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Family classification, selection, and combination.

Created by: Pablo Cosgaya, Marcela Romero – Supervised by: Natalia Pano

Family classification

  Artículo en proceso de traducción

A rational approach to the study of the great variety of existing families implies minimal notions of classification systems. First it is necessary to know the characteristics of the families available in detail. It is not convenient to indiscriminately collect a large number of families with an origin or quality difficult for us to define. Once we have observed them and know them in detail, we can arrange them in our file, keeping in mind some of the best known classification systems. In the Design, Typography and Graphic Arts Dictionary, José Martínez de Sousa mentions twenty three different typographic classification systems. Among them, we can mention:

  • The Thibaudeau system (developed between 1920 and 1924), that presents four styles: romans (oldstyle and modern), Egyptian, sans serif and of writing and fantasy. This system is the simplest of all and does not give room to confusions.
  • The Vox-ATypI (developed by Maximilien Vox and adopted by the International Typographical Union in 1964) presents 9 styles: handwritten, humanistic, garaldes (contraction of Garamond and Aldus), real (or transitional), didone (contraction of Didot and Bidoni), Egyptian, linear, incised and script.
  • Other systems, such as the one by Aldo Novarese, the one by Andrea Pellitteri and the one by Jean Alessandrini, though they are not as popular as the two mentioned above.

Each system adopts classification criteria that unfortunately are not homogeneous: historic criteria (oldstyle, transitional, modern) coexists with formal criteria (serif, sans serif, geometric), functional (text, fantasy, labeling) or with those referred to production technology (incised, script, handwritten, calligraphic). Problems in nomenclature and weakness to include newly designed families, experimental families, or multi-style families into the system’s categories, to mention some of the most outstanding cases, make the classification task more complex, and let us conclude that there is not an efficient system to classify all the existing families. It is important to bear in mind that the most important systems (Thibaudeau, 1924; Vox-ATypI, 1964) were elaborated before the irruption of the desktop publishing software, i.e., before the design and development of a large part of contemporary families.

So what criteria should we follow?) Why should we learn these concepts? Knowing the systems and the criteria that regulate them allows us to put some order in the search, selection and filing of the available families. It helps us find similar families to replace those for which we have no fonts available. It is also important to know the systems because some of the criteria used in classification systems constitute cultural and historic traditions shared by readers from all times.

La clasificación Vox
La clasificación del francés Maximilien Vox (1954) busca las semejanzas de los tipos en función de la similitud de sus trazos. En 1964, la Asociación Tipográfica Internacional adoptó este sistema, por lo que desde entonces se lo conoce como sistema Vox-ATypI.

Typeface family selection

The typographic choice is a fundamental decision in any piece of communication design. It must adjust itself to the characteristics of the contact (both in meaning and in structure) and to the intention with which the project is devised. Before choosing a family, we can ask ourselves some questions in order to direct the work:

  • Do we need a typeface to compose reading texts, promotional posters or edition titles? Do we need variables?
  • Is the text educational, informative, promotional, for amusement purposes or experimental? If educational, for which level of education? elementary school, high school or university?
  • Which will be our target audience? Formal or informal? Age? Preferences?
  • Must the appearance of the piece be traditional or modern? Does it belong to a definite style?
  • What kind of printed material will it be? (a poster, a package, a book, a magazine, television?
  • Which will be the printing method and the paper quality? Will it be printed in color?

From the point of view of meaning, an adequate choice of typeface family can help express states of mind, emotions, or associations to certain institutions, products, lifestyles, or historic periods, as needed. We should not let only our personal taste lead us, it is important to imagine the effect the chosen family will have on the reader.

We can also choose a family based on the relation it establishes with the images that will surround it, or if it is a long text, based on its performance, i.e., the number of characters that fit in a page. We should not forget that not only the typeface selection but also the kind of typographic composition of the piece will have an influence on the result.

Serif y sans serif
¿Serif o sanserif? En el ejemplo de la izquierda (Arial, 72 pt), es imposible saber si dice «ciento once», «tres» o la palabra inglesa «Ill» (enfermo). A la derecha: la misma palabra compuesta en Georgia 72 pt. (Del Manual de tipografía de Ruari Mc Lean).

Family combination

In order to combine families it is necessary to define guidelines, criteria and arguments, as there are no too precise recipes as to this. An intuitive typeface combination frequently offers surprising and novel solutions.

Some criteria to bear in mind:

  • AChoosing the simple combination of one type to compose the text and another for the titles, or to combine several families throughout the whole work, knowing that we will have to make some adjustments in space (interletter and leading), size (type size corrections between one family and the other to compensate for the difference in x height) and weight, correcting optical irregularities in words and lines of text.
  • Controlling typographic color of blocks and being careful as to general presentation, respecting the hierarchy of each element.
  • Keeping in mind that using alternatively more that two typeface styles in a same project could be visually confusing or tiring for the reader.
  • To not be limited only by the relation between alphabetic characters: a relationship between letters from one style and numbers and signs from another can be created. It is highly advisable to know in depth each typeface family.
  • Finally, verifying if the selected combination works or if the same results may be obtained with variations in width of the type page, in type size, in spacing and in the use of variables (color, structure).
Letras de fantasía
Las familias de fantasía están basadas en motivos arquitectónicos, decorativos, antropomórficos, etcétera. Su uso se limita a capitulares o palabras cortas, pero nunca se emplean para componer textos. Alumnos (de arriba a abajo, de izquierda a derecha): Daniela Raskobsky, Mariana De Mattia, Luciano Costilla, Martín De Marchi

Some considerations

  • If our goal is to compose a legible text, classic families can help us, as they do not present unusual or extravagant characteristics that can distract the reader, for example: Garamond, Bembo, Plantin, Baskerville, Minion, Scala Serif.
  • Though the difference in legibility between some groups may not seem very noticeable, it can be stated that families with terminal create less confusions in readers than the sans serif monotonous and ambiguous forms.
  • Terminals improve reading flow through the line, in horizontal direction.
  • For a long, continuous text (literature, newspapers and magazines) it is preferable to compose the text in a family that has terminals. In other areas of communication where legibility is essential but reading happens quickly and synthetically (as in the case of signposting, for example) sans serif types are preferred. The same happens with other kind of pieces, like posters or advertisements.
  • Each word’s silhouette (called bouma by the Armenian typographer Hrant Papazian) is a very important factor in legibility: words composed in capitals produce uniform and difficult to differentiate «gray rectangles» (boumas). Words composed in lower case, on the other hand, are considerably more legible because their boumas are more different from each other.
Física de los superhéroes
Alumnos (de izquierda a derecha) N.N., Laura Dattoli.


  • MARTÍNEZ DE SOUSA, José. Diccionario de edición, tipografía y artes gráficas. Trea, Gijón. 2001.
  • SPIEKERMANN, Erik y GINGER, E.M.. Stop Stealing Sheep. Adobe Press, Mountain View, 1993.
  • McLEAN, Ruari. Manual de tipografía. Hermann Blume. Barcelona, 1987.
  • SOLOMON, Martin, «Extrañas parejas tipográficas» en tipoGráfica 5.

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