A Brief History of Typeface Styles and Classifications

Mydee Lasquite

Written by:
Mydee Lasquite


The ability to choose just the right typeface for your design project can make a world of a difference. Although typography can be a complex subject to delve into, learning a bit about the history of typefaces will help you understand what makes each classification distinct from the rest.

Typefaces are classified according to the era in which they became popular or the design characteristics that made them stand out.



Old Style SerifsTheoldstyle

This category is based on the first Roman types. It was estimated to have been used from the late 15th century up to the mid-18th century. Old Style types are also known as Garalde types.

They are characterized by great contrast between thin and thick strokes. Today, Garamond and Goudy Old Style are characterized by these same features.

Transitional SerifsTransitional

This type was introduced by John Baskerville, a notable English printer and typographer from the mid-18th century. This style represents the modification of Old Style types and neoclassical designs, while adapting some definitive characteristics of its own. 

Transitional designs are most notable for having vertical stress in the bowls of lower-case letters. They have great contrast between sub-strokes and horizontally defined heads.

Neoclassical and Modern Serifsdidot

These were born in the late 18th century. The Italian type designer Giambattista Bodoni is one of the most prominent figures related to this style type. 

These typefaces have abrupt and dramatic contrast between thin and thick strokes. The stroke terminals are oftentimes ball-shaped, offering a more distinct design with clearly shaped letters. They have a vertical axis and, like Baskerville, are characterized by horizontal stress and have tails with a distinctively small aperture.

These typefaces are most commonly used today in high-end fashion magazines because they are elegant, unhurried, calm and controlled. Today, moderns serifs include but are not limited to ITC Bodoni, ITC Fenice, Adobe New Caledonia and Berthold Walbaum.

Slab Serifsarvo

These gained popularity and recognition in advertising projects in the early 19th century. Publishing houses were looking to get their printed materials noticed so they decided to use typefaces that grabbed readers' attention.

The slab serif family is characterized by thick block lines at the end of strokes. They can appear curvy like Clarendon or more prominent and unbracketed like Rockwell.

Today, some of the most used slab serifs include Archer from H&FJ and Officina Serif by Erik Spiekermann. The former comes in various weights and comes beautifully set in italics. The latter is a full-bodied and legible typeface that is very flexible.

Clarendon Serifsdroid

This is an original design by Robert Beasley, an 19th-century English typographer. It was the very first patented typeface. It comes in five different weights: light, heavy, black, bold and roman. It has a slight stroke contrast and appears short to medium in length. 

Later designs were modified to have heavier and more obvious strokes and longer serifs. This family includes Bookman, Nimrod and ITC Charter.


This classification originates from the French word “sans,” which literally means “without.” “Serif,” on the other hand, comes from the Dutch word “schreef,” which means “line.” This particular font family has less line width variation in comparison to the serif font family.

Grotesque Sans Serifsfranklin

As the name implies, these typefaces broke the mold in their failure to maintain the historic elegance of serif style fonts. Grotesque fonts were greatly influenced by Modern (Didone) serif. They are bold and solid. They were mostly used in headlines and advertisements from the late 19th century up to the early 20th century.

They are characterized by a vertical axis, limited variation of stroke width and horizontally accented curves. These typefaces are popular because they are simple and practical. Examples of these fonts include Akzidenz Grotesque, Franklin Gothic, Helvetica, Monotype Grotesque, News Gothic and Univers.

Geometric Sans Serif futura

These typefaces are widely used in headlines and display advertisements. They look great on billboards but are not ideal for longer text content as they are less readable than grotesque sans serif. This type is described as cold and clinical, yet simple. 

They are constructed of conventional, monolinear lines and square or circular shapes. They are inspired by geometric shapes. This typeface family includes Futura, Avant Garde, Avenir, ITC Bauhaus and Harmonia Sans.

Humanistic Sans Serif optima

These typefaces emerged in the 20th century while other typographers were busy crafting Neo-grotesque typefaces. This typeface is characterized by stroke modulation, which gives letters a friendlier look. 

Typographic experts claim that this particular type is the most legible and readable of all the sans serif typefaces. This typeface family includes Gill Sans, Mentor Sans, ITC Goudy Sans and Optima.



This font family emulates handwriting or calligraphy. They take inspiration from historical practice in which most logo designs, headlines and shop fronts used custom-designs by engravers and sign painters. This family includes:

Formal Scriptssnell

These elegant typefaces are oftentimes used in diplomas and invitations. The majority of these types are inspired by letter forms from the 17th and 18th century, by writing masters like George Shelley, George Bickham and George Snell. Formal scripts include Snell Roundhand, Helinda Rook, Young Baroque, Elegy and Bickham Script.

Blackletter and Lombardic Scriptscloister

These types are also known as Textura, Gothic Script or Gothic minuscule. They were popular scripts in western Europe from the 12th to the 17th century. Blackletter was patterned after old-fashioned manuscript lettering that was used before the invention of the movable type.

Calligraphic Scriptsfelipa

This family simulates calligraphy. Calligraphic scripts that originally appeared in religious books, ancient edicts and historical writings inspired modern-day typographers to come up with a digital counterpart. This family includes Bell Trap, Blaze and Vivaldi.

Casual Scriptsdancing

This family has a less formal and more active hand. The strokes vary in width and appear to have been created by a wet brush rather than a pen nib. They became the top pick for advertising designs in Europe and North America in the 1970s. 

This typeface style is designed to look informal, as if it were written in haste. This family includes Brush Script, Mistral, Kaufmann, Limehouse Script, Nadianne and Freestyle Script.


This is the largest and most diverse type classification.
These typefaces are creatively used for signage, headlines and all other display projects requiring a strong typographic statement. Some of the font families use unorthodox letter shapes and proportions to create a more dramatic effect and distinctive appearance, as seen in the examples below:


These typefaces are perfect for flat design as they create texture without resorting to drop shadows or bevels. They have a bold, chunky look that is delicate at the same time. In general, they come with hairline strokes within broader strokes.



Grunge typefaces came into being thanks to the appearance of grunge music, which is also based on the slang term "grungy," meaning dirty or filthy. If you're looking for an urban, street-style font, these are for you:



These typefaces are made up of capital letters with curved edges and thick strokes with splits. This makes them have the look of the stenciled letters used on crate shipments and public signs. They can be used in labels, headlines, logos, military and cartoon designs.



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About the Author

Mydee is a content strategist at Visme’s Visual Learning Center. After years of writing for various companies to promote brands and products, her passion for content and love for offering valuable information landed her at Visme to help individuals and businesses make informed decisions and improve their communication and presentation skills.

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