fentonfenton's picture

I am trying to understand the classification of sans-serif typefaces, but more specifically that of the Grotesque.

The early British design shown in the example has clearly different qualities to say a typeface like Univers.

Is anybody aware of any better classification systems? because to my eye, Helvetica, Univers should not be in this category.

Thanks in advance.


andreas's picture

Can't believe there is a difference between grotesk and grotesque in design. Grotesk is German spelling and Grotesque English.

Dan Gayle's picture

Aren't Univers and Helvetica the very definition of Neo-grotesque?

dirtcastle's picture

I tend to cheat and look at the terminals of "a" and "e" when I'm feeling lazy.

Fontgrube's picture


There seems to be a lot of nonsense in Typedia, for instance: Blackletter: "A script style of calligraphy made with a broad-nibbed pen using vertical, curved and angled strokes. Popular from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance (and up to the 20th Century mainly in Germany)"


eliason's picture

Aren’t Univers and Helvetica the very definition of Neo-grotesque?

Bleisetzer's picture

He, hee...
Take DIN 16 518

All your "modern" way of classification of fonts sometimes seem to me like a game, who finds the most dusty and cloudy adjectives to describe a font. I like facts. So the DIN 16 518 is a solution with some disadvantages, but it worked well for 40 years of letterpress. So why not today, too?

„Ich bin ein Preuße, kennt Ihr meine Farben...“

Nick Shinn's picture

The early British design shown in the example has clearly different qualities to say a typeface like Univers.

Qualities of execution, which are media-specific.
But the letter-shapes and proportions are very similar.

So compare with the original Garamond, and all the versions that have been done, with different qualities, in different media--but all derived from the same letter shapes.

fentonfenton's picture

Hello all,

Thanks for the input!

I managed to track down an earlier definition taken from Wikipedia in 2007 which clearly puts Helvetica and Univers in the Neo-grotesque category, this seems to be a little more logical now.

(We corrected Wiki also)

For those of you raising the Grotesque v Grotesk issue; it seems the German term Grotesk originally stems from the British word Grotesque (definite origins slightly cloudy). But today is used more as an umbrella term for what the British might call (or Wiki) the Sans-serif category.

To nick, thanks for your comments, although i feel slightly more comfortable with this definition?
Although i do wonder why the British Grotesques developed those certain characteristics, such as the slightly concave endings and contrasting thicks and thins?

Anybody got a theory on this. I did hear it might be remnants of traces left-over from calligraphic types? or maybe an attempt to simulate a certain primitive quality?

I wonder what you guys thought?

Thanks again.

ruba's picture


David Rault's picture

Here is the Sans Serif classification I propose in my book (that is basically the one proposed by Lewis Blackwell in "Typography of the 20th Century" with some modification by myself):

– Grotesque, the first sans serif, from the early 19th century to the 1920's : Akzidenz Grotesk, Franklin Gothic ;
– Humanistic : Gill Sans, Johnston ;
– Geometrical : Futura, Avant-Garde, Kabel ;
– Modern : Helvetica, Univers, Folio ;
– Contemporary : FF Meta, Fedra Sans, Hybrea, FF Cocon…


Nick Shinn's picture

Any system which uses the terms Modern and Contemporary is extremely time-sensitive. In other words, it will quickly become meaningless, as what is now contemporary and modern becomes passé. It seems absurd to describe Meta, soon to celebrate its quarter-century, as contemporary. Well yes, it is still quite popular, but so is Bembo!

You have to decide on which system to classify by, for instance:

- a description of physical characteristics
- provenance

"Modern" could conceivably be a phyllogenetic term, but it would have to relate to the Modernist movement in art and design, which would include both grotesques in the early years (see Lissitsky's The Isms of Art and then geometrics, clearly related to De Stijl and Purism.

Are we not in the post-modern era? So why not have typefaces that belong to multiple categories?
Isn't that the way that metadata now works, in keywording at various websites?

Florian Hardwig's picture

@Nick: Word.
(And what a superb Tschichold doppelgänger pic! Classy.)

quadibloc's picture

Since "Standard" is Akzidenz Grotesk under another name (isn't it?), I do have to be very suspicious of any chart that puts the two faces under different classifications.

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