top of page

The Typography Maze: Making Sense of Typefaces for Use in the Real World

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

As a graphic designer, I experiment frequently with typography; navigating through the many genres of typefaces from bygone eras – each influenced by the culture and technology of the time. You may have heard the terms ‘serif’ and ‘sans-serif’; an experienced designer will be well-acquainted with Neo-Grotesque, Old Style, Didone, and Gothic type. But are these esoteric terms somehow connected within a cohesive framework? What system do we use to organize and comprehend the expansive world of typography? These are the questions I set out to answer, to gain a broader picture of the typographic landscape.

The most prevalent classification system used today is called Vox-ATypI (Maximilien Vox + Association Typographique Internationale). Essentially, it groups all typefaces into 3 distinct classes: Classicals, Moderns, and Calligraphics. Each of these can be further divided into subcategories based on the style of the period. Though useful for developing a perspective on the history of typeface design, I realized what I was after was a visual reference; one that’s congruent with my visual-spatial mindset and built with practical application in mind. But Vox-ATypI provided a good starting point, and solid foundation from which to build.

Experimenting visually, I loosely arranged the Vox categories along a formal/informal spectrum based on my interpretation of each’s character. Classical and Modern classes were straight-forward, as I interpreted classic fonts to be more formal, and modern fonts to be less so.

Typeface groups arranged along a formal/informal spectrum

The Calligraphic class subcategories seem to be more open to interpretation than moderns and classics; Script typefaces for instance could exist anywhere along the formal/informal spectrum depending on their character – an informal hand-drawn note vs formal calligraphy. Leaving that point aside for now.

What’s interesting about the above solution is that Blackletter and Graphic categories now reside on opposite ends of the spectrum, whereas in the Vox-ATypI system, they are essentially siblings, having equal footing within the Calligraphic class. Also of note is how tightly grouped the residents of Classicals reside, taking up only a small section of the formal/informal spectrum.

Vox-ATypI has received criticism for having a Western classical bias – classical fonts take precedence and are subdivided more carefully according to minute differences in form, whereas other categories like Graphic and Script serve as a catch-all for all ‘leftover’ styles.

Attempting to insert decorative modern fonts proves difficult; Art Nouveau and Psychedelic typefaces should fit somewhere within the Calligraphic class, as well as urban (graffiti) typefaces. Thinking about this, and the limitations of the Calligraphic class within the Vox system, it could be beneficial to relabel Calligraphics to Organics.

Essentially, my goal is to decouple the Vox system from its historical and classical bias – focusing instead on the practical application of typefaces both as a designer and consumer, arranging them not by historical context, but by character and form.

One way to do this is by amending our formal/informal spectrum to add a second axis encompassing organic/inorganic quality. I’ll define this later.

A proposed 2D graph for organizing typeface categories

This has the advantage of accommodating outliers like graffiti, art nouveau, and multiple types of hand-drawn and script fonts. It also helps to include modern fonts more easily and allows them to stand on a more even footing with their classical counterparts.

To keep our bearings, let’s clarify our terms:

FORMAL: Elegant, decorative, having delicate elements, denoting high value, constructed using classical forms (especially golden rectangle), usually high complexity.

INFORMAL: Casual, unofficial in presentation, having swift construction, sometimes unconventional, unrestricted, more modern in appearance.

ORGANIC: Asymmetric, inspired by nature (curvy), tending toward high stroke contrast, dynamic, avoiding perfect shapes like circles and squares.

INORGANIC: High symmetry, highly regular (homogeneous) from character to character, constructed of simple forms (perfect or near-perfect circles and especially squares), rigid in appearance, tending toward low stroke contrast.

Let’s plug in our typeface categories borrowed from Vox-ATypI:

Typeface groups arranged into 4 quadrants within a 2D graph

All typographic groups are now contained within a set of 4 quadrants. I’ve overlaid the Vox classes as rough approximations of where they sit in this 2-D space. Classicals reside within the Formal Inorganic quadrant, Moderns within Informal Inorganic, and Scripts within Formal Organic and Informal Organic quadrants.

Advantages of this system:

  • A more holistic and direct view of all typeface categories, allowing for quick reference for creators and consumers.

  • New typefaces and typeface categories can be easily incorporated using the established criteria.

  • New typefaces can be easily created from existing typeface groups by ‘marrying’ two or more groups (vectoring between coordinate points).

  • Underrepresented ‘real estate’ or empty space within the 2D space helps prompt new and inventive typography.

Unfortunately, this system also has glaring shortcomings. Ideally, the Calligraphic group within Scripts should be expanded into ‘formal calligraphic’ and ‘informal calligraphic’ at the least. This would be a step in the right direction to avoid forcing a vast category of type into a single 'box'. This could be said of other groups as well, especially within the Script class. Secondly, it focuses only on surface level appearance to categorize typefaces, rather than giving more weight to their historical contexts. I found this to be a necessary sacrifice in the short term, but looking forward, this system could be expanded into a third dimension, by adding a z-axis. The system then takes on the following structure:

X-Axis = Formal/Informal

Y-Axis = Organic/Inorganic

Z-Axis = Contemporary/Antiquated (where typographic groups are plotted according to their relative date of inception)

Summing this up, the precise placement of typeface classes and categories within this proposed system are not set in stone. I’ll vet this with interested audiences to help uncover additional advantages and shortcomings over time. Though even in its present form, this system has helped to construct a cohesive picture within my mind that I can easily reference when needed.


bottom of page