There are thousands of different typefaces and fonts available to designers, printers, publishers, artists and writers (as well as the general public) today. There are all types of display and text typefaces and everything in between. Most are available in a digital format from a variety of type foundries and can easily be used, and exploited, with modern computer technology. The vast amount of type available makes specific classification of every one nearly impossible and somewhat frivolous. However, it is important to have an understanding of the basic styles of typefaces to help narrow down the research and selection of the correct typeface.
A fun experiment in typeface classification, check out the work of Cam Wilde to learn more about the Periodic Table of Typefaces.
CalligraphicLetters associated with the art of calligraphy and the fonts developed from their production can be classified as calligraphic. Calligraphic letters can be, although do not have to be, classified as Chancery, Etruscan or Uncial. Chancery letters have slightly sloping narrow letters and were influential in the development of serif italics. Etruscan faces do not have lowercase letters and are based on an early form of Roman calligraphy in which the brush was held at a steep angle. The Celtic style, Uncial letters are created from holding the brush at an almost horizontal angle. There is only one case in Uncial designs, although they did become the basis for the development of the roman lower case.
BlackletterBlackletter typefaces are a script style of calligraphy that were popularized in Germany, although they were used all over Europe from the middle ages through the Renaissance. A highly ornamental style of typgraphy, different styles are often associated with the different regions in which they were developed and used. The main classifications include Textura, Schwabacher, Cursiva and Fraktur. Textura is the most closely related to the calligraphic style and often includes a large number of ligatures. Schwabacher typefaces have a simplified, rounded stroke and several of their lowercase letters, including 'o', are often analogous forms. Cursiva, as the name suggests, is closely related to cursive letters and can be recognized by the more frequent presence of descenders and looped ascenders. Fraktur is the most common form of Blackletter and is characterized by broken strokes.
SerifSerifed typefaces were popular much earlier than sans-serif typefaces and include semi-structural details on many of the letters. People often refer to them as feet, although that is in no way a proper anatomical term when referring to typography. Their are many different classifications for serifed typefaces, often named for their origins, including Grecian, Latin, Scotch, Scotch Modern, French Old Style, Spanish Old Style, Clarendon and Tuscan. Some of these classifications can also be placed into broader classifications of typography including the styles below.
Old StyleThe Old Style or Humanist serif typefaces developed in the 15th and 16th centuries and are characterized by a low contrast in stroke weight and angled serifs. Example: Garamond.
TransitionalThe bridge for the gap between Old Style and Modern serifed typefaces, Transitional type has a more vertical axis and sharper serifs than humanist forms. Example: Baskerville.
ModernModern serifed typefaces developed in the late 18th and early 19th century and were a radical break from the traditional typography of the time with high contrast of strokes, straight serifs and a totally vertical axis. Example: Bodoni.
EgyptianEgyptian, or slab-serifed, typefaces have heavy serifs and were used for decorative purposes and headlines because the heavy serifs impeded legibility at small point sizes. Example: Rockwell.
Sans-SerifJust exactly like what is sounds, a sans-serif typeface is a typeface without serifs. They can be found in history as early as the 5th century, although the classical revival of the Italian Renaissance return to old style serifed typefaces made them virtually obsolete until the 20th century. Their was much development of sans-serif typefaces in Germany as a revolt against the ornate lettering of the popular Blackletter styles which led to sans-serif typefaces based on the purity of geometric forms. Much like serifed typefaces, there are many different classifications for sans-serif typefaces, including Gothic, Grotesque, Doric, Linear, Swiss and Geometric. Some of the broader classifications are listed below.
HumanistHumanist characteristics include proportions that were modeled on old style typefaces, open strokes and a slightly higher contrast in strokes in comparison to other sans-serif typefaces. Example: Gill Sans.
TransitionalClosely related to the characteristics of transitional serifed typefaces, these typefaces include a more upright axis and a uniform stroke. Example: Helvetica.
GeometricGeometric sans-serif typefaces, as their name implies, are based on geometric forms. In some cases letters, such as the lower case 'o', are perfect geometric forms. Example: Futura.
ScriptScript typefaces are based on the forms made with a flexible brush or pen and often have varied strokes reminiscent of handwriting. There are many different classifications including Brush Script, English Roundhand and Rationalized Script. However, the broadest forms of classification are Formal Script and Casual Script. Formal Scripts are based on the developments and writings of 17th and 18th century handwriting masters such as George Bickham, George Shelley and George Snell. Casual scripts developed in the 20th century as a result of photo-typesetting and are more varied and the inconsistencies appear to have been a result of using a wet pen rather than a pen nib.
PixelPixel fonts developed from the invention of the computer and were based on the on-screen display format of pixels. They are based on an array of pixels, are often called Bitmap fonts and are often designed only for a specific point size. Many type foundries offer a selection of bitmap fonts and some, like Fonts For Flash create only bitmap fonts.
DecorativeWhile serifed and sans-serif typefaces can often be used for text typesetting, there are a vast majority of fonts and typefaces whose legibility wanes when used in smaller point sizes. These typefaces are often developed with a specific use in mind and are designed for larger point size use in headlines, posters and billboards. Decorative is less of a classification and can include a wide variety of typefaces underneath the umbrella of the term.