How we classify type: a guide to the Vox-ATypI type classification system
In the middle of the 20th century, type design reached a tipping point. The global font population had exploded—and remained in that state. Roman types had finally displaced all other forms of Latin letters. Yet Sans Serifs were becoming increasingly popular. There was a serious expectation that industrial standards would soon apply to typography. At the same time, more radical types were emerging all the time, challenging attempts at standardization.
A system to classify types became very important.
Typefaces already came with classifications, but they were typically inconsistent and often irrelevant. Names applied to types within their own historical context—“grotesque”, “italic”, “modern”—had become meaningless by the mid-20th century and no longer effectively described types. A word derived from “grotto”, was a fine way to describe early Sans Serifs, when they were part of a neoclassical trend, but what could that say about futuristic, geometric Sans Serif fonts? Likewise, what does Italian handwriting have to do with an oblique font variation available within every font family? And in what way are fonts founded hundreds of years ago modern—especially in the aftermath of the modernist movement?
Bodoni type and the cotton gin, a distant past's vision of the future
Multiple type classification systems emerged in the latter half of the 20th century. Each is an improvement on the unwieldy, arbitary systems that came before them. Each also has its disadvantages, and no single system has predominated.
This is a guide to the challenges of type classification and an early success in the field: Vox-ATypI.
The challenge of classifying type
When we classify animals, we can rely on an established taxonomic system, dating back to the 18th century—with a lot of modification since—based on the characteristics of the animals in question. Our budgie is clearly a bird—it has wings, a beak, and lays eggs. Our dog comes with none of those features and is, therefore, clearly not a bird.
With type, it’s not so easy. Typefaces are different, but how different? And which differences matter? To push the animal taxonomy analogy, at what point do we go from distinguishing between individual instances of the same kind of bird, to distinguishing between different species of birds, budgies and non-bird animals, or budgies and non-bird life?
In other words, if Baskerville is a budgie, is Times New Roman a different kind of budgie, or a parakeet? Is Helvetica so different from a Roman type that it’s comparable to our dog, relative to our budgie? And what the hell are Wingdings?
When is a Baskerville no longer a bird at all?
Animal taxonomies, besides having the benefit of maturity, also benefits from the wealth of information we can access in living things. We can resolve controversies by peering into the DNA of an animal. But type has no such genetic marker. The best we can do is to decipher the memetic markers left by founders—fingerprints on history, fossil records in text.
That record can be fleeting—types evolve faster than animals. But there are developments we can point to as sparking a clear change—the Speyer brothers’ fonts, for example, arguably mark something like the emergence of the first mammals, when put to an evolutionary scale.
Many font classifications, therefore, include an historical element, classifying type in-line with contemporary developments in art and science. This is useful, but does it capture the qualitative difference between types? Not always. Yet sometimes it does so beautifully.
The Vox-ATypI type classification system
Maximilien Vox created the Vox type classification system in 1954. A French cartoonist and type historian, Vox belonged to the artistic movement La Graphie Latine—a group that also included Stanley Morison. ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale)—an organization that connects type designer, printers, educators, and advertisers to promote typographical understanding—adopted Vox’s system in 1962.
Maximilien Vox, providing direction through the chaotic world of type
How Vox classified type
Vox classified type based on characteristics and history. He reduced his original system of 10 classifications down to nine, only for ATypI to increase the number of classifications to 12.
For your convenience, we've included links with each category to relevant Letters articles. Click through if you'd like to learn more about any type classification.
The Vox-ATypI type classifications follow:
Manuaires, or Graphic—types that at least look like they’re drawn by hand. Vox’s original system included a separate category, Médièves, which included Blackletters and Carolingian Minuscule, but he subsequently rolled that category into Manuaires, before ATypI broke them off again into a new category. Graphic types include display types with a hand-drawn flair, much like you’ll find among many BLKBK types.
Check out some graphic types from BLKBK here.
Humanes, or Humanistic—types created by 15th century Venetians, with low line contrast, thick bracketed serifs, and slanting cross strokes on ‘e’s. This includes Jenson, the Speyer Romans, and their derivations like William Morris’s Golden.
Garaldes, or Aldine—Garaldes is a combination of Claude Garamond’s and Aldus Manutius’s names. This type classification refers to Renaissance types, with finer features and more line contrast than Humanist fonts, but still an oblique axis. This includes Garamond and other types in the Aldine tradition.
Réales, or Transitional—Enlightenment-era types, featuring increasing line contrast and elevated design. Vox created Réales to refer to French types like Romain du Roix, but ATypI expanded it to accommodate non-French typography. The category, therefore, includes the work of Fournier and Baskerville.
Didones—a combination of Didot and Bodoni, referring to high-line-contrast types with hairline serifs. This includes, unsurprisingly, the work of Didot and Bodoni.
Linéales, or Lineals—Sans Serifs types of all kinds. ATypI breaks this category down further into multiple sub-classifications: Grotesques (19th century Sans Serifs), Neo-Grotesques (simpler Sans Serifs derived from Grotesques, Helvitica is an example), Geometrics (derived from a minimal set of abstracted shapes, Futura is an example), and Humanist (serifs notwithstanding, these resemble Humanist types, Gill Sans is an example).
Mécanes, or Mechanistic—Slab Serif types, with low line contrast and fat serifs. The name, meaning “mechanics” may be a reference to typewriters. This includes types like Clarendon.
Incices, or Glyphic—carved types. This includes fonts with slight serifs, like Albertus, and those derived from Square Capitals, like Trajan.
Scriptes, or Script—types that look like handwriting, but not italics. This would include Copperplate derivatives, and a large part of BLKBK’s body of work.
Check out some BLKBK handwriting types here.
Blackletter—the original fonts, derived by Gutenberg and other printers from the handwriting of German scribes, killed as a relevant type in WW2. This category was added to the system by ATypI.
Gaelic—obscure types that are, nonetheless, extremely important in the history of the Latin alphabet. Irish scribes kept the Latin alphabet alive through the dark ages; their hands influenced Alcuin of York and every Latin letter since. ATypI added this classification in 2010.
Non-Latin—a sweeping category that rolls so many disparate types together with disparate alphabets that it’s as useless as a category as non-Latin types are for writing in the Latin alphabet. Its only purpose is as a trivial reminder that non-Latin types exist.
Advantages and disadvantages of Vox-ATypI type classification
In the 1950s, Vox’s system was a celebrated improvement on the cumbersome classification systems that preceded it. The number of categories was manageable; the standards for membership were clear. ATypI made a wise choice in adopting it, and their improvements since have been generally good.
But the system has its flaws.
First, Vox recognized that a type taxonomy would never enjoy the clear distinctions that we see in the animal kingdom. Therefore, he allowed overlapping classifications such as 19th Century Geralde, Humane-Mécane, or Ornamental-Mécane. This is useful, but potentially confusing when a font can be, for example, both humanistic and lineal. Which is it?
Gill Sans, the so-called Humanist Lineal - hard to classify like a fish with lungs.
Second, even before ATypI adopted Vox’s system, it drew criticism for being needlessly detailed. For example, is there really a meaningful difference between Humanist and Aldine fonts?
The problem has only become more acute since. There are far more display types available now than there were in the 1950s. Yet Vox-ATypI ignores the many differences between Graphic types, focusing instead on minor differences between Romans.
Finally, Vox-ATypI carries significant cultural baggage. Before ATypI’s involvment, Vox’s Réales font class, for example, was opaque to many outside of France. More recently, ATypI astutely created a new category for Gaelic types, but this raises a question: what about all the other regional Latin types? They may not be as historically significant as Gaelic letters, but should Etruscan letters, to name just one, face taxonomic extinction?
In future articles, we’ll take a look at further type classification systems that attempt to address these problems, or sidestep them all together.