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Introduction  Design   History   Family Classifications

Family Classifications of Type

Since the time of Gutenberg, the typographic form has evolved with technology, philosophy, and culture. In order to effectively analyze this typographic evolution, the design of type characters over the last five and a half centuries is most often broken down into classifications of common visual characteristics, called families of type:

(15th-17th century)

(mid 18th century)

(late 18th century)

(19th century)

(19th-20th century)

(19th-20th century)

(19th-20th century)


The families of type represent more than 500 years of development and each family displays distinct visual characteristics. These characteristics are basic to visual communication with type.

The examples shown here are, for the most part, contemporary derivations of period type designs. Most available versions of pre-20th century typefaces have been refined according to the dictates of technology and popular taste. Although these may vary, sometimes substantially, from the original versions, they nonetheless preserve predominate characteristics and, since they are widely available today, are more relevant in helping the contemporary designer identify typographic forms.

When conparing famaily characteristics, look closely at:

Old Style
(15th-17th century)

The concept of adhering to manuscript models was the basis of the first 300 years of type design, and typefaces designed during this period are referred to as Old Style.

Oldstyle Characterisitcs

  • minimal variation of thick and thin strokes
  • small, coarse serifs, often with slightly concave bases
  • small x-heights.
  • In the round strokes, the stress is diagonal, or oblique, as their designs mimic the hand-held angle of the pen nibs of the scribes.
  • The tops of lowercase ascenders often exceed the height of the capital characters.
  • The numerals, called old style figures, vary in size and have ascenders and descenders. Many contemporary versions of Old Style typefaces do not retain the old style figures but, in catering to contemporary taste, use lining, or capital height figures.

It is interesting to note that in the revolutionary practice of cutting and casting the first types, no thought was given to the adaptation of letterforms themselves to this new medium. Since printers apparently regarded their craft as an evolution of manuscript preparation, the first type designs cut into metal were literal copies of the pen-drawn strokes of scribes.

Gothic:The typefaces of Gutenberg’s first prints mimicked the Germanic Gothic or blackletter manuscript style — a heavy, broad-nibbed form, constructed with straight and angular strokes, with almost no curves.

When printing came to Italy a few decades later, type design was derived from their more rounded Roman letter style. The Roman style eventually prevailed, as its readability and appeal to the eye were markedly superior to the weighty, harsh Gothic.

Gothic Roman


Because of its location and status as a center of trade, Venice became the focal point of type design and printing in the late 15th century. The most influential Venetian work came from Aldus Manutius, a printer and publisher whose books were reknowned for their authoritative scholarship. As they also were of the highest technical and aesthetic quality of their day, they were in great demand, and the typefaces they employed were widely copied by other printers.

Aldus’ most important type, designed by Francesco Griffo, was created for a 60 page essay by Cardinal Pietro Bembo, in 1495. The typeface, called Bembo after the manuscript’s author, was a Roman design of great typographic significance. Its popularity spread throughout Europe and remained the major influence in type design for the next hundred and fifty years. All of the type designs which we call Old Style can be traced back the design of Bembo.

Aldus is best known as a entrepreneur who devised many creative innovations in the process of realizing his business goals. He was quite adept at marketing his products to the upperclass and university scholars.

Among Aldus’ many innovations was publishing personal versions of the classics in a small format which was easy to carry. Books of that time were very large, usually read while being supported by a lectern. Aldus correctly recognized a market for a smaller, easily transportable book which would fit conveniently in a pocket or saddlebag.

These, the forerunners of today's pocket-size books, utilized another of Aldus' unique innovations. They were printed in a new style of type which he commissioned from Griffo. This type, patterned after the official cursive hand of scholars and professionals, called cancellaresca, was designed at an angle, carried a distinct flavor of handwriting, and featured smaller character widths.

This typestyle, the first italic letterform, allowed for more characters per line than the Roman style, thus fitting more text to the smaller page format of his personal books. These books were enormously popular and had a profound effect on education and the diffusion of knowledge.

A twentieth century revival of the Venetian types, Bembo is a copy of the Aldine Roman typeface cut by Francesco Griffo.

Released by Monotype in 1929

A twentieth century revival of the Venetian types, Bembo is a copy of the Aldine Roman typeface cut by Francesco Griffo.Bembo is a classic typeface displaying the characteristics which identify Old Style designs:

  • minimal variation in thick and thin stroke weight
  • small x-height
  • ascender height exceeding cap height
  • oblique stress
  • short, bracketed serifs with cupped bases
  • angled serifs on lower case ascenders

A good type choice for expressing classic beauty and formal tradition, it reads well in large amounts of text and is an excellent book face.


Bembo is a classic typeface displaying the characteristics which identify Old Style designs:

  • minimal variation in thick and thin stroke weight
  • small x-height
  • ascender height exceeding cap height
  • oblique stress
  • short, bracketed serifs with cupped bases
  • angled serifs on lower case ascenders

A good type choice for expressing classic beauty and formal tradition, it reads well in large amounts of text and is an excellent book face.

By the 16th century, France became a leading influence in printing and typography. The most popular type designs of the time were those of Claude Garamond, who was heavily influenced by the Aldine types. As Aldus Manutius was an innovator in publishing, Garamond was certainly innovative in his type designs. While the typographic form was basically a copy of hand lettering, Garamond was perhaps the first to consider the qualities of letterform design as distinct from earlier manuscript styles. Thus his designs, while based on the Venetian types, introduced subtle and delicate refinements: more open lower case characters with generous counters, larger capitals, and a delicate grace to the curved strokes.

While these refinements are subtle, they nonetheless produced type which was at once more graceful and inviting to the eye than the popular Aldine Roman. Garamond's type was a great success and became so widely accepted that it is considered to be the final deathblow to the Gothic letterforms. Many contemporary variations of Garamond continue to be among the most widely used typefaces today.

Garamond's innovations established many of today's typographic conventions. His appreciation of the Aldine italic was such that he felt it to be a suitable complement to all of his Roman types. Thereafter, for each roman typeface he created, he also designed a complimentary italic style. This concept was so universally accepted that the italic became a standard variation to Roman types.

Garamond also established the concept of the commercial type founder. Since the time of Gutenberg, custom dictated that printers design and cast their own types. They also manufactured their own paper, and formulated their own printing inks. When a printer created a particularly popular typeface, other printers were quick to copy the designs for their own typecasting.

Whether Garamond wished to preserve the integrity of his own designs, or merely make additional profit is not known, but he initiated the practice of casting his types for retail sale to other printers. This eventually led to the establishment of independent businesses which were exclusively devoted to the design, cutting, and casting of type for sale to the printing trade.

These establishments, called typefoundries, became sources of type for many printers and were instrumental in the widespread acceptance and distribution of new designs.

Designed by Claude Garamond in 1532

he preeminent French Old Style design exhibits subtle refinements to the Venetian designs with its graceful serifs and delicate weight changes.

  • Counters are generous, with the exception of the lowercase ‘a’ and ‘e’, which are small.
  • Lowercase top serifs are extended, diagonal, and curve to join the main strokes.
  • The Uppercase ‘T’ is unique, with the top left serif slanted and the top right serif straight.

Garamond remains one of the most popular text faces today. It is highly readable, lends a graceful quality to text, and its long ascenders give it a light, airy quality.


The religious reform and government censorship of 16th century France heralded the end of the influence of its printing industry. Dutch foundries, noted for their high quality metal work, were the chief source of type manufacture well into the 18th century.

The establishment of England's influence in type was brought about almost single-handedly by William Caslon. Caslon was a engraver who specialized in ornamenting and personalizing gun locks and barrels and occasionally engraving lettering for bookbinders. Because of his steady hand and superior engraving skills, his work was highly prized and his business very lucrative. He was occasionally commissioned to cut engravings for book covers and his lettering work was so impressive that, in 1720, he was persuaded to establish his own type foundry.

The exquisite letterform refinements in his type designs were not only well received, but quickly became the universal printing standard. Caslon's type brought him fame and his foundry became the largest and most prestigious in England.

The success of Caslon’s types came from his skill as an artist. English typecasting in his time was considered a common trade rather than the prominent craft it was regarded abroad. As a result, the quality of English types was so poor that most printers exclusively employed types from the vastly superior Dutch foundries.

While Caslon certainly based his designs on Dutch types, his artistic sensitivity gave his types a superior quality of delicate modeling and form. While not as elegant as the French types, Caslon’s designs embodied a sturdier grace which better suited the English aesthetic.Every foundry in the world has offered a variation of the Caslon types, and the phrase, “When in doubt, use Caslon,” was a standard printer's epithet for generations.

Designed by William Caslon in 1725

odeled after late 17th century Dutch designs, Caslon became the most popular type of the 18th century. Its design shows the evolution of the Old Style types and bears some of the traits that would characterize the Transitional designs.

  • Its stroke variation is more pronounced
  • Serifs display a more graceful bracketing.
  • Lowercase characters bear wedge-shape top serifs
  • the Uppercase ‘A’ has a distinctive curve at the apex.

Caslon can be used to express a formal dignity. It is a highly readable typeface which evokes the charm of its period.

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