The Taxonomy of Type


This is not a detailed overview of typography, and was not intended to be. Instead, this article’s purpose is to help us as designers to distinguish basic properties of types. Typography encompasses a large field of interests, and to put it all into one article would be difficult and unnecessary. If you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to check out the reference materials we provide at the end.

This article doubles as a giveaway contest. We’ve teamed up with the folks at Bohemian Coding, Hex, and Mark Batty Publisher to give prizes to Phuse readers. If you want to win a free copy of Fontcase (the premiere font organizing app for Mac. NOTE: 9/12/14: Fontcase has been retired since this post went live), a one year subscription to Subernova (the premiere project management tool for rockstar freelancers), or a free copy of Type, Trends and Fashion, so make sure you read on!

Also, if you haven’t already, follow us on Twitter and grab our feed. We’re going to be giving away more prizes and discounts over the coming months, along with more great content!


The origins of typography trace back to about 1,200 years ago. The Diamond Sutra is the first document for which a typeface was created to print it. It was made in China using woodblock printing. Since then, countless new typefaces have been invented, and the people who use the typefaces (e.g., designers) have been trying to classify them by era (The Lawson System), foundry, and serif and sans-serif. As designers, we are always looking for new typefaces. Now, typefaces are being created every day by amateurs using store-bought programs, so that the number of typefaces expands more rapidly than ever.

The old classification systems, however, are no longer relevant to the modern typography. While some are able to note distinctions between eras of typography, the majority of our clients won’t understand that typefaces from the medieval era have a certain emotion attached to them that wouldn’t work with a modern type. Our classification needs to be one that our clients and other designers can understand and work with.

Many will even argue that classifying typefaces is impossible because we are applying a linear system to non-linear data. Because of this, no one can agree on which form of classification is best.

Why Classification Is Important for Designers

I realize it would be ludicrous if I were to suggest and think that everyone will agree to use the same method for classifying fonts. But as designers, classifying our fonts can save us a lot of time. Different typefaces were made for different situations; sans-serif and display types for headers and titles, serif typefaces for long blocks of copy, and display fonts for particular styles.

Classifying typefaces based on their physical properties also helps us to communicate our choice of typeface to others which, we all know, makes it easier to deal with other designers and clients.

Some of you may already be using your own classification model without thinking about it. For myself, I decided that having 1076 fonts, within 514 families (not a lot compared to some of my peers) was too much not to organize. That’s why our team has come up with a taxonomy for designers.

Introducing The

Below, you’ll find the outline of this classification system. It is a very simple taxonomy. Essentially, we have three “types” of faces: Serif, Sans-Serif, and Display. Each of these have morphological properties (as discussed below) that help to distinguish them. To keep the focus of this article clear, we will assume that you have a basic knowledge of typeface terminology.

The Types!


Serifs are very easily distinguishable. As we can see from the image to the right (highlighed in red), serif fonts have extra strokes coming off of their letters (“serifs”).

Some common examples of Serif fonts are Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia, and Baskerville.

Within this section as well, we have decided to include the recently-popular Slab Serif, as it is derived from a “smoother” version of a standard serif type with more abrupt serifs (see the blue highlight). Some sample typefaces are the Museo and Nilland families.

Serif fonts are generally used for smaller font sizes, like long bodies of text. This is because serif fonts have characters that are more easily distinguishable.

Example Serif Typefaces

Example Sans-Serif Typefaces


It can be said that sans-serif typefaces are the opposite of serif. Created to use for headers and large text, sans-serif typefaces are “sans” (or, “without”) serifs. This makes for a cleaner, smoother, and more rounded typeface.

Some common examples of sans-serif typefaces are Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, and Calibri.


As Matt Felten from our team so finely put it, “a display font is a styled font – one that you use when you’re going for a certain look.” Since we can have as many categories of display font as we please, this is where most people argue that classification is impossible because new categories are always being invented. This is where the Phuse Taxonomy separates itself from the pack. Or rather, gives the puppies names.

In this section, I have tried to invent general categories, however they may also contain sub-categories, if you wish. For example, Handwritten can include Kids, Print, and Script, while the Pixel sub-category would fit under Screen fonts.

Arguments have already been made that certain serif and sans-serif types have been made for display. However for classification, we intend to make the Display category as general as possible to include “everything else.”

We have organized the Display typeface into the following categories:

  • Blackletter - Including Lucida Blackletter, Blackmoor, etc.
  • Comic - Including Comic Sans, Chalkboard, etc.
  • Dingbats - Including the IM family, Bodoni Ornaments, etc.
  • Handwritten - Black Jack, Journal, Spill Milk, etc.
  • Monospaced - Courier, Prestige Elite Std, etc.
  • Screen - Mouse, FFF Atlantis, etc.
  • Script - Edwardian Script, Snell Roundhand, etc.

Example Display Typefaces

Final Notes

When I classify my typefaces, I also include four other “tags” that I don’t feel the need to include in the classification system: Thin, Heavy, Outline, and Uppercase. If you’re as addicted to typography I am, you may want to organize your typefaces in tags that state their license (e.g. Commercial, Non-Commercial, Shareware), whether they are web-safe, and whether they are System Fonts (ones prepackaged on your computer).

What? Prizes? Oh, right!

I’m a Mac user (and apparently a good 48% of you are as well). So when I wanted to take my typeface collection to the next level, I put my money into something elegant and simple that saves me time. What I found, and use almost every day, is Fontcase. The folks at Bohemian Coding made a beautiful application for your fonts that promotes tagging and collections. It’s fast and easy to customize, and quickly compares your fonts.

When I started writing this article, I spoke to the folks from Bohemian Coding and they offered to give Phuse readers 2 free copies of Fontcase! So, if you want to enter to win one of two free copies of Fontcase, here’s how:

  1. Post to Twitter
    • Tweet using the hashtag #phuse about how/why you want to win a copy of Fontcase. An example Tweet would be:
    • Want to win a copy of @Fontcase from @thephuse? #phuse
    • Click here to post your Tweet!
  2. Make sure you’re following @thephuse and @BohemianCoding on Twitter. That way, we can DM you if you’re a winner!
  3. Leave a Comment with a link to your Tweet, why you want to win a copy of Fontcase, and/or what you think about the Phuse type classification system!



I Don’t Use a Mac

I feel bad for leaving out the 50% of you that don’t use a Mac, so I’ve lined up another amazing prize. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Subernova grow over the last year now, and am very happy with the quality releases it’s founder Ben from Hex keeps coming up with. Subernova really is a freelancer’s wet dream for project management – everything from invoicing to keeping track of milestones in one easy-to-use sleek web interface.

I’m really excited to also be offering our readers a one year subscription to Subernova. How do you enter?

  1. Post to Twitter
    • Tweet using the hashtag #phuse about why you think Subernova is awesome. An example Tweet would be:
    • Want to win a one year subscription to @Subernova from @thephuse? #phuse
    • Click here to post your Tweet!
  2. Make sure you’re following @thephuse and @Subernova on Twitter. That way we can DM you if you’re a winner!
  3. Leave a Comment with a link to your Tweet, why you want to win a subscription to Subernova, and/or what you think about the Phuse type classification system!


For all of you who want something to improve your knowledge of typography, we’ve teamed up with Mark Batty Publisher to offer our readers a copy of Type, Trends and Fashion: A Study of the Late Twentieth Century Proliferation of Typefaces.

That’s right. So, if you’re in North America, then please follow these instructions to enter:

  1. Post to Twitter
    • Tweet using the hashtag #phuse about why you want to get a copy of Type, Trends and Fashion. An example Tweet would be:
    • Want to win a copy of Type, Trends and Fasion by @markbattypub from @thephuse? #phuse
    • Click here to post your Tweet!
  2. Make sure you’re following @thephuse and @markbattypub on Twitter. That way we can DM you if you’re a winner!
  3. Leave a Comment with a link to your Tweet, why you want to win a copy of Type, Trends and Fashion, and/or what you think about the Phuse type classification system.

Type, Trends and Fashion!

Ready, Set, Go!

Big shout out to our sponsors for being so awesome. We’re going to leave this contest open for a week – that means we’re closing entries on March 1st, 2010 at 11:59:59 PM (EST), and announcing winners on March 2nd, 2010. The more entries you make, the better your chances of being chosen, but we ask that you not enter more than twice a day!

And yes, you can enter for more than one prize – just make sure you separate your entries and don’t enter more than twice a day (in total)!

This contest is closed! Thanks to all who entered. We’ll be announcing prizes in the next post at 10:00AM EST March 2nd!

Further Reading


  1. Jordan on | Reply

    In the magnified image of Helvetica I believe that the “e” is false. Helvetica has perfect horizontally-cut terminals. I’m one of those guys BTW…

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Hey Jordan! Thanks for the heads-up – but it looks about right to me, according to Fontcase. What do you think the problem could be?

    • Jordan on | Reply

      Yeah I see; weird. I don’t know what it is. The Fontcase grab you posted looks fine. Here’s what Fontbook looks like:

      Beats me :)

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Hmm… Very strange. Thanks for the head’s-up, though! Looks like it’s Photoshop’s way of playing mind games with me. Might be the anti-aliasing I was using. Cheers!

    • Chris Marshall on | Reply

      I am fairly certain that it is Arial as the ‘a’ doesn’t look right either.

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Just opened up the files and Chris is right on the ball – I made a mistake in that image. Good call, guys — great eye. ;-)

    • Chris Marshall on | Reply

      Actually the ‘a’ in question is Helvetica. My mistake, I forgot difference between Helvetica and Helvetica Bold. I still think the ‘e’ is Arial though.

  2. Timmeh_ on | Reply

    Here the link to my tweet:

    Thanks for all the effort!

  3. Stefano on | Reply

    Here’s my tweet:

    My typodreams are waiting for a light to avoid nightmares :)

  4. Carlin on | Reply


  5. Joel Turner on | Reply

    Here’s my tweet link:

  6. Timmeh_ on | Reply

    Again a link to my tweet:

    In this tweet I mention that I tweeted before about Subernova, here I have some prove ;)

    This is how I discovered Subernova (14/09/2009!!):

    Some ‘personal’ contact:

    I watched the upgrowth of Subernoba close:

    Missed a previous givaway :(

    Wished them a happy new year:

    What brings me back to today’s tweet:

    So I would really like to win! :)

  7. Chris Thurman on | Reply

    I’d love to win either Fontcase or the Subernova subscription. I’m working hard on trying to get and stay organized with all my projects and I know either one of these would help in a huge way.

    Here’s a link to the tweet:

    Great post James! I love the look!

  8. Lesley on | Reply

    Help, my fonts are running amok & need a manager!

  9. Billy on | Reply

    Here’s my Tweet!

    I really like the classification system. It’s simple but also has the ability to organize complicated things. Especially with the use of tags.

    That’s also why I would love to win Fontcase. I have so much trouble organizing all the fonts that I have bought/downloaded/transferred from all of my sources. This would help immensely. Probably much better than typing text into Illustrator and then scrolling through all the fonts one by one. Haha.


    • James Costa on | Reply

      Yeah – I know what you mean! I used to hate doing that in Illustrator. Thanks for the kind comments! :-)

  10. Rafael Masoni on | Reply

    I’m taking some steps to, as you said, take typography to the next level. My Fontcase trial has expired just when I most needed it :(
    Well, let’s see if I can save $56 with The Phuse :D

    My tweet:

  11. Michael Mior on | Reply

    I’m not sure I’d have a lot of use for Fontcase myself, but my sister has just started freelancing as a designer and I’m sure she’d love it!

  12. Tuhin Kumar on | Reply

    Here is the link to my Fontcase tweet
    and here is the Tweet for Type,Trends and Fashion

  13. Michael Mior on | Reply

    Also, can I suggest not constantly posting “Thanks for the RT!” to your public feed. A DM is way more appropriate since it clutters up your main feed. When I looked at your Twitter feed for the first time today, half the tweets were something like this. it just leads me to believe that my feed will become cluttered if I start following you.

    Just some friendly advice :)

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Hey Mike! Thanks so much for this suggestion. Using Tweetie, I guess I got used to never seeing anyone who was mentioning someone else in the beginning of their feed that I wasn’t friends with in my feed. Will keep it in mind now and tone down. My apologies!

    • Michael Mior on | Reply

      No problem James. I’m certainly not an expert, just something I happened to notice. I’m way behind in all my online efforts as school is still taking priority. If I can get a few more posts queued up, I’ll hopefully be launching my blog within the next few months.

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Well – thanks for noticing! I know what you mean – totally stoked about the new blog. Good luck with school! Shoot me an e-mail when it’s launched. ;-)

    • Michael Mior on | Reply

      Thanks! There’s not much there now, but if you want a little peek, my blog url is

  14. Isaac on | Reply

    This is a great (and easy to understand) article about the different types of fonts. I’m going to share with a couple of people who are interested in going through a design program for college.

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Hey Isaac! Thanks for your entry! Wondering if you can give me a head’s-up with what you’ve entered for? You have protected tweets. :'(

  15. Matt Stanford on | Reply

    Hey, I tweeted:

    I love Fontcase because it takes a completely different tact to presenting, and choosing, type. Very mac-like: easy to use, visual, and slick.
    When are Bohemian going to make us a mail client? Or web browser?

  16. Matt Ward on | Reply

    Hey James
    Really awesome article. Love the styling that you did on this one. I definitely need to get a better handle on organizing my fonts, so I’d love to win a copy of Fontcase!

    Keep up the great work!

  17. Ares on | Reply

    Here’s my tweet

  18. Ryan on | Reply

    here’s my tweet.

  19. Richard S Davies on | Reply

    Link to my tweet:

    Would love to see how Subernova is different to all the others I have used!

  20. Nathaniel on | Reply

    Man, I really like the phuse system. I’m trying to figure out how I’m organizing my fonts. I’ve been using Linotype FontExplorer X because I can’t afford FontCase (I’m a poor college student who is trying to get out of debt). I would really love FontCase because I used the trial version and LOVED it.

  21. Milan on | Reply

    Here’s my tweet about Fontcase. It really looks amazing:

  22. Grace Smith on | Reply

    Hey James, it’s refreshing to read a unique take on Typography and by simplifying the way we as designers can classify typefaces, you’ve made life a little easier! I love your system of breaking it down into serif, sans-serif and display categories.

    My tweet to win:

    I’ve been trying to decide which font management app to plunge for, for sometime, and if I won Fontcase it would mean I can finally start organising my (ever growing) collection.

    All the best with the comp :-)

  23. Ryan on | Reply

    Heck I need Font Case badly so I can get my stuff sorted, currently it’s a mess :/

  24. xane on | Reply

    Here’s my plug for Fontcase.

    And heres the one for Supernova

    I prefer to use Macs but I have been recently doing a lot of PC work so thats why I posted for both. Both would help out greatly :D

  25. zr0z on | Reply

    Great Article

    Here’s my plug for FontCase :

    Really like the phuse type classification
    Simple and concrete…

    And Bohemian Coding is a great mac developer
    Try their DrawIt application, it’s a fine vector editor.

    By the way, it seems that the link on Bohemian Coding, it’s not working properly…

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Thanks so much for the call on that bug!

    • zr0z on | Reply

      You’re welcome !

  26. Michele James on | Reply

    Here’s my twitter status for FontCase

    I’m a Mac girl who really need help organizing all of my fonts

  27. Veronica Domeier on | Reply

    Kudos on the gorgeous site design and the great content!

    Here’s my *Winning* FontCase Tweet – winkwink!

  28. Shay Howe on | Reply

    Really digging Type, Trends and Fashion: A Study of the Late Twentieth Century Proliferation of Typefaces. and would love to get my hands on a copy.

    Here is the tweet:

    (Ps. Thanks @thephuse for the heads up.)

  29. Chris Marshall on | Reply

    I’d like a copy of Fontcase please — here’s why…

    After using Apple Font Book to confirm the slight differences between Helvetica and Arial I think it would have been easier and quicker using Fontcase. ;)

    Aside from organising my font collection into the meaningful categories suggested above by James I would make a group of fonts which can be used legally for website design using @font-face.

    Thanks for the opportunity and good luck everyone. :)

    Duly tweeted ( ) and you’ve both been followed by @marshall24.

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Haha! *highfive*

  30. Tom Walters on | Reply

    I always think of sans-serif as having sanded down the edges off the type :)

  31. Asndreu vali on | Reply

    pls don’t fell bad about Us, be sura that we don’t like use mac becasuse mac have a lot problems as windows, actually it doesn’t offer me anything really interesting.

    tks for article and if you really want to find a amazing operative system pls try with Linux or Solaris. See ya!

    • James Costa on | Reply

      Haha! Fair enough, fair enough. Used Linux before and for me it was definitely a great operating system for tech-savvy people who were able to work “under the hood”.

      Thanks for the comment – hope you enter the contest for Type Trends and Fashion or Subernova!

  32. Allan Rosenow on | Reply

    Posted my tweet at:

    I’d love to have a better way to organize my growing font collection. Fontcase looks great, and I’d have to say your taxonomy scheme also seems very promising. Here’s hoping!

  33. Sara B. on | Reply

    I am on the hunt for a new font management program – Font Book just isn’t doing it for me … my fingers are crossed!

    And thanks for the great post =)

  34. Brian on | Reply

    I don’t own a mac and I actually came here from Grace’s tweet to check it out and when I saw the SuberNova prize I couldn’t help but join the bandwagon. Currently I use ActiveCollab for project management and while I do absolutely love the system I am always on the lookout for alternatives. It looks like SuberNova has some great tools and that sleek look just makes me all giddy.

  35. Colleen C on | Reply

    I would love to win the subscription to help me with my company launch.

  36. Colleen C on | Reply

    Oh, and I am still a newbie to fonts, so I can’t intelligently comment on the classification system – except to thank you for educating me! I now understand Serif and SanSerif!

    As I mentioned, I am a newbie to Type and Fonts, so Type, Trends and Fashion would be a great win for me.

  37. Gigi Frias on | Reply

    Link to my tweet:

  38. Jacob Guite-St-Pierre on | Reply

    Here’s our tweet:

    Great idea by the way!

  39. Tom Graber on | Reply

    Here is the tweet:

  40. Carl Chua on | Reply

    Love how you classify the fonts in display and the other subcategories under it. Everyone should be able to organize their fonts and Fontcase would be a perfect font management app to do this task.

  41. Andrew on | Reply

    Great comp,

    Would love to win a copy of Fontcase as my collection of fonts could certainly do with a nice home to live in!

  42. Brendan on | Reply

    Here’s my tweet!
    I really like the idea of having the display category, all the subcategories would really make it easy to organize all of my fonts and Fontcase would be the ultimate tool to do so.

  43. Jason Francis on | Reply

    I’ve wanted a license to Fontcase forever, but as a dad with a fairly-large family, we could never fit it into the budget. This would be a big boon. Thanks.

  44. Sblm on | Reply

  45. Chad on | Reply

    I retweeted the tweet at

    And explained why I wanted it at

    I want it because I would love to have more fonts to work with. Thanks.

  46. Williams Garcia on | Reply

    Ever since I used the trial version of Fontcase I always wanted to have it! I think it is a great product that would definitely help me deal with my compulsive desire of having fonts in my computer. I am a hoarder of Fonts! Yes, I am (and very proud of it)…

  47. Abe Jellinek on | Reply

    I tried the trial of Fontcase, and it’s a very valuable tool for me. I have many fonts (2,000+) and it can organize them easily.

  48. Abe Jellinek on | Reply
    Your type classification system is really neat, and useful. I am a freelance designer, and this would be a very good tool for me.

  49. Brendan on | Reply

    Great article, my tweet is here:
    I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Fontcase as your font collection really starts to become a mess and with a tool like Fontcase it becomes so easy to maintain and organize all your fonts.

    Thank you guys for the giveaway!

  50. Milan on | Reply

    Link to my second tweet:

    My font collection has been getting really out of hand recently! I need this!

  51. Thomas Gundel on | Reply

    My tweet;

    I want this so amazing application because it’s just the one pice I’m missing to be a good graphic designer. My trial is 1 day left, so please, if you choose me, hurry up! (

    At least, sorry for my bad english :(

  52. Nathaniel on | Reply

    Hey guys, like I said before, I’m a poor college student and really could use this awesome piece of binary code

  53. mahzilla on | Reply

    I’m in web development and would love this software to view fonts easily!

  54. Milan on | Reply

    Link to my latest tweet!
    This looks like an awesome app! GIMMEGIMMEGIMME

  55. George on | Reply

    My tweet:

  56. Ryan Price on | Reply

    my tweet:

  57. ImHiddenDesign on | Reply

    I need to organize my fonts, so that I can take over the world. And then, Pluto.

  58. Ed on | Reply

    Fontcase is the sexiest program I’ve seen

  59. Nathaniel on | Reply

    Gosh, I hope I win!!
    I love FontCase

    And I really hope I win it because it will help A LOT!!

  60. Nathaniel on | Reply

    Hey look! It’s another tweet!

    I hope I win!!

  61. Nathaniel on | Reply

    I’m assuming that by saying “You can enter as many times as you want,” you really mean I can enter as many times as I want. Here’s my third go for today!

    • James Costa on | Reply


      Sorry you misunderstood and didn’t read the end of the article. Maximum amount of three times per day. Appreciate your excitement, but next time if you can try and keep the comments to a minimum, it would be appreciated. ;-)


    • Nathaniel on | Reply

      Gotcha. I had read the bottom, which is why I only posted a few for the days leading up to today. I thought the contest ended yesterday, and that you guys extended it one more and allowed people to go comment crazy. So I did =p

    • Nathaniel on | Reply

      I wonder what you were thinking when you saw “7 new comments on The Taxonomy of Type” in your email… all from the same person in five minutes, haha

  62. Matthew Shepherd on | Reply

    Here’s the link to my tweet:

    Thanks for the reminder :)

  63. jfm429 on | Reply

    Awesome! Fontcase is one of those apps I didn’t think I’d have a use for, but I downloaded the trial just a few days ago (seriously) and it’s better than I expected. It makes it a lot easier to keep track of and choose fonts.

    Twitter Link:

  64. Milan on | Reply

    It’s true… it is very shiny…

  65. Sarieh on | Reply

    February 29nd, 2010? LOL.

    • James Costa on | Reply

      This is why I need to open iCal more often! ;-)

  66. Dylan Copeland on | Reply

    My Tweet:

    I would like to win FontCase because it looks like a beautiful application to expose me to new fonts. I’m just now trying my hand at design and would love to be able to explore fonts.

  67. David on | Reply

    Great article,
    my tweet:
    good luck!

  68. Elliot Winkler on | Reply

    I would so love to win a copy of Fontcase. I tried it out a while back and it looked like a really well thought out app. Much better than Linotype FontExplorer IMO.

    Not sure how to get an exact URL of my tweet but here’s my Twitter profile:

  69. Adam Schoales on | Reply

    I’d love a copy of fontcase, as of all the font management software out there, it is by far the most mac-like, with an incredible UI and a beautiful attention to detail.

    As for your classification system, I think it’s great. It certainly will help me, as well as many of my friends who are less knowledgeable about type.

  70. jaryre on | Reply


    I would love to win one of the two Fontcase license because I have craving for powerful app for my Macbook to contained all of the galaxy of fonts ever exist in this constellation system we lived.

    About the Phuse classification system, I would say pretty good and very informative for people like me; still crawling to climb up to learn about typography ;)

    Thanks in advance!

  71. drupal website developers on | Reply

    its great article, thank you for shared this.. i thing that classification is important for designers. because they can’t do it without classification.. now I’m following your twitter account you follow back..

  72. Leonida on | Reply

    My coder is trying to persuade me to move to .
    net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of
    the costs. But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using WordPress on a number of websites for about
    a year and am nervous about switching to another platform.
    I have heard excellent things about blogengine.

    net. Is there a way I can import all my wordpress content into it?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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