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Type and class how to distinguish typeforms




A much simpler way A simple way Classifications today Alternative: x-height









a a a a a a a a a Humanes Centaur

Garaldes Garamond

Réales Baskerville

Didones Bodoni

Mécanes Rockwell

Linéales Helvetica

Incises Renaissance

Scriptes Mistral

Manuaires FetteFraktur

HOW TO DISTINGUISH TYPEFORMS At the Atypi congress of 1962 Maximilien Vox formulated nine distinctive typeform categories, we now generally refer to as the ‘Classification Vox’. humanes garaldes réales didones mécanes linéales incises scriptes manuaires In the name ‘garalde’ Vox combined the names of Aldus (Manutius) and Garamond, while Didot and Bodoni are echoed in ‘didone’. The name ‘mécane’ refers to the mechanical appearance of the rectangular serifs we find in what we usually call ‘egyptians’. We will compare his terminology with other attempts at categorization in a scheme loosely based on an overview by Georg Schauer, 1971

USA Ettenberg 1947

Switzerland Hostettler 1949

UK British Standards 2961-1967

UK USA older names 1962


old style



garamond, old style



old face, old style

display types


transitional, caslon, old style

transition didone slab serif

bodoni regular, modern

lineale glyphic

square serif types sans serif types decorative scripts

modern face, modern roman egyptian, slab serif antique

script graphic

sans serif, gothic display roman scripts

Portugal 1969

Spain 1969

Netherlands Groenendaal, Ovink 1965

Italy Novarese 1965





































DDR 1962

BRD Schauer 1971

BRD DIN 16518 1964

renaissance antiqua

renaissance antiqua, jenson

venezianische renaissance antiqua

barock antiqua

renaissance antiqua, garamond

klassizistische antiqua

franzรถsische renaissance antiqua

barock antiqua serifenbetonte antiqua serifenlose linear antiqua

barock antiqua klassizistische antiqua serifenbetonte antiqua

schreibschriften sachlich betonte schriften

serifenlose linear antiqua

klassizistische antiqua serifenbetonte antiqua serifenlose linear antiqua

schauschriften antiqua varianten scripten schreibschriften manuale antiqua handschriftliche antiqua

Switzerland Tschichold 1952

France Vox 1963

France older names 1962

venezianische antiqua




elzévir de transition

ältere antiqua réales antiqua des übergangs

classiques, didot didones egyptienne

jüngere antiqua



linéales, simplices (1954)

antique grotesk, endstrichlose

incises scriptes manuaires




To provide insight in the international terminology, its logic and illogic – adding small representative samples of the type forms categorized. The German terms are by far the most complicating: they do not correspond with Vox’s attempt at a typographic ‘esperanto’ or ‘neo-latin’ we could all understand. Most of Vox’s neologisms are easy to grasp and remember, and possibly evoke an effective ‘image’ of each group of typefaces (difficult to represent by naming or showing just one member). For German use, a 10th category is added for black letter (gebrochene Schriften: Fraktur, Schwabacher) to come after 9, manuaires. Following Vox, other classifications consider blackletter to be an integral part of 9, manuaires. The lengthy German names (and the need for an extra 10th category for black letter) seem to be asking for trouble. In 1971 Germany was still divided in east: DDR (German Democratic Republic) and west: BRD (Federal Republic of Germany). These two countries both had their own opinions and, as a third one: the DIN (Deutsche Industrie Norm) standard classification of 1964. Schauer 1971 attempts to implement more of Vox’s terms in his German listing, though in fact he doesn’t make it easier. The three German categorizations agree on ‘serifenbetonte linear antiqua’: why


not simply: ‘egyptian’? Serifenbetonte linear ntiqua is a distinction from ‘serifenlose linear antiqua’ – which is a similarly confusing phrase for the much shorter term ‘grotesk’ or ‘endstrichlose’. What these lengthy, water-tight German formulas convey is: egyptian and serifless are both linear of construction egyptians have stressed serifs serifless have none In his 1952 scheme, Jan Tschichold leaves us with only 6 distinct typeform classes, in german: venezianische antiqua ältere antiqua antiqua des übergangs jüngere antiqua egyptienne grotesk (endstrichlose) These crisp alternative names ‘egyptienne’ and ‘grotesk’ in Swiss-German, by Jan Tschichold are brief and clear – however his use of the relative terms ‘older’ (ältere, for garaldes) and ‘newer’ (jüngere, for didones) seems unclear and less practical. Also, he leaves three blanks (7, 8 and 9) where Vox distinguishes incises, scriptes, manuaires. Incises are an important category, earning our attention. If it is hard to




decide between scriptes and manuaires (pen, brush?), consider these are not text faces but ‘special occasion’ or display sorts.



A much simpler way Rudolf Hostettler’s Swiss precision 1949 booklet The printer’s terms distinguishes only two classes of type: ‘old style’ (oblique serif; oblique or biased stress) ‘modern’ (flat serif; upright or vertical stress) Per consequence, we come near the idea of Gerrit Noordzij described below: contrast as a main distinction. Concentrating on ‘book faces’, Hostettler sweeps all other typeforms aside as ‘display faces / caractères travaux de ville / akzidenzschriften’. Some would probably fit the ‘modern’ category, though this would still not make them a ‘book face’.



A simple way While introducing Chinese and Japanese characters, a booklet of the Scryption Museum in Tilburg (a museum of writing and office tools from goose feather to typewriter and mouse) very briefly summarizes the history of our latin typeforms – by just showing four lower case n’s. This ultrasimple scheme sums up typographic history (and much of Vox’s intentions):



Starting from these four species, now let’s work our way back to Vox. before 1: add ‘humanist’ serif after 1: add ‘transitional’ or baroque serif after 4: add incises, and scriptes, and manuaires (according to Vox) (we might as well separate ‘linear’ monoline sanserifs from those sanserifs showing thickthin contrast) Now our scheme reads: HUMANIST SERIF (like Centaur, Hollandsche Mediaeval) 1renaissance serif (seriffed book faces like Garamond, Jenson, Perpetua) transitional or baroque serif (seriffed book faces Baskerville, Caslon – transitional meaning on the way to classicist serif) 2classicist serif (extreme thick-thin like Bodoni, Didot, Walbaum) 3slab serif (‘egyptian’ rectangular serifs plusminus as thick as the stroke, like Memphis, Serifa, Caecilia) 4sanserif (serifless, optically linear like Futura or with some thick-thin contrast like Gill Sans)



INCISES (‘sculpted’ sanserif forms like Albertus, Optima, Balance) SCRIPTES (‘written’ like Englische Schreibschrift, Justlefthand, Mistral) MANUAIRES (‘handmade’ like Choc, Banco and also: Fraktur)


Classifications today Adrian Frutiger designed the Linotype typeface handbook presenting a collection of over 2000 vectorised digital fonts available for phototypesetting in 1989, by using 8 specific classes – in three languages: old face / renaissance antiqua / elzévirs transitional / barock-antiqua / elzévirs de transition modern face / klassizistische antiqua / classiques slab serif / serifenbetonte antiqua / egyptiennes sans serif / serifenlose antiqua / antiques decorative and display / antiquavarianten / caractères de fantaisie script and brush / schreib- und pinselschriften / écriture black letter and broken / gebrochene schriften / gothiques Here we see the outcome of some of the difficulties mentioned earlier – the Vox classification adapted to commercial everyday use by a main provider of type based in Germany and Northern America. Now there is a seperate group of blackletter, and the most




confusing terms appear to be ‘antique’ and ‘gothic’. Just compare German antiqua, used for almost any letterform, and French antique only for sans serifs, as in Antique Olive). In French language ‘gothique’ is used for blackletter, whereas gothic is American English for sanserif. In German language, ‘grotesk’ is used to indicate sanserif. Trying to outnumber Franklin Gothic (from the USA) and Akzidenz Grotesk (from Germany) the British Monotype Corporation produced a competitive range of ‘Grotesques’ or ‘sans serifs’ (using French language expressions, to make it even more complex). In a recent classification, presented in Haslam/ Baines, Type and typography (2005) the hand drawn or paint brush typeform is again placed at the beginning of the classification scheme – a good decision since our typographic alphabet has developed from handwritten and painted typeforms. But unfortunately, this ambitious and interesting new scheme surprisingly mixes slab serifs with sans, messing up two distinct nineteenth century innovations in the field of type design. It obscures and makes you long for the clarity of the 4 n’s scheme


Alternative: x-height A scientific investigation into the legability of pharmaceutical instructions for use led design analyst Karel van der Waarde to focuss solely on the x-height of type, a crucial though much overlooked factor in legibility research – where mere point size or capital height often deceives and gives no real clue. Insuring legibility by simply measuring the height of lower case characters instead, his approach much clarifies the (writing and) implementation of government regulations, aimed at reducing health risks. Of course type designers like Christophe Plantin, Morris Fuller Benton, Chauncey Griffith, Stanley Morison and Bram de Does all were already well aware of this, as were all newspapermen – selling advertisement space economically by the em, point or mm. Reflecting on the importance of the x-height, how can we measure it? A simple calculation enables us to express the relationship between capital height and x-height of a typeface in a particular percentage. This ‘x-height percentage’ provides insight in the construction of an alphabet (and type family members) as conceived by its




designer, and at the same time produces an unorthodox classification according to x-height percentage. Apart from functional advantages – finding the fittest type with the right x-height for a particular job – such a range of percentages is revealing. It brings to light a historical inclination to a gradually larger x-height – from around 60% x-height in Garamond’s days to generally about 70% in the 1990s – as well as some interesting exceptions. Quite separate from their contemporaries, Bodoni (1800) and Renner (1928) for instance chose an x-height even smaller than Garamond’s. Percentages also show either a designer’s freedom or strictness while developing a visually effective range of alternative weights: Gill chooses different x-heights for almost every weight of Gill Sans, whereas Frutiger as a rule sticks to 70% for all variants. By concentrating on the x-height of a type design its ‘zeitgeist’, functional or pragmatic points of departure become particularly visible. A broader historical view on the increase of the x-height will probably reveal how this process is linked to the development and related typographic needs of newspaper and jobbing printers during the nineteenth century.


POSTER TYPE Had the 18th century engraver more or less followed handwriting or copied book face proportions, the much larger wooden poster types and especially the first sans serifs immediately get far removed from the proportions of lead type for book production. Wood is used for these large faces, typeforms exploring bold visual effect and maximum economy of space: carving away as little as possible, printing as much as possible. In the early 1800s, exaggerated Bodoni-like typeforms are cut, ever larger, with bold serifs of stem width. Ever closer setting inspires wood type cutters to entirely do without serifs, and they also reinterpret ascenders and decenders. Other than with conventional led type (up to its maximum point sizes of 48 or 54), most far larger size wood type for posters is chiselled as a set of cap height blocks. First, only caps are made. Later, also lower case characters are cut, on similar cap-height bodies minimizing below-character space consumption: no ‘beard’. The only exception to the cap-height block would be the alphabet’s five descenders g, j, p, q, y on taller blocks, a difference in height to be solved during composition. Pragmatically optimising the visual impact, these first sans serif designs already use as




much space as possible above the lower case letterforms – which increases the x-height, and makes ascenders and descenders shorter at the same time. [compare 1830s sans serif type with 20th century examples like Impact and Antique Olive. compare also with fraktur...] INFLUENCES Since early type casting, every single size would get its own, special design: an experienced engraver would strive for optical sameness of the relative sizes, and exaggerate, widen, emphasize as much as he considered necessary for coherence of design: an equal colour and texture on the printed page. In other words, for the eye a size 6 letterform would perfectly fit the 9 or 12 point type it belonged to but, looking closer, size 6 would prove to possess rather unique traits fitting its specific size and use – all on purpose: in this way the design of the smallest point sizes (for footnotes, captions or commentaries) was usually adapted by a slight exaggeration of stroke width as well as x-height, and sometimes slightly widened compared to size 9 or 12. Thus, size 6 would still be quite readable, and also economical: its short ascenders and descenders would require less leading.



With the advent of the steam press newspapers become a mass medium, so this economical aspect fuels the design of small type for the alculated setting of advertising columns, to exploited them to their limits. Actually, aspects of 17th century Dutch type design are taken up and developed: type with a somewhat bolder appearance and a slightly increased x-height (Plantin, Van Dyck, Kis). The late 18th century idea of a type family (different stroke widths, Fournier) and the improved paper and printing press (Baskerville) are eagerly combined with a growing commercial demand for a larger variety of type. Both poster type, the development of sans serifs and the pragmatics of advertisment typography cause a general increase of the x-height. Initially only offering capital letters, the newly invented typewriter (1873) is equipped with a robust ‘egyptian’ face which shows lower case letters with an x-height of around 70 per cent of its capitals. Placed next to it the circa 60 per cent of Garamond’s 16th century lower case, and 63 to 67 per cent for Ehrhardt and Plantin, we may consider this general purpose face as an ‘indicator’ of things to come: during the 20th century a proportion of circa 70% will become generally adopted (there are exceptions).




PANTOGRAPH In 1884, a major development in type design is the pantographic punch cutting machine. Not only does it free the way to mass produced matrices (for the first linecasting machine), it also offeres sheer amateurs access to the realm of type cutting – a hitherto secluded, almost sacred specialism. Using the mechanical reduction apparatus invented by Linn Boyd Benton (father of the type designer), almost anyone could now produce satisfactory typeforms at almost any scale, using just one single relief model for guidance. A leap forward and a considerable increase in engraving precision – but the eye for scale, optical coherence, colour and texture of the hand engraver was lost completely. Only the finest type production firms adhered to the talents of the experienced engraver, a magnifying glass glued to his eye. Not so critical others eagerly began to make dozens of sizes using one single relief master font. Later, even in the days of phototypsetting and into the digital era, type producing firms used three master fonts, for three consecutive groups of sizes. (Also at the end of the 19th century, there was a lot of illegal type copying going on, using the electrolyte process or ‘galvanotypie’).


LARGER X-HEIGHTS The advent of sans serif type during the 20th century, and with it, a further adoption of its ‘commercial’ large x-height by typographers is in itself fascinating. The boldest, loudest typefaces of the early 20th century, for example Franklin Gothic (Morris Fuller Benton) or London Underground Type (Edward Johnston) were the first consciously made ‘designer’ sans serifs. For the ‘heavy’ or boldest versions of these type designs, an x-height of 73, 74% was chosen. Half a century later, the signage typeface Interstate (75%) and the exceptional Antique Olive (84%) were hardly ever considered book faces, but their large x-heights and apparent economy in typesetting seem to have influenced the use of type in other realms of typography as well. Most accurately designed ‘classical’ serif type designs of the 1990s have slowly taken on these ‘bold sans serif habits’ and proportional characteristics: book follows ad, so to speak. In the Netherlands, given the improved quality of newspaper prepress and rotary offset, the typographic demands of dictionaries and newspapers has proven to be not very different any more. A search for the most comfortable type and x-height for




dictionaries resulted in a new typeface, Lexicon by Bram de Does. Soon it was hailed by the daily newspaper NRC-Handelsblad. Its short ascenders and descenders seem to have influenced Dutch typography as a whole: the daily newspaper Trouw now uses large x-height typefaces by Gerard Unger, and NRCHandelsblad newspapers largest competitor De Volkskrant now boasts the serifless Vectora (a large x-height clone of Fuller Bentons News Gothic), and Capitolium News, a large x-height serif typeface by Unger originally designed for signage purposes. The type designers of the 1922 newspaper type ‘legibility group’ would be astonished to find that the robust x-height type proportions they once cautiously specified for text faces to economize on newspaper space, now just as easily flourish in headlines and in the newspaper’s overall appearance.

ALTERNATIVE: CONTRAST To do away with all conventional classifications, Gerrit Noordzij, type designer and long time tutor of type who is known for his unorthodox views published The stroke: Theory of writing. He argues that thick-thin contrast, and contrast alone should be used to distinguish any type design. He draws our attention to how typeforms are constructed, away from the categorizers fully blinded (and blinding us) by serifs. Placing a lower case d and b above and q and p below an imagery line he confronts type designers and readers with the implications of receding or lost traces of handwriting in our alphabet:



a responsable book face will not show ‘mirrored’ forms, but instead particular remnants of writing in its serif details to enhance legibility or ‘optical descrepancy’ among individual characters. The book, translated by Peter Enneson and published by Hyphen Press was reviewed in Eye magazine 59 (spring 2006) by Jan Middendorp. From this critical ‘Fruitful lines of graphic type analysis’ the following 3/4 is taken.

GERRIT NOORDZIJ [...] Born in Rotterdam in 1931, Gerrit Noordzij has worked as a typographer, calligrapher, researcher, stone carver, historian and type designer. Yet he is first and foremost a teacher. His main legacy is not in his writings, not even in his typefaces (of which only one, Ruse, is available so far). Noordzij’s life’s work, so to speak, is to have triggered a series of amazing careers. Many of his students at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague have become renowned international designers, creating and publishing typefaces that have helped set the standards of the new discipline of desktop type design. Peter Matthias and Christoph Noordzij (his sons), Petr and Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Lucas de Groot, Jelle Bosma, Albert-Jan Pool, Frank E. Blokland and Peter Verheul all took part in Noordzij’s ‘letter programme’ in the 1970s and 80s; since Noordzij’s retirement in 1990 they have in turn become teachers, continuing to spread Noordzij’s influential theory of letterforms. This theory is the subject of the 70-odd pages of The Stroke: an analysis of the construction of letterforms informed by historical study but firmly rooted in handson experience. In Noordzij’s words: ‘To be able to analyse writing I need to write, and to be able to write I need the



analysis. This circle-game is not played in the study, but rather in the workshop.’ To Noordzij, there is no essential difference between the written and the printed word – he defines typography as ‘writing with prefabricated letters.’ Printing types betray their origin in (hand)writing by their construction. A typeface may show diagonal or vertical contrast or stress, referring respectively to the broadnibbed or the pointed pen – Noordzij invented the terms ‘translation’ and ‘expansion’ for these two extremes. An alphabet can have an interrupted or cursive construction, derived from the movement of the hand – is the pen lifted from the paper while shaping the character or not? The third variable in Noordzij’s scheme is the amount of contrast, from monoline to the extreme thick / thin contrast of certain nineteenth-century alphabets. Combined, these three ‘axes’ form a relatively simply model that helps users and makers to understand the workings of letters without having to fathom complex classification systems. The serif illustrates a fundamental difference between Noordzij’s theory and traditional systems. An essential feature in most type classification systems, it has become a mere by-product in Noordzij’s model. He argues that low contrast is inherent to the sans-serif, and simply turns this convention into a natural fact: as the contrast diminishes, the serifs disappear ‘into’ the stroke, as it were. Some of Noordzij’s former students are reluctant to use the term ‘sans-serif’: they prefer ‘low-contrast’. Noordzij’s model is a great tool for teaching people


to look critically at letterforms, but it cannot be applied universally. It is incompatible with many of today’s genres and sub-genres – almost any alphabet that involves geometric construction. Noordzij tends to get normative here, dismissing such non-traditional typefaces as ‘irrelevant’. However, there is a degree of role-playing involved. Noordzij has referred to his model as ‘a simple invention’, suggesting that it was put forward for the sake of argument – its ambitions being provisional, its claims by no means universal. He needed his model to demonstrate the way things work; it is a sophisticated instrument of deliberately limited scope. There is more in The Stroke than the model alone. For instance, Noordzij’s notes on the ‘white’ (counterform) of letters and words, and the related explanations on the relationship between stroke thickness and letterspacing should be required reading for any budding typographer. [...] (Jan MIddendorp in Eye Magazine 59, spring 2006)





Whatever we may think of type classification, however relative we may find its use in everyday typefinding practice – even its shortcomings can make us think again, take a close look at a typeform in detail, and make a solid estimate of its origin and function. It evokes discussion of the different formal aspects of type, characteristics related to their history and use. It may well improve our eye, overview and judgement in type matters. Jaap van Triest