Defining the Terms
Part 3: Categorization

This is the last in a three part series on how to talk about letterforms. Basically, it’s a glossary. This third part covers Categorization, the ways groups of glyphs are labeled by form and function. Part 1 deals with the Anatomy of Letterforms, what the pieces and parts are called. Part 2 is Process, the terms for the ways letters are made.

This is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good working terminology for anyone creating with letters.
(It is my intent to add to this glossary over time, so that eventually it may be more comprehensive.)

The first part was alphabetized because there were so many terms. I’d like to eventually break up a comprehensive type glossary into more of a topical format, rather than simply alphabetical. This series is my first attempt at that. This part and part 2 are not alphabetized, but simply broken into topically related elements, which are small enough not to need alphabetizing to find anything quickly. This is all an experiment, so thanks for bearing with me.


Typeface—an artistic rendering or design of a set of glyphs. Used to be only one style, now usually refers to a type family.

Font—The medium containing an iteration of a typeface. For metal type, this would be the set of glyphs for a single size typeface (as designs varied by size to create optical harmony from one size to another). Whereas for digital type it refers to the actual font file. So if the file contains a whole family, then “typeface” and “font” become interchangeable. But if there’s only one style per file, then each one is a font but the collection of font files comprises the typeface.

Family—a collection of related typefaces with the same core traits and name. (Usually consists of regular, bold, italic.)

Regular—also called roman in text types, the base style (most significantly in terms of weight and width) of a type family.

Bold—a heavier (thicker) weight than regular, used to emphasize text in contrast to regular type.

Light—a lighter (thinner) weight than regular.

Weight—a gauge of the thickness of the strokes in a typeface.

Italic—a style of type based on chancery hand calligraphy developed in Italy. Initially used on its own (beginning around 1500), it was not used for emphasis in contrast to roman type on the same page until much later.

Oblique—type slanted to the right (different and distinct from italic).

Backslant—type slanted to the left.

Condensed—type that takes up less horizontal space than its regular counterpart. Condensed type is designed to keep stroke widths in proportion, whereas artificially compressing the type causes the vertical strokes to become thinner, losing much of the character and grace of the original design.

Extended—type that takes up more horizontal space than its regular counterpart. Extended type is designed to keep stroke widths in proportion, whereas artificially stretching the type causes the vertical strokes to become thicker, losing much of the character and grace of the original design.

Display—type meant for large sizes, typically with finer details.

Caption—type designed for very small sizes, meant to harmonize visually with text type and address specific design problems arising at such sizes.

Superfamily—also called a Type System, a collection of type families, often across different type classifications (like gothic and script) or consisting of an extensive range of type styles along multiple design axes.

Design Axes (Category Spectrums)

Design Axis (singular) or Axes AKS-eez—spectrum or continuum of type design along which a particular aspect of the type changes. The most common design axes are defined below.

  • Weight—a type design axis along which the stroke thickness of a typeface increases or decreases. Light and Bold weights fall along this axis, with Regular in between.
  • Width—a type design axis along which the width of the letterforms increases or decreases. Condensed and Extended widths fall along this axis, with Regular in between.
  • Optical Sizes—a type design axis along which the design changes to compensate for specific needs at particular sizes. Caption and Display are at opposite ends of this axis, with Roman or Text (Regular) somewhere in the middle.
  • Slant—a type design axis along which the writing angle or angle of the stems of the letterforms increases or decreases. Oblique and Backslant fall along this axis, with Regular in between.

Figures (Numbers)

Lining Figures—numbers that sit on the baseline and are about cap-height, meant to be set on their own or with uppercase letters. Also called Titling Figures.

Text Figures—numbers with different heights meant to harmonize with lowercase letters. Also called Oldstyle Figures.

Proportional Figures—numbers spaced to fit according to their shapes, the way letters are spaced. Lining and Text Figures can both be proportionally spaced.

Tabular Figures—also called Monospaced or Fixed Width Figures, numbers spaced equally in order to work in tables. Lining and Text Figures can both be tabular.


Classical—also known as Oldstyle, these types are characterized by triangular serifs, low stroke contrast, and an oblique (non-vertical) axis.

  • Humanist—also called Venetian, these types include the earliest type designs, which emulate 15th century manuscripts written in a formal hand. Based largely on Carolingian miniscule, they have low stroke contrast, a tilted cross stroke on the lowercase e, short and thick bracketed serifs, and triangular serifs on the ascenders. The work of Nicolas Jenson in 15th century Venice (hence the name Venetian) is the prime example of this classification.
  • Garalde—a portmanteau of the names of Claud Garamond and Aldus Manutius (whose work epitomizes this classification), garaldes have a horizontal cross stroke on the e, finer proportions and stronger contrast than humanist types.
  • Transitional—also called Realist, this classification expresses the spirit of the Enlightenment. Transitional types have higher contrast than humanist or garalde, and a near vertical axis. Baskerville typifies this classification.

Modern—types categorized by simple or functional structures.

  • Didone—a portmanteau of Didot and Bodoni (whose work exemplifies this classification), these types have a vertical axis, very high contrast, and unbracketed serifs.
  • Mechanistic—also called Slab Serif, the types in this classification embody the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, which is when they first occurred. They have very low contrast and thick, rectangular serifs. The serifs can be unbracketed, like Rockwell, or bracketed, like Clarendon.
  • Lineal—another term for sans serif type.
    • Grotesque—also called Gothic, originating in the 19th century, these types have some degree of stroke contrast and tend to be somewhat idiosyncratic; typically the curved strokes have horizontal terminals, and the G has a spur. (Franklin Gothic, Akzidenz-Grotesk)
    • Neo-Grotesque—derived from grotesque typefaces, these types have less stroke contrast, a more regular design, and a high degree of subtlety; the curved stroke terminals tend to be slanted, and the G might not have a spur. (Univers, Helvetica)
    • Geometric—sans serif types derived from geometric shapes such as circles and rectangles, the glyphs in these types have a high degree of repetition and regularity. (Futura)
    • Humanist—derived from hand painted monumental capitals and Carolignian miniscules, the proportions of these types come closer to being written rather than constructed. They are similar in derivation to, but not derived from, Humanist serif types. (Gill Sans, Optima)

Calligraphic—type meant to show clear evidence of being chiseled, written, drawn, or otherwise created directly by hand.

  • Glyphic—also referred to as Incise, the types reference forms cut or incised into a hard surface such as stone, wood or metal. (Trajan, Copperplate Gothic)
  • Script—types based on calligraphy, cursive, or other hand writing.
  • Graphic—also called Manual, these types are based on slowly hand drawn originals.
  • Blackletter—types modeled after late medieval broad nib formal hands.
  • Gaelic—types derived from the insular manuscript hand.



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