Best term for Modern/Didone style typefaces?

What do you native-English speakers and others (not Germans) prefer as a term for Modern or Didone style typefaces? I’m not a big fan of those and have my own preferred set of terms*, but for keywords that will be used by an international audience, one probably has to go with the most commonly used ones? 

I think many of us, even Vox and the DIN, could live with the following breakdown for Latin, but finding the most widely understood names continues to be tricky. Please regard the terms in brackets as random placeholders for the respective genres.
  • Serif (oldstyle, realist, modern, geometric, decorative)
  • Sans (humanist, gothic, grotesk, geometric, decorative)
  • Slab (humanist, clarendon, egyptienne, geometric, decorative)
  • Script (chancery, roundhand, linear, informal, decorative)
[omitting the whole contrast/linear thing here for the moment]

Not meaning to say it’s impossible to introduce other/new terms. I proposed to use “dynamic” and “rational” or “static” resp. instead of oldstyle/humanist and modern/grotesk in 1998 in Germany. Several text books – mostly widely read Willberg’s – have since picked that up and the terms are now quite well understood by the younger generation over here.

* for those interested in a more lengthy view on things, I wrote this a while back.


  • When I was in school, they were described to us as “moderns.” When I teach (in German), I usually call them Didones and/or klassizistische (neoclassical) Schriften, because usually I talk about typefaces with my students in a historical-framework more than within a style/descriptive-framework (but that is just me).

    When I am teaching type design classes instead of typography or design history classes, I sometimes call them pointed-pen typefaces (or Spitzfeder, I guess), if the class is heavy on tools and/or tool terminology.

    I often feel guilty about maybe not using the best terminology when I teach. But I try to follow my gut in the moment, and reflect on my decisions afterwards.
  • Serif, Sans, Slab, Script.... I find that categorization of little use.
    Something more useful will be something like: Poster, Hero Banner, h1, h3, p, sidebar, footer regardless of the style. Serif, Sans, Slab, Script.... can be a 2nd order filter.

  • kupferskupfers Posts: 246
    edited August 2015
    I do agree that information about size and purpose is very important and useful, but that is an additional thought/decision for me, and not the only one. If I select a typeface for a banner (btw. hardly anyone knows what a hero is : ) I still first think about what atmosphere I want to convey. So my first thought is actually in the direction humanist/rational warm/classy technical/informal (that’s why I often presented an overview of genres as a grid you can access from every direction).

    If you had to present a large catalog of typefaces, do you think a sorting by “Poster, h1, h3, sidebar” is helpful? Where would you put your typefaces? Where would you put multipurpose typefaces? On what ground do you decide if a typeface is suitable for a h3 or only p?
  • Hi Indra, I agree with many of your concerns. Classification is hard.

    "Hero" is a popular tern among web designers and css/html coders, since the day Apple started called their main homepages banners using "hero" as a name for the css class.
    It has become more o less the standard for a homepage huge banner, something about 80px to 120px or so...
  • kupferskupfers Posts: 246
    I know, but not all type users are coders, many still do print design. I want to be inclusive : )
  • Indra, what we have in English is a battery of terms that accumulated over the better part of two centuries. Along the way, some of their meanings changed and took on new definitions, leaving us with overlaps and multiple definitions. One of the most overloaded terms is "modern" and its semantically related (though not interchangeable) "modernist."

    What might be interesting to know (perhaps James Mosley can help us) is the earliest usages of "Modern" for "Classical" to describe the style that is more accurately—and much more recently—called "Didone." I, for one, prefer the term "Neoclassical," but even that can be confusing, as the word was invented in the mid-19th century to describe an aesthetic movement of the 18th century. Nevertheless, I think Neoclassical captures the spirit of the work. "Classical," on the other hand, is more accurately applied to letters that are based on ancient examples, most famously the inscribed letters on Trajan's Column and the many later letterforms that were inspired by them. In the type design of our time, Classical and Neoclassical are two strong rivers, separated by a large land mass.

    Type design does not exist in a vacuum, and I'm afraid that much of the accumulated terminology behaves as if it did. After the Modernist movement of the 20th century, which affected all forms of artistic and manufactured things, how can we continue to use "Modern" to describe the style of Bodoni and Didot? Sorry, I think we lost that one. "Neoclassical," on the other hand, does a very able job of describing the impetus behind the style of Bodoni and Didot, whose work was part of a broader movement in architecture and decorative arts. For now, I think it's as good as we can get. Moreover, I believe (others disagree) that Neoclassical (unlike Didone, which could be seen as a subset of the Neoclassical) applies equally well to the types of Austin and Moore, and perhaps even Baskerville. I find the term "Transitional," which is how we English speakers refer to Baskerville, Austin, and Moore, to be absurd and empty. In England and America, there was no end point to this supposed transition--no one produced types strictly in the manner of Didot. Baskerville's likely influence wasn't a typefounder at all, but an engraver: John Pine, whose 1733 edition of Horace was, by all accounts, hugely influential; it was, in every way, what we today would call "Neoclassical."

    This is a potentially long discussion. I think we, in type design, would do better to adopt the terminology of the larger world of art and architecture rather than try to stay in our own Typographic Tower of Babel. 

  • I do appreciate the contextual implications of the term, "Neoclassical" and further agree that "Modern" is just a dumb word to ascribe to these types. They're high-contrast serifs whose use is mostly appropriated by the fashion industry, so that is where I have trouble still calling them "Neoclassical", as the art history denotes a very different thing from how these types have been used throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. So yeah, I just call them Didones. We're mostly talking about Didot and Bodoni, so do they really need some broad categorization? 
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,012
    edited August 2015
    What might be interesting to know (perhaps James Mosley can help us) is the earliest usages of "Modern" for "Classical" to describe the style that is more accurately—and much more recently—called "Didone." 
    I've spent considerable time researching terminological history questions like this, as it happens. The earliest close instance I've found using the word "Modern" for such types is the 1844 Caslon specimen. The occasion there is to distinguish the standard (1840s) Caslon types from the just-revived old-face types of the William Caslon who started the foundry generations earlier (the types we think of as "Caslon.") In other words, there was no pressing need to call the "modern" faces "modern" until they were offered alongside the revived "oldface," almost half a century after their appearance.
    (If anyone's interested in more, my article on the history of the term "Transitional," which gets into this stuff further, should be coming out in the next [fall] issue of Design Issues.)
    I often use "modern-face" rather than just "modern" as it seems to me clearer that I'm not intending the "modernist" designs that Scott-Martin mentioned. But I agree with Elizabeth that in many cases "Didones" may be both sufficient and clear. And I actually think the goofy "mashup" quality of the term has its own appeal. 
  • kupferskupfers Posts: 246
    Thanks for the note on the Caslons, Craig. I think I still have the related articles by you somewhere (and now would be a good time to finally get back to you about them, sorry).

    I don’t think that neoclassical is a good term to keep using (it’s also the prevailing term in old German classifications). If a user doesn’t have any training in art and type history, they would not know what to expect behind that term. If they follow the logic of grotesque/neo-grotesque they could even expect regularized and modernized (ha) classic roman letters. I prefer terms that relate to the appearance of type. Also, “neoclassical face from 2015” sounds just weird, admittedly not as odd as “an old face from 2015”. I don’t like the term modern for the same reasons you brought up. So I guess Didone is the way to go then for English but that sort of pressures me into using the rest of the (sometimes really not helpful) Vox terminology, too.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,248
    Didone is probably the most understood term.  When they were called "Moderns" they truly were modern but that was centuries ago. While vertical stressed high contrast might be more descriptive, it is a real mouthful.  Didone is short and easy to say.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,537
    edited August 2015
    In her presentation at TypeCon, Alexandra Korolkova used Noordzij’s “Stroke” taxonomy to explain Cyrillic type design, with Expansion referring to the Didones. I can’t recall if she used the term as a hard-and-fast category, though, or just to help explain things.

    The impression I got was that this methodology was a good fit for the timeline of Cyrillic types, with its strange (to us) eras of reverse-engineered old-styles, and soviet lacuna (with the exception of Constructivism).

  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,248
    Alexandra went into it further at the workshop she taught at TypeCon as well.  It included having us draw Cyrillic letterforms with both a pointed pen and a broadnib. She used the term Didone but was being clear about it as a way to differentiate different Cyrillic styles and not looking like a Bodoni in particular.  By the way, it was a terrific class, I am glad I attended.
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