Is categorization really a good thing when designing a typeface?

Hannes Famira is the founder and type designer of Kombinat Typefounders (Which is now transforming into Famira Fonts), and also one of the coolest professors and lecturers in Type@Cooper, where he hosts workshops and teaches a diversity of classes, such as:

  • Principles of Typeface Design 1: From Pen to Pixel
  • Principles of Typeface Design 2: Beyond the Basics
  • Advanced Design - Type Design
  • Experimental Type 
  • Understanding and Experiencing the Designspace
Hannes Famira. Type@Cooper Condensed Program 2013.

Hannes Famira. Type@Cooper Condensed Program 2013.


We talked with him a little about typography and he confessed he not a big fan of categorizing typefaces. So our question was this: 

Q: Are categories really a good or a bad thing when designing a typeface? 

As a tool to study typography, categories are very helpful in understanding how it has evolved, but when designing a typeface they can turn into some sort of a label-barrier. “I’m working on a humanist serif, I can not include this feature in my glyphs!” So how would you say type designers could understand the design space without being mislead or limited by categories? Would you say Typeface categorisation stands in the way of experimentation?

A:  The Vox classification system as much as the German DIN system apply structure to a sea of letter shapes by recognizing common features in a way that makes sense to somebody who looks at typefaces with the eye of a novice. Let’s call all typefaces with really chunky serifs Slab Serifs, easy. A common graphic denominator serves as the label of a very diverse group of designs. Classification systems are equally suited for historians or printers who know typefaces and type history very well. A Venetian Renaissance Script describes very particular letter shapes that were first drawn in a particular time and a specific place. None of this is a helpful to a type designer in 2016.

A designer's job is to find solutions to communication challenges. I do think it is helpful for the designer to know existing solutions to common problems. So knowing typefaces that are out there can be helpful. But that's where it ends for me. A type designer who draws a typeface with the intention to fit it into an existing category is shooting for stylistic commonalities. That kind of designer is not solving a communication problem but applying a certain style. To me this approach makes us decorators and not designers.

The designer’s mind should be free of stylistic constraints and be aware of the possibilities provided by the entire design space when drawing letters. Every typeface inhabits a spot inside a multidimensional space defined by a multitude of qualities such as optical weight, width, scale, construction, kind of contrast and amount of contrast etc. 

Type classifications describe fictional spaces demarcated inside the design space. Everything inside a classification is part of a certain style. Everything outside this fictional space is by definition not an option. This is why type classifications limit the designer’s range of actions instead of enriching her vision and broadening her toolset.

Besides all that I find that current classification systems are embarrassingly colonialist in confining all alphabets that are not based on our western, latin character set into a single group traditionally called "exotics" or more gracefully “others". In an increasingly globalized culture and marketplace this kind of thinking has no place.

What do you think?

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