Typography Basics for Artists. Part 1 - Broad Classification

major font styles
Major type styles.
Typography is a separate world in its own. It lives according to the myriad of rules - aesthetic, conventional, optical and technical. Few professions include understanding of this world in a job description, and they mostly contain a word “designer” in the name - like graphic designers or (suddenly) typeface designers. Among the artists however it is not uncommon to be way less familiar with the principles involved in creating, manipulating and judging fonts. Still it’s a valuable knowledge for anyone dealing with images, which I’d like to address here. By no means I claim myself as an expert in the field - I’m rather trying to draw some directions for further research, which from my own experience might take some time to establish. As in most of the cases, a great place to start is Wikipedia’s articles on Typography and Typeface. The trick is to keep digging further exploring the related links.


The word “Font” refers to a particular combination of a typeface’s size, weight and style. Thus Arial 12 and Arial 16 should be considered different fonts. What they share is a typeface (font family). Basically, “typeface” is a more proper term to refer to a font family like Helvetica or Courier.


Be prepared that terminology and classification differ from source to source. Although not too drastically usually. Reading multiple sources is helpful since you can familiarize yourself not only with different terms and conventions, but different opinions as well. A cover picture for this post, which I borrowed from Wikipedia, shows some of the major typeface styles.

Two biggest classes the typefaces can be divided into are text types and display types. Text types are those suitable for huge bodies of text, like in books or newspapers. It is said a typeface designer is lucky to create a single text typeface (both new and good) through the whole career. This also means that if you’re looking for free text types - your best chances are with those coming with OS or other software you are licensed to use, rather than with free online collections. Criteria for a successful text type are pretty much opposite to the goals which art, design and often even display types are seeking to achieve. Instead of expressivity and drawing attention to itself, it seeks loosing all attention possible, becoming invisible since its main goal is to assist reading - the text is the hero and the typeface must step back. What is required however are a perfect balance and rhythm (in kerning, contrast, ascending and descending elements). Achieving this balance and uniformity while preserving aesthetical qualities without distinct features takes tons of skill, taste and patience to iterate, test and adjust the design over and over again till it's ideally polished. It's not an easy job which deserves respect, and is another reason those typefaces cost money.

text types vs display types example

Quite often, although not necessarily, text type would possess serifs due to their ability to accentuate horizontal lines of text helping the eye not to slip.

Illustrators and other visual artists usually deal with way smaller amounts of text, which often requires organizing, prioretizing and accenting. This is where the display types are used. They generally require less work to design (less does not equal little) and are probably the majority. Display types are intended to be used in large sizes, like from 30pt («pt» stands for point here, a typographical unit of size measurement.) They come in all possible shapes and sizes, ranging from reserved to wildly screaming and blurring edge between a letterform and a decorative element. This is a beautiful, fantastic, dizzying world, which makes it important for a designer to not loose the focus.

I'm going to address this issue as well as more details on fonts' classification in the next parts:

2 – Matching the typeface
3 – Display typesetting basics
4 – Historical context factor
5 – Resources and miscellaneous

Following my life's organizational principle abbreviated M.E.S.S. (too lazy to invent the decryption), these parts will be appearing on the blog in the announced order, but through uncertain time intervals, interleaved with other stuff.

Again, my goal here is to announce a topic for research rather than to write a compendium, so at this stage you're probably better off reading more competent sources anyway.