Font categories: Knock it off

Ray Larabie's picture

Conventional font categories are practically useless to me. Almost every font I make falls under decorative, sans-serif or both. That's not much of a category range. Pretty much anything before Morrison I throw into the Ancient category. I don't have any need to subdivide that category. For my purposes, those fonts have a common thread: not particularly interested. Most if not all font categories deal with pre-Morrison archetypes.

Old sans (Franklin Gothic and other sans with ancient flav)
Geo-classical (Futura, Gill, Bernhard Gothic)
Helveticas (Arial, and hundreds of other mid-century neutrals)
Frutigers (Museo Sans, Verdana)
Humanist sans (Easy. If the baseline is straight, it ain't humanist. Most of what I see categorized as humanist are just Franklins.)
Geo-gothic (Avant Garde)
Square Sans (EF Digital, Bank Gothic, Chimes)
Superelliptical (Microgramma, Eurostile)
Brush Sans (Flash, Balloon)
Techincal (DIN, Highway Gothic, stencils, elevator buttons, template lettering, labels & other "ugly" lettering)
Pixel (early computing retro, including segmented LED)
MICR (Data 70)
Rounded Sans (V.A.G., Arial Rounded)
Compacta (Impact, Helv Inserat)
Industrial slabs (Memphis, Museo)
Stops (Stop and similar minimalist variants produced in the 70's & 80's. I didn't think it was a category until I moved to Japan. Bored font historians looking for a subject should try tracking Stop's influence on car emblems, videogames, graffiti and the circa 1990 4k demo scene.)
Geo slabs (Lubalin Graph)
Structured scripts (Magneto, Deftone Stylus)
Scripts (boo)
Decorative (Actually decorative. Fonts that look like fire or chrome etc. It's often used as a catch-all category by the ancient ones)
Misc (a better name for a catch-all category)

These are the categories I use in my work. Unfortunately, other people don't see these as categories. A famous font grump called my Pirulen font a Bank Gothic knock-off or something but he probably wouldn't call every transitional font a Times knock-off. Categories are important. Exploring a category sounds better than knocking off.

In the future, people and machines will make more Geoslabs. They will all resemble Avant Garde Gothic a bit. Geometry, baby. People will make Compactas that look somewhat like Compacta. They'll make hundreds more MICR and Stop inspired fonts and there will always be those who will place them in the Decorative category and call them knock-offs while they toil away on the next great, slightly-different Garamond.

blank's picture

There are plenty of people who agree with you. Unlike you, most of them do not have a good motive for developing such a system of classification and publishing it. Keep working on this.

Nick Shinn's picture

Ray, were all those "Stan" geometric fonts in the old VGC catalogue designed by Tony Stan?

Andreas Stötzner's picture

Typodermic, first: I agree with you, established font category schemes are AGES behind.
Example: Myfonts.

To simply tag the fonts is not the solution.

I guess, nothing will happen until a case can be made for better categorization increases finding and sales.

A sensible categorization for the future would have to be, in my opinion, two- or three-dimensional. That means, one can combine a feature 1-“Venetian” with a feature 2-“florated” or 3-“shaddowed” and so on. Perhaps it would only work (for searching = finding = sales) when fonts get tagged systematically and not arbitrarily. *Inside* the font info data, possibly.

If one looks for, e.g.: “a blackletter connected script Greek” – you’re lost.

Has anybody an overview about what has been done in this respect during the last ten years?

How big is the interest of font producers to work out and agree upon a new categorization scheme?

Mark Simonson's picture

I have always liked Photo-Lettering Inc.'s category system. It was not unlike what you are suggesting, and it similarly rose out of practical considerations.

Ray Larabie's picture

I don't know if categorization is important to everyone else. What I've always found frustrating is since they stopped making new font categories the 20th century happened and hundreds of new categories blossomed. I don't know what makes a font category. Some fonts are so special, that nothing comes close to them. It doesn't happen much these days but in the 20th century new font categories happened a lot.

If I treat a font as a category it means nothing to anyone else. As far as most people are concerned it's a tribute, knock-off, "inspired by" or whatever you want to call it. You think I'm making a tribute to Stop, in my ad copy I tip my hat to it. But in my mind, I'm just making a Stop. In my mind Stop is a category like a clarendon. When I think about Stops, I not only consider the original Stop but all the other Stops I've seen in my life. The way graffiti artists interpreted it. The way it was incorporated into the square sans (Roland). Amiga intros: lots of Stop influenced fonts there. And, as I mentioned, in Japan, Stop wormed its way into the visual culture and it fed back into western techno culture.

Nick: damn, I just lost 10 font geek point because I have no idea. But I ended up finding this which is fascinating.

They must still sell a shitload of Amelia. Those were different times and font piracy, like doing tons of coke, was super cool. Yet those crap versions still persist.

Mark Simonson's picture

In some ways, categories are too limiting. Several of my own typefaces are difficult to categorize because they are hybrids of traditional categories. I find the areas outside of established categories are the most interesting to explore.

As a type designer, sticking to established categories is actually a quite difficult way to make a living. If a category is established, then there probably already exists a face that exemplifies that category and will be the default choice for designers looking for something in that category. Overthrowing the king of a type category isn't impossible--it happens--but the odds are against it.

.00's picture

I agree with Mark on the Photo-Lettering classification system. I learned an awful lot about type by perusing their "One Line Manual of Style" as a young designer.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

I think the actual reason behind dealing with font categories is getting a pragmatic means for selection and font picking.
I don’t see it as a matter of confinement for me as a type designer.

But in the age of *myriads* of fonts to choose from we ought to think about: how can interested people be helped with finding what they look for?

dezcom's picture

Too often, I see classifications that seem odd or even wrong to me. It seems as though classifications have noting to do with what the designer had in mind and more to do with whatever the person doing the categorization seems to feel is important. I think I will just make stuff and not bother giving it a category. If someone else later puts it in a category, I am fine with that as long as I don't have to be involved in the nit picking arguments that come with such a chore.

In his day and age, their is technology that can figure out much of the "what is this thing" problems. My only problem is assigning search terms or meta-data that will help a person find my type if it fits their needs. I can't be sure I have covered the correct bases to make a reasonably intelligent search. When I have gone to a vendor like MyFonts and typed in search criteria, I am often amazed at what shows up! I look at faces out there which I think are capable of doing the same kind of job as faces I am working on and see what search terms they have used. It is not unusual for me to see terms that don't seem to fit my intention. That is not to say that "My Way" is the right way, it just indicates how hard it is to get enough of the search terms that any given font buyer would use to find what they want. I hate the guys who put every search term on earth in all their type just to be included in everyones searches, no matter what.

butterick's picture

how can interested people be helped with finding what they look for?

Indeed. Most type classification efforts, PANOSE included, define fonts in terms of morphological and historical characteristics that make sense to hardcore typographers, but don't have much utility to someone who wants to know "what's a good font for this project?" or "what font would go with this one I already have?"

In other words, putting fonts in a "humanist sans" category is great if you already know what a humanist sans is and what it's good for. If you don't, then the category might as well be "florble-glorks."

dezcom's picture

The problem comes when you "think" you know what "Humanist Sans" means. I had no idea that they required stems that were not square on the baseline. I thought it had to do with variable proportions that were more akin to serif faces historically, and a looser, less rigid structure and perhaps a bit of a departure from the straight line.

It makes me want to figure out what kind of jobs I would want to do with a humanist sans as opposed to say a grotesk.

Ray Larabie's picture

Whenever I hear humanist I think about Meathead from All in the Family. It's not helpful.

I just opened the PLINC for the first time in a while. Those categories are pretty good. I like how they kept the name of the category leaders like Helveticas and Franklins except not capitalized.

Some companies have expressed that they don't wish their trademarked name to lower-case. That's why, when I photoshop, regardless of what app I'm photoshopping with, I always begin wth a lowercase p.

Some of the PLINC categories, are styles. Stencils, shadows, bas relief, blocks. The PLINC catalog I have was printed in 1971. I guess humanist sans fonts hadn't been invented yet because there's no category for it <-interrobang goes here

blank's picture

They must still sell a shitload of Amelia. Those were different times and font piracy, like doing tons of coke, was super cool. Yet those crap versions still persist.

And they wonder why graphic designers laugh at their anti-piracy campaigns.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Come on, Ray. The base categories are good for connecting the dots across those decoration informed boundries (brushy, industrial etc.) you draw (most of them, not all). As for how to find that font that has this or that flavour, I'm with Andreas: tag's.

eliason's picture

I guess humanist sans fonts hadn't been invented yet because there's no category for it <-interrobang goes here

FWIW I have seen a "humanist sans" (or "humanist lineal") category in classification schemes of the 1960s.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

* Categories: “classifications” is more precise.

Robert Trogman's picture

For more info on type categories see Youtube search RTrogman and TYPE SERIES

Richard Fink's picture

The problem of font categories has gotten bounced around lately on the Google Web Fonts blog, too.

The question is whether using "categories" helps designers find the fonts they'd like to use for a particular project or not.
It's a means, not an end. And as a means, it isn't working.

This is the available research saying this, not me. Although my own personal experience jibes with it.

eliason's picture

What's the "available research"?

dezcom's picture

The world is moving to search criteria to replace the older classification categories. If we think in therms of macro or micro definitions of the things that are used to define "categories" (think in terms of litmus test) we may be able to align what users want with how we label our products.

riccard0's picture

Categories, taxonomies, classifications are dependant on time, context and target group: what is good for a typographer isn’t the same that’s good for a discerning customer. Even less for the unshaven masses.

Just one example: “modern”.

Nick Shinn's picture

Ray, it's a class system.
If you want your nouveau riche fonts to chum with the aristocracy, they will require some airs and graces—small caps, old style figures, &c.

Ray Larabie's picture

Well, I don't wanna start a class war or anything.

Richard Fink's picture


For starters, try this:

And then try talking to a few web designers. Marketing is a simple thing. (But few do it. I guess because it's work. And it almost always leads to more work. It's much easier to lean back on the couch of opinions and assumptions that "everybody knows" are true but never are.)

eliason's picture

For starters, try this:

I don't see anything in that summary about categories not working for users. It only says vaguely that users want "excellent organization of the fonts" (and later, that subjective-seeming tags are a concern). Was there more (about categories) in the talk that didn't make it into the summary?

thierry blancpain's picture

Can someone explain to me why the baseline can't be straight in a humanist sans? It may be that this was an original definition of it for one classification scheme or the other, but I can't think of anyone that ever defined it to me like that. For a modern classification, it doesn't seem to make much sense to exclude for example Frutigers from that category; for most people I know, they're actually one of the leading examples for humanist sans serifs.

quadibloc's picture

It certainly is true that traditional typeface categories tend to neglect even the recognized subdivisions of sans-serif types (Grotesques, Geometric sans-serif, Humanist sans-serif), never mind attempting to subdivide the endless chaos of display faces.

Instead, they're mostly occupied with Roman faces, and even there, the classification is focused on the serif style. So we might get...

Egyptian slab-serif
Latin (wedge serif)

as a list of classifications.

Some additional categories...

Weighted sans (i.e. Radiant, Globe Gothic)
Flare serif (i.e. Optima)

Grotesque (early sans-serifs)
Gothic (News Gothic, Franklin Gothic)
Geometric sans
Humanist sans

are obvious enough, but to really subdivide today's sans-serif faces might be considered by some to be akin to creating a division similar to that between oldstyle and modern for last week's fashions.

And what Stone Sans and Lucida Sans have in common seems to be rather subtle, in any case...

Seymour Caprice's picture

"Most if not all font categories deal with pre-Morrison archetypes."

I'm with you on the Pre/Post Morrison era definition. When Jim tweaked Cooper Black and put it on the cover of LA Woman - that was a watershed moment. What followed was the whole Tootsie-Roll-Brady-Bunch-Hour typography steamroller that defined a decade. Nice call.

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