How do you Classify

skellysgirl's picture

There have been calls over the last 20 yrs for an updated or new typeface classification system, the most common within the UK seems to be vox, s standards.

Now I would love to pick your brains on this subject as there are questions that I have which I don’t believe can be answered easily or even agreeably for that matter.
I am struggling to make decisions and form opinions on this, and as a very inexperienced student I would appreciate your opinions and knowledge on the subject. I am aware of this subject being covered before but it hasn’t seemed to touch on the questions or answers I have been looking for.
I am will be writing on this subject for my dissertation so please just fire away with anything you may feel is relevant.
Below are a few questions that would be most helpful so I can get an idea of just what typographers in the real world feel, thanks Lou

Do you feel there is a need for and updated or new system?

Do you feel a typeface classification is help or is too restrictive?

What system do you use?

Do you prefer to come up with your own system?

dan_reynolds's picture

>Do you feel there is a need for an updated or new system?


>Do you feel a typeface classification is helpful or is too restrictive?

Too restrictive!

There have been several great classification discussions here on Typophile. Somewhere is super post from John Hudson, where he references an old Chinese classification system for animals.

Ca. 1993, Emigre published an article with Jonathan Hoefler about typeface classification. He pointed out that one of the results of classification was that designers sought out all of the holes or border areas of the system, and designed virtually unclassifiable faces for those slots.

This will only continue. I think that classification always runs after type design. Its like trying to put the whole ocean into a hole in the sand on the beach…

ill sans's picture

A typeface classification in terms of keywords is often a tricky thing since it is heavily subdued to subjectivity (except for the obvious standard serif/sans, different kind of serifs,... classifications). E.g. unless you're talking about a digitilized version of an original 60's font, you could dispute whether a typeface is really retro or not.
I divided a bunch of my fonts in personal subcategories (mostly based on the graphic work it would suit well), but even being the single judge, I find that it still has its flaws.
The overall problem nowadays is probably the same as in music; too many subcategories are mixed in the creative process which might result in more original fonts, but also makes it a whole lot harder to catogorize them (a great example of this is Linotype's Konflikt -
I do find the tags on quite good, but you can hardly add up to 30 tags to every font for every keyword that pops into your head. And just labeling everything a little different as a display font is not a solution either.
More choice often presents you with more doubt & problems.
Less is more, but might not really do the trick in subcatogorizeing things anymore.

timd's picture

Some of the discussions about classification.
My answers are the same as Dan's, the only area where classification seems to have much relevance is that of identifying or describing a typeface, eventually attempts to classify will end up with so many classes that one might as well use the font name.

rs_donsata's picture

You need to have a restricted purpose and a criterion to serve in order to create a practical classification. Otherwise it's a useless task.

There are already some popular classification systems for historical study purposes (Vox and Bringhurst), other for practicual purposes (display, body, decorative, etc...)

Why do you need to clasify typefaces?


skellysgirl's picture

its not that im trying to classify typefaces ,
what the issue is that im trying to understand is , is there an actual need for any system at all,
I do feel personally that as soon as any style of system is put into place then some see it as good and as a guide , some just see a new set of boundries to break , which to me the starting the actual system brings along a means to the end , if you understand me , but with that along the way it pushes type has evolve so then to me there is validation in a system , it feels like a vicious circle

I did feel that even thought there has been calls for a new system there isnt a huge amount of interest about it thats what leads me to believe that people just would prefare to follow their own ideas about it
But i wont find out if this is the truth by guessing and the next best thing is to ask the people like yourself who are passionate about type because to anyone else its just irrelevent

timd's picture

It is an interesting hypothesis, that type design evolves by designers spotting a niche in a market and that niche is revealed by a classification system, I am not sure if it is true but then again I don't know what inspires type designers (and each will probably have different sources of inspiration). As I said above my main use for a system is in order to identify typefaces rather than to identify what's missing.

skellysgirl's picture

its wasnt that i look for whats missing its just whilst looking at typefaces i could understand where they fit but others either passed over more than one catogory or not in to any at all and it drove me round the bend , i myself like to think everything has a place , but those that dont have a place they are proof that it dosent work ,
As said eirlier i am looking into this for my dissertation and i will be focusing on the pros and cons of the system and looking at what suggestions there are regarding changes and im mainly hoping to get an idea of wether the calls are supported , lou

bieler's picture


The first thing to do, I would think, is to investigate the history of type classification systems. They begin about mid-twentieth century. That's sort of a clue.

I was asked by Adobe Systems, pre-Bringhurst, to do a classification system of their offerings for their magazine (can't recall the name), but I ignored it. Mainly, I think the theory of classification systems, per se, is nonsense as it is based on a flawed premise.

Bringhurst, for instance, bases his system on cultural historical developments. The problem with this is that it was only in the mid-19th century that type revivals began and they began in earnest in the late-19th century only because of the availabilty of film for photography. Without the ability to reproduce historical specimens there are no historical specimens. Bringhurst ignores such technological developments as influence.

The explosions in type design: the development of wood type, the wholesale ransacking of the recent past (19th-century) as the result of photoengraving, the early twentieth century revivals (one a pseudo revival, another a serious revival), the switch over to photo-offset composition in the late 1950s, the switch-over to digital in the 1980s; all of these are far more significant events than what is proffered by a systematic rethinking of historical continuum.

An then, of course, every classification system I've ever seen has this garbage can at the bottom where everything that doesn't fit anywhere else, is just thrown in.

Are classifications systems useful? well, yes, but only if you have an understanding of THEIR development and purpose. I guess I should ask. How useful is a knowledge of Garamond's development in terms of a typographic designer's concern when it was previously not known (shown) prior to the twentieth-century?

Gerald Lange
The Bieler Press

skellysgirl's picture

Hi gerald , thanx for your very informative and helpful view

I have started by looking into the origins and at the moment I am following the lines of the enlightenment and the line perused by Robin Kinross that much of the origins stemmed from Moxons guide of how he wrote in his book that he found it easier to separate into size, from there the French alphabet which led to the point size, that is as far as I have gotten so far.

I have found much information on Brighurst and Catherine Dixon, but very little on the actual systems themselves and the only one which I have found a substantial amount of info on is vox’s so for now much of my work is based around this.
I am not sure exactly which avenue to travel down at the moment as I really need to speak to my tutor to make sure I am going in the right direction, my initial plan is to start with my interest in it followed by a brief history run down, then a detailed look at vox’s system and how it has withstood the changes such as you mentioned in the post and see at which point it was that it started to fail if it ever truly worked form the start.
From there I hope to look at the calls for a change and current efforts such as Dixon’s and thoughts and suggestions made and to look at whether there is enough support for it and if it is feasible to expect a new system to be workable and welcomed.

Sorry to warble on and please excuse my write as I talk style, I am not quite as academically minded as many of my colleagues (I am an older student and have come to uni after a 15 yr gap), I can grasp the ideas its just then writing it and structuring it that I struggle with but that will be worked on,
If anyone can think of any texts or book that might be of any use or even just any thoughts I would love to hear them, thanks for your time and your replys,

bieler's picture


I had an article published something maybe 15 years when I was a bit more concerned about the development of classification systems. I will look it up tomorrow and scan you a copy if you like. I think you can contact me direct by clicking on the icon, or go to the blog.

As far as I can recall the Vox was the first or, at least, it was the first significant attempt. I've done some study on Moxon and have written a book that I have not yet completed the printing of. Hopefully, by year's end. He was quite an amazing fellow. I'd read him everynight. Sometimes he was boring beyond belief, other times humorous, and, occasionally amazingly insightful. Mechanick Exercises is a phenomenon; and it paved the way (unfortunately, not in his lifetime).


ill sans's picture

I read in a book ("About Face" by David Jury; which is an easy read even for people with no typographic background like me) yesterday that Vox's classification was approved by the Association Typographique Internationale (AtypI).
I haven't checked out the site, but maybe you can find something useful on it.

ill sans's picture

I read in a book ("About Face" by David Jury; which is an easy read even for people with no typographic background like me) yesterday that Vox's classification was approved by the Association Typographique Internationale (AtypI).
I haven't checked out the site, but maybe you can find something useful on it.

timd's picture

This book, which uses BS 2961: 1967, developed from Vox, has a short list of classification systems in the foreword's bibliography.

A proposal for a different classification system.

btw Gerald missed out an o on his url

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