The one in typeface classification

An honest confession. Until recently, I’ve never been truly interested in typeface classification, somewhat because I find myself inevitably too lazy for classifying anything (even my Pinterest account is just one big container with everything I like); in part because I find classification rather arbitrary, depending on the needs and thoughts of those who write them, and therefore not quite legitimate in their aspiration to being universal; and, partially, because  in my mind this topic was discussed in the 50s, in dark rooms, by boring men [only men: I am sure that I had it right] dressed in suits and ties, smoking habanos, and arguing about different nomenclatures: Vox classification, the British Standard, DIN 16518; how sloped the ‘e’  should be in order to be called transitional, or how stiffed a serif should be to be considered Egyptian. And other vital questions of the sort.

Then, recently, after some hard work against my own bias, I have become slightly more curious about the topic. I started to read some articles here and there to find that there was something interesting in the matter. Particularly through the work of Catherine Dixon, which I believe means a small revolution in the strict world of classification nomenclature, because it is based not just on categorizing, but also on describing and tagging, and I can see useful applications here, and interesting outcomes, particularly with todays technology. Something similar is happening on some websites  of digital foundries, where the user might browse typefaces following descriptions and tags that define shapes and forms, but also highlight possible applications.

In the meantime, and as a consequence of this new interest in classification, I have run into ‘the’ ultimate type classification, based on the work of José Luis Borges. This I’ve discovered in a chronologically reversed order: firstly I found the Spanish version, signed by Miguel Catopodis, of John Hudson’s classification which, in turn, is an interpretation of Borges’ amazing words.

Hudson’s text goes as follows:

According to ‘a certain Chinese Encyclopedia’, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, typefaces are divided into the following categories:

  1.  those used to typeset the words of the Emperor,
  2.  no longer available ones,
  3.  those that are good for ‘the small print’,
  4.  the ones you used last week,
  5.  those that remind you of former lovers,
  6.  fabulous ones,
  7.  those in unknown formats,
  8.  those included in the present classification,
  9.  those you have forgotten,
  10.  innumerable ones,
  11.  those that are too light to be used for the present job,
  12.  others,
  13.  those in which the g ‘just looks wrong’,
  14.  those that will be used to typeset this list. 

And Catopodis’ translation goes like this:

Se atribuye «a cierta enciclopedia china que se titula Emporio Celestial de conocimientos…» que las tipografías se dividen en las siguientes categorías:

  1.  aquellas usadas para componer las palabras del Emperador
  2.  las que ya no estan disponibles
  3.  aquellas que son buenas para “la letra chica”
  4.  las que has usado la semana pasada
  5.  aquellas que te recuerdan a tus ex amantes
  6.  las fabulosas
  7.  las de formato desconocido
  8.  aquellas incluidas en la presente clasificación
  9.  aquellas que has olvidado
  10.  innumerables
  11.  aquellas que son demasiado livianas para usar en este trabajo
  12.  etcétera
  13.  aquellas en las que la “g” simplemente se ve mal
  14.  aquellas que serán usadas para componer esta lista

But of course, everyone should take a look to the work of Borges (1899–1986) the most amazing of all writers from Argentina. In his piece “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, Borges explains the existence of ‘a certain Chinese Encyclopedia’, the so-called Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. This, Borges says (and Foucault later reminded us in Les mots et les choses), includes a peculiar classification of all animals, a foundation for many other interpretations:

  1. those that belong to the Emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those included in the present classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

And the original text in Spanish:

  1. pertenecientes al emperador,
  2. embalsamados,
  3. amaestrados,
  4. lechones,
  5. sirenas,
  6. fabulosos,
  7. perros sueltos,
  8. incluidos en esta clasificación,
  9. que se agitan como locos,
  10. innumerables
  11. dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello,
  12. etcétera,
  13. que acaban de romper un jarrón,
  14. que de lejos parecen moscas.

Until a new classification of types arises in the horizon, until Dixon decides to publish her [PhD] work,* or until someone else decides to create a new system, I will hold on to Borges’ Chinese invention. It is the only one right now that fully satisfies my scarce needs of type classification.


* And nothing would be more satisfying in my treacherous mind that a woman fighting all those men, in a very dark room, in their suits, smoking habanos, drinking whiskey…

The featured image in this post was taken by the author from the Encyclopaedia of Typefaces, by Jaspert, Berry and Johnson.

10 replies on “The one in typeface classification”

Vox, ATypI, British Standard and DIN 16518 classifications are “the same dog with a different collar”, as you should to know. But I agree with you: every classification is boring. However, I found it’s a useful tool to teach typography. I would be glad to not need it.

Excuse me interfering, but you have some pretty wild CSS going on here, including faux bold, faux small caps, italics in TNR (not matching the x-hight of the roman font so well).

¡Un artículo muy divertido Elena! Yo me declaro un poco fanático de las clasificaciones ortodoxas, pero confiesa que estas me han parecido divertísimas. Como bien dices, ponen en juego el sentido dogmático de las anteriores citadas.

¡Gracias y saludos!

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