knowledge and a love of the subject.

Here, for example, is a passage from the “i love typography” blog in which the author is writing about the Modern class of fonts. We present this excerpt to give you a feel for how poetic this subject matter can really be:

There’s something rather clinical about the Moderns, especially in the roman capitals. Their vertical axis coupled with strong horizontal stress furnishes them with the stiffness of toy soldiers on parade. They are elegant, and like all things elegant, look unhurried, calm, and in control. They’re generally not suited to setting extended text, as the verticality of the letter forms interferes with the text’s horizontal rhythm. The letters don’t lead our eyes across the page, but rather up and down…

The Moderns need lots of space (white space and inter-line space), so give them extra leading and  generous margins; and if you pair a Modern with another face, then make sure it’s not a fussy one, or your page will look like a circus poster designed by a visually impaired dog.

Any classifcation system that stops in the early twentieth century is, of course, far from complete. The twentieth was a period of great expansion of the art and the tools used to create and use fonts and typefaces. We’ll look at this explosion of diversity tomorrow, when we get into what fonts or typefaces are best suited for what tasks. Have you noticed, for example, that if you go to any bookshelf, pick up a book, and look inside, you will find, without a doubt, a roman font (remember, from yesterday, the romans all have serifs). Yet, on the spines of all those books you will see lots of gothic (san serif) fonts…

We’ll get into all of this tomorrow. Again, our font sample come to you thanks to the Adobe sales site, accessible here.


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