The Different Typeface Classifications

Every designer should know the different typeface classifications1.

If you’re a designer it might surprise you to know that civilians2 often struggle to tell the different between typefaces. They might be able to tell the difference between Arial and Times New Roman. They probably can’t really tell the difference between Arial and Calibri — and they almost certainly don’t have the vocabulary to say how they’re different.

They might know to make fun of Comic Sans but the difference between Arial and Helvetica is beyond most people, not just civilians.

Anyway, there are two main kinds of type: serif and sans-serif. Those get broken down into sub-types3.


  • Humanist/Old Style type that reference roman lettering” and calligrapic techniques. They key feature is a variable stroke width, similar to what you get when writing with a nib pen.
  • Slab serif/Egyptian/Clarendon type that has, unsurprisingly, serifs that are slabs. I think this is about the fiddly distinction between serifs that look like they came from a pen and those that don’t.
  • Transitional/neoclassical type that is a bit like Humanist styles but is less influenced by how letters are constructed by a person holding pen.


For us to perceive something as perfectly geometric, it’s necessary for the type designer to apply optical corrections. Overshoots, ovals instead of perfect circles, horizontals at 90% thickness of the verticals, crossbars above the midpoint, etc. — From Google Fonts

  • Geometric type is designed based on simple shapes.
  • Grotesque & Neo-grotesque. Apparently grotesque was the first sans-serif style and it was awkward. Neo-grotesque is a tidied up version.
  • Humanist is a classification can apply to sans-serif type as well as serif. Sans humanist type has the same characteristics as serif humanist, no serifs.

  1. I’m following Danah Abdulla’s Designerly Ways of Knowing↩︎

  2. I.E. non-designers↩︎

  3. Totally stealing these definitions from the excellent Google Fonts↩︎

August 7, 2022

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