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Original author: 
Joseph Alessio


In the first installment of this two-part series on type classification, we covered the basics of type classification — the various methods people have used, why they are helpful, and a brief survey of type history, classifying and identifying typefaces along the way. Unfortunately, we only got as far as Roman (traditional serif) typefaces and the early-19th century. Now we’re back for part 2!

Part 2 will primarily cover sans typefaces, with a nod to display typefaces and other less common categories, as well as address a few of the questions people have about whether type classification is helpful and necessary.

If you haven’t read part 1, now’s your chance to go over it. It lays important groundwork for this article, covers the categories of serif typefaces, and contains plenty of useful information about the development of serif type. If you already have read it, here is a quick recap to get us started before we move on to the new material.

type classification


Type Classification Systems

Type has been classified in many ways over the years, both formal and informal — Thibaudeau, Vox, British Standards, etc. None of these are complete or all-encompassing, but they’re helpful as an aid to study as well as for learning to use type correctly and effectively. The material in this two-part series draws heavily from the Vox-ATypI system, which is the most “official” of the systems today, having been adopted by the Association Typographique Internationale in 1962 and still the most commonly referenced system.

Is it perfect? No, but it provides a good overview of what is out there; and when you describe typefaces using the terms you’ll learn in this series, anyone who is reasonably familiar with typography will know what you’re talking about.

Here is a quick overview of the type categories we covered in part 1.


Venetian Typeface Characteristics

  • Notable calligraphic influence, patterned after handwriting.
  • Strongly angled axis or stress.
  • Based on typefaces designed in Renaissance cultural hubs such as Venice.


Oldstyle Typeface Characteristics

  • Less calligraphic influence because type began to be viewed as separate from writing.
  • Named after influential type designers Claude Garamont and Aldus Manutius.
  • Still has a tilted axis but less obvious than in Humanist type.


Transitional Characteristics

  • No calligraphic influence. Designed independently, sometimes on a grid.
  • First appeared in the late-17th century.
  • Virtually vertical axis and high contrast between heavy and thin strokes.


Didone Characteristics

  • Extreme contrast between thick and thin. Rigidly vertical axis.
  • Abrupt, or unbracketed, serifs. Very precisely designed.
  • Named after Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni.

Slab Serif

Slab Serif Characteristics

  • Very heavy weight and low contrast between thick and thin.
  • Unbracketed, prominent serifs.
  • First typefaces created expressly for display purposes.

Sans Serifs

When we left off in part 1, it was circa 1815, with the first appearances of slab serifs, also called Mechanistics or Egyptiennes. By the time slab serifs were being popularized, early sans serifs had already been around for some time in a variety of forms. To follow the progression of sans serifs, we must step back in time a number of years.

History of Sans Serifs

The earliest sans-serif letterforms were, of course, not type, but inscriptions, dating back to as early as the 5th century BC, and enjoyed a resurgence in engraving and inscriptions in the 18th century.

etruscan type
Caslon’s Etruscan type, as seen in a 1766 specimen book. Larger view. (Image source: Typefoundry)

Strangely enough, the first “sans serif” type was created not for the Latin alphabet, but for use in 18th-century academic works on Etruscan culture, which preceded the Roman Empire in the geographical area of modern-day Italy. Circa 1748, the foundry of William Caslon (with whom you should be familiar) cut the first known sans-serif Etruscan type for the Oxford University Press, although there are earlier usages of sans serifs in similar applications.

Embossed Type
Haüy’s type, created to emboss pages so as to be read by touch, was oddly ornate for its purpose. Larger view. (Image source: Camille Sourget)

Another interesting typographic innovation was the work of Valentin Haüy, who founded a school for blind children in 1785. In 1784, a year of preparation during which he devoted himself to educating a single student, Haüy developed an embossing typeface with which to make tactile books. The typeface, which, along with his method, is called the Haüy System, is an early form of sans serif, but it reads more like an upright italic or a disconnected script.

It was first embossed and then often carefully inked over the top so that it could also be read visually, as in the photo above. It looks lovely, but was superseded in both practicality and readability by the system devised by Louis Braille, himself a student at the school Haüy founded.

Caslon Sans
William Caslon IV’s sans serif was categorized as “Two Lines English Egyptian,”. (Image source: typophile)

William Caslon IV — who inherited the type foundry, as well as his name, from four generations back — is credited with the first sans-serif printing type for the Latin alphabet, appearing first in the 1816 Caslon specimen book. It featured only capitals and was marketed as “Two Lines English Egyptian,” the “Two Lines” being a reference to the size of the set type. There was much confusion over this new style, being variously called Egyptian (despite early slab serifs also being marketed as Egyptians), Gothic, Grotesque and Antique, among others.

Figgins Sans Serif
A sans from an early Vincent Figgins type specimen. Larger view. (Image source: Typefoundry)

Eventually Vincent Figgins (whom you may remember as being credited with the first slab-serif type) called the new style “sans serif,” which became the widely accepted term, although you’ll see many of the old terms in use on some typefaces.

Classifying Sans Serifs

At first glance, you might think that sans serifs can’t be classified the way that serifs can, since fewer variables are apparent in the ones we see most often. However, plenty of details can aid specificity when discussing, using and pairing typefaces, even within the broader category of sans serifs or, as Maxmilien Vox termed them, “linéales.” Subcategories were implemented by the British Standards classification, a permutation of Vox’s system, and they provide excellent means of discerning characteristics. I am presenting here a slight variation of those four, with a couple of minor differences for the sake of practicality.


The Grotesque category covers the early sans serifs, specifically those designed in the 19th century and the first decade or two of the 20th. Many of these typefaces had only capitals or exist only in centuries-old specimen books, but a number of them are still quite commonly used. These typefaces tend to be very idiosyncratic, with awkward weight distribution around bowls of characters and irregular curves.

Monotype Grotesque
(Image source: MyFonts)

Monotype Grotesque (above, 1926), based on Berthold’s much earlier Ideal Grotesque (1832), is an excellent example of the quirks commonly evident in Grotesques. Note the awkward “a” and “g,” the squarish bowls, the odd curves and angles at the tips of strokes in the “J” and “S,” and the overall irregularity.

The capital G in a Grotesque is usually spurred, and the British Standards specifies a curled leg on the capital R, although that is not apparent in many typefaces of the period. They tend to display some variation in the thickness of strokes, but the contrast does not show calligraphic influence or a logical pattern. The style became more sophisticated over the course of the 19th century. Perhaps the finest sample of this category appeared in the Berthold Type Foundry’s 1896 release of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which, along with Schelter Grotesk (1886), served as an archetype for many Neo-Grotesques, most notably Neue Haas Grotesk and Univers.


Interestingly enough, it has been postulated that Akzidenz-Grotesk was based on Walbaum or Didot. Despite looking extremely different at first glance, a simple comparison of the basic forms shows that the metrics are very similar.

Examples of the Grotesque category include Franklin Gothic, Monotype Grotesque and Schelter Grotesk.


The Neo-Grotesques, also called Transitionals or Realists, include many of the most commonly used sans. They are based on the later Grotesques and take the design of the sans-serif to a new level with their careful construction and aesthetics. They are much more refined than the Grotesques, during which period type designers were still feeling their way around the new style; thus, the Neo-Grotesques lose many of the awkward curves and idiosyncrasies that are common in earlier sans serifs. You’ll see much less variation in line weight, and most often a single-story “g.”


Created with an emphasis on neutrality and simplicity, they were extraordinarily popular among the Modernists and remain popular today. Despite many claims otherwise, simplicity does not directly translate into legibility: A tight vertical rhythm and pinched apertures keep many Neo-Grotesques (including Helvetica) from being good choices for body text. In fact, in the 2013 edition of the DIN 1450 (the German standards on legibility in typefaces, published by the Deutsches Institut für Normung), Helvetica is used as a negative standard. That’s an entirely different topic, however.

In 1957 — a big year for Neo-Grotesque sans serifs, as Frutiger’s Univers as well as Folio (originally thought to be a stronger competitor, although history has proved otherwise) were released — Haas Foundry released Max Miedinger’s Neue Haas Grotesk, which drew heavily on Schelter and Akzidenz Grotesks. In 1960, Haas, in an effort to market it more effectively, rebranded Neue Haas Grotesk to what we know as one of the most ubiquitous typefaces of all time — you guessed it — Helvetica.

helvetica specimen
Many people love Helvetica so much that they’ll hang prints of vintage Helvetica specimens as decoration. (Image source: etsy)

The quintessential members of this group are, of course, Univers and the immortal Helvetica, which has gone through quite a number of permutations over the years (as have all of these typefaces) and was recently revived by Christian Schwartz as a rerelease of Neue Haas Grotesk. A nice informational minisite was created by Indra Kupferschmid and Nick Sherman for the release. Other typefaces in this category include the DIN 1451 and its derivatives, and Bell Gothic and its successor Bell Centennial.


If you remember the most important quality of Humanist serif type, you’ll be relieved to learn that the same quality carries over to the sans serifs! The primary characteristic of Humanist type, both serif and sans serif, is a strong calligraphic influence, basing its shapes and flow on forms that could originate from a pen or brush. This means a much higher stroke contrast, and some Humanist sans even feature some stress, whereas nearly all other sans serifs have a completely vertical axis.

Another interesting characteristic of Humanist sans serifs is that their proportions often derive largely from Roman inscriptions and early serif typefaces, rather than 19th-century sans serifs as the Neo-Grotesques did. Because of this design process involving older letterforms, the lowercase “a” and “g” are most often two-story in Humanist sans serifs. All of these characteristics combine to make most Humanists a more legible choice than other types of sans faces.

Humanist Sans (Optima)

Hermann Zapf’s Optima is one example that clearly shows the calligraphic heritage, with an unusually obvious difference between thick and thin strokes, while many others in this category have more subtle features. The Humanist sans group includes classics such as Gill Sans and Frutiger as well as more recent releases like Myriad (1991), Trebuchet (1996) and Calibri (2005).


Geometric sans serifs are exactly what their name suggests. Instead of being derived from early Grotesques, like a Neo-Grotesque, or from calligraphic and engraved forms like the Humanist sans, they are built on geometric shapes. The characters often have optically circular bowls and are otherwise typically very rectangular, sharing many components between the various glyphs.

Erbar Grotesk
Erbar’s small x-height, among other factors, renders it difficult to read. Larger view.

Jakob Erbar, whose eponymous typeface is credited as being the first Geometric sans, reportedly based his construction on the circle. Released in the 1920s, Erbar-Grotesk was intended to be legible. Ironically, because of the awkward visual rhythm, resulting from strict adherence to geometric forms, Geometric lineals are among the least legible of sans serifs and are usually suitable only for display type. Geometric sans serifs usually show little or no stroke contrast and usually feature a single-story lowercase “a.”

Geometric Sans

Paul Renner’s Futura, Koch’s Kabel and Lubalin’s Avant Garde are typical examples of the style. H&FJ’s Gotham is also a Geometric sans, although it is less strictly geometric than some and allows for more variation in the heavier weights.

The Rest Of The Story

That’s the basic classification for sans serifs! While the two parts of this series primarily deal with serif and sans type, there are many other styles to consider. The Vox-ATypI system also provides five subcategories of “calligraphics” (i.e. type that is derived from handmade letters), but as they are largely self-explanatory, I won’t dedicate much space in this already lengthy article to them. Here is a brief summary of each category.


Script Metal Type
A case of script metal type. (Image source:

Scripts are, of course, typefaces based on handwriting, particularly formal scripts. The letters often connect, but not necessarily so. They range from the very formal — Matthew Carter’s Snell Roundhand, named after the author of a 1694 booklet on penmanship, originally released in 1966 — to the very casual — Ashley Havinden’s eponymous Ashley Script, from 1955.


Trajan Inscription
Carol Twombly’s Trajan was based on this inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome.

Glyphic typefaces are those derived from engraved or chiseled letters. Many of these typefaces look like they could be classified as serifs but are based on the work of a chisel, rather than having gone through the traditional design process and referencing the stroke of a pen. As such, Glyphics, also called “incised” typefaces, sometimes contain only capitals, and the serifs tend to be small, as a natural detail of the chiseling process rather than as a design feature. Trajan and Friz Quadrata are excellent examples of this style.


Graphic Wood Type
Graphic wood type from the extensive Hamilton Wood Type collection.

Graphic is essentially a sort of catch-all label for display type that doesn’t fit into any other category. It includes anything that would be drawn or designed, with a brush, pen or any sort of tool. If it’s not exactly a sans, not exactly a serif, and you’re not really sure what it is, it is most likely a Graphic typeface!


Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg printed with type designed to mimic the late-medieval Fraktur style of handwriting. (Image credits: JMWK)

Blackletter type began with Gutenberg and was used in printing, even printing body text, until the early- to mid-20th century in Germany. It is based on a medieval scribal hand, written with a broad-nib pen, and differs from graphic typefaces and scripts in that it has been used at length in body text. It has a very dense type style. When the traditional style that Gutenberg had used began to give way to the more readable early serifs (the Humanist/Venetian designs of Aldus Manutius and his colleagues), printers called the new style “Whiteletter,” in reference to the negative space-to-ink ratio on the page; thus, the old type was termed Blackletter, and we still use this term today.


Gaelic Type
Gaelic type includes the Latin alphabet as well as some additional glyphs. Larger view. (Image source: mathewstaunton)

Gaelic type is based on the insular script found in manuscripts throughout the UK. As with Blackletter, it has been used in printing body text in Ireland, from its earliest appearances in the 16th century all the way through to the mid-20th century, but is no longer popular as a text typeface. The Vox-ATypI system was amended to include the Gaelic category in 2010 at the ATypI annual conference, appropriately held in Dublin.

Non-Latin Type

Beyond that, there is still another world of type to discover. The entirety of these two articles on the subtleties of type (and, believe me, it can get much more complicated!) have discussed only the Latin alphabet, which, while quite commonly used, is merely one of many writing systems used today. I encourage you to learn more about, and get involved in, the typography of other writing systems! Some are very widespread and used daily by hundreds of millions of people; others are used by mere thousands.

Regardless of how many people use it, each writing system needs quality typefaces. From the commonly used (check out Nadine Chahine’s interview on Arabic type) to the rarely seen (Jean-Baptiste Levée gave a fascinating talk at last year’s TypeCon on creating Air Inuit Sans, supporting Inuktitut glyphs), the typography of non-Latin writing systems promises an exciting future.

Closing Remarks

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the fascinating subject of typography and type history in this two-part series “Making Sense of Type Classification.” Hopefully, it has piqued your interest in this intriguing field. Knowing your way around the typographic resources available to today’s designers is essential, and it is helpful to understand a little behind the characteristics, history, visual character and idiosyncrasies that make each typeface unique and that define how it communicates.

At one point in the history of Web design, an extensive knowledge of type history was unnecessary because a Web or interactive designer was limited to half a dozen typefaces, and those in limited weights and variants.

Today, however, the landscape of Web design is completely different, and the typographic possibilities are endless! Also, while this material is covered in many design schools, a significant portion of designers today haven’t had a formal design education, so now is the best time to catch up!

That being said, we also must remember that, while type classification is an important aid to studying type, it is not a hard and fast system that cannot be questioned. Many typefaces combine characteristics and could easily fit into multiple categories, and no classification system can cover all of the possibilities. In the end, type classification is an excellent means of learning to recognize common patterns and distinguishing characteristics of typefaces, and we get to learn some type history along the way.

With this short series, you’re now equipped with a strong knowledge of categories of type; you’ve learned to analyze typefaces and pick out unique aspects of letterforms; you’ve seen how type has evolved with culture; and, most importantly, you have a solid foundation for further study of typography and type history! It cannot be overstated how immensely important sound knowledge of typography is for anyone in the broad field of design, and the material we’ve covered here will serve you well in navigating the world of type.

(al) (ea)

© Joseph Alessio for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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“So, you do nothing all day.”

That’s how many people would respond to someone who says they spend the day with a pen or pencil in their hand. It’s often considered an empty practice, a waste of time. They’re seen as an empty mind puttering along with the busy work of scribbling.

But for us designers and artists, drawing pictures all day is integral to our process and to who we are as creative people, and despite the idea that those who doodle waste time, we still get our work done. So, then, why are those of us who draw pictures all day even tempted to think that someone who is doodling or drawing pictures in a meeting or lecture is not paying attention?

What does it mean to be a doodler, to draw pictures all day? Why do we doodle? Most of all, what does it mean to our work? It turns out that the simple act of scribbling on a page helps us think, remember and learn.

What Does It Mean To Doodle?

The dictionary defines “doodle” as a verb (“scribble absentmindedly”) and as a noun (“a rough drawing made absentmindedly”). It also offers the origins of the word “doodler” as “a noun denoting a fool, later as a verb in the sense ‘make a fool of, cheat.’”

But the author Sunni Brown offers my favorite definition of “doodle” in her TED talk, “Doodlers, unite!”:

“In the 17th century, a doodle was a simpleton or a fool, as in “Yankee Doodle.” In the 18th century, it became a verb, and it meant to swindle or ridicule or to make fun of someone. In the 19th century, it was a corrupt politician. And today, we have what is perhaps our most offensive definition, at least to me, which is the following: “To doodle officially means to dawdle, to dilly dally, to monkey around, to make meaningless marks, to do something of little value, substance or import and,” my personal favorite, “to do nothing.” No wonder people are averse to doodling at work. Doing nothing at work is akin to masturbating at work. It’s totally inappropriate.”

It is no wonder, then, why most people do not have great expectations of those who “draw pictures all day.” Or perhaps they are inclined to think that those who draw pictures all day are not highly intellectual and are tempted to say to them condescendingly, “Go and draw some of your pictures.” As designers, many of us have heard such comments, or at least felt them implied, simply because we think, express or do things differently.

Why Do We Doodle?

Consider that even before a child can speak, they can draw pictures. It is part of their process of understanding what’s around them. They draw not just what they see, but how they view the world. The drawing or doodle of a child is not necessarily an attempt to reflect reality, but rather an attempt to communicate their understanding of it. This is no surprise because playing, trial and error, is a child’s primary method of learning. A child is not concerned with the impressions that others get based on their drawings or mistakes.

An Example of a doodle
An example of a doodle.

Their constant drawing, picture-making and doodling is a child’s way of expressing their ideas and showing their perceptions in visual form. It comes from a need to give physical form to one’s thoughts. Similarly, an adult doodles in order to visualize the ideas in their head so that they can interact with those ideas.

Visual Learners

According to Linda Silverman, director of both the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center and author of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, 37% of the population are visual learners. If so many people learn better visually, we can expect, then, that some of them learn better by putting a speech, lecture or meeting into visual and tangible form through pictures or doodles, rather than by being provided with pictures or doodles (which would be the product of another person’s mind).

37% of the population are visual learners

Humans have always had a desire to visually represent what’s in their minds and memory and to communicate those ideas with others. Early cave paintings were a means of interacting with others, allowing an idea or mental image to move from one person’s mind to another’s. The purpose of visual language has always been to communicate ideas to others.

Secondly, we doodle because our brain is designed to empathize with the world around us. According to Carol Jeffers, professor at California State University, our brains are wired to respond to, interact with, imitate and mirror behavior. In an article she wrote, she explains the recent research into “mirror neurons” which help us understand and empathize with the world around us.

A cave painting
Cave paintings were our first means of communicating ideas to others.

Think of it this way. When you’re at an art gallery and find a painting that intrigues you, what is your first reaction? You want to touch it, don’t you? I thought so.

When I was a ballroom dancer, I used to sit and watch those who I considered to be great dancers, tracing their forms in space with my index finger as a way to commit them to memory. I used to go to galleries and museums and, at a distance, trace the lines and forms that I saw in the paintings and designs. I did this out of curiosity and a desire to physically record what I saw to memory.

Nearly 100 years ago, Maria Montessori discovered the link between physical touch and movement and learning in children. Montessori education teaches children to trace the letters of the alphabet with their index finger as a way to commit their shapes to memory. My son used to trace forms that he found interesting in space. It’s safe to say, then, that we doodle to visually commit to memory a concept that we want to both empathize and interact with.

An experiment conducted by Jackie Andrade, professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in England, demonstrated the positive effect that doodling has on memory retention. In the experiment, 40 people were given a simple set of instructions to take RSVP information over the phone from people going to a party. The group of 40 was divided in two. One group of 20 was told to doodle (limited to shading in order not to emphasize the quality of the doodles), and the other 20 would not doodle.

The doodlers recalled 29% more information.

Doodling a lightbulb
Doodling helps us retain information.

The study showed that doodling helps the brain to focus. It keeps the mind from wandering away from whatever is happening, whether it’s a lecture, reading or conference talk.

Still, we have become bored with learning.

Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, Joseph D. Novak argues that this is because we have been taught to memorize but not to evaluate the information being given to us. In many traditional settings, the pattern is simple and dull: sit, receive and memorize. Many traditional educational systems do not encourage active engagement with the material. Doodling, drawing and even making diagrams helps us not only engage with the material, but also identify the underlying structure of the argument, while also connecting concepts in a tactile and visual way. Jesse Berg, president of The Visual Leap, pointed out to me in a conversation that doodling is a multisensory activity. While our hand is creating what might seem to be random pictures, our brain is processing the stimuli that’s running through it.

Many of us are the product of traditional schooling, in which we were made to numbingly memorize dates and facts, and many of us continue this pattern later in life. While some of us were avid doodlers (I used to fill the backs of my notebooks with pictures and draw on desks with a pencil during class), some of us stopped at high school, others in college and others once we settled into a job. At some point during the education process, doodling was discouraged. Teachers most likely viewed it as a sign of inattentiveness and disrespect. After hard preparation, educators want nothing more than unwavering attention to their lectures. The irony is that, according to Andrade’s study, doodlers pay more attention to the words of educators than we think.

In her TED talk, Sunny Brown goes on to explain the benefits of doodling and even offers an alternative to the definition found in the Oxford Dictionary:

“Doodling is really to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think. That is why millions of people doodle. Here’s another interesting truth about the doodle: People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts. We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”

How Can Designers Use This To Their Benefit?

As designers, we have a unique advantage when it comes to doodling. We don’t just doodle to keep our minds focused — we also deliberately sketch ideas in order to problem solve and to get immediate feedback from clients and peers. Designers such as Craighton Berman and Eva-Lotta Lamm are two of the biggest proponents of the “sketchnotating” movement. Berman states that sketchnotating “forces you to listen to the lecture, synthesize what’s being expressed, and visualize a composition that captures the idea — all in real time.”

In 2009, I came across a book titled The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Roam is a business strategist and founder of Digital Roam, a management-consulting firm that uses visual thinking to solve complex problems. He uses a simple approach to solving problems visually. Every idea is run through five basic questions to encourage engaged thinking and to ensure a meaningful meeting. The process takes the acronym SQVI^. S is for simple or elaborate, Q is for qualitative or quantitative, V is for vision or execution, I is for individual or comparison, and ^ is for change or status quo. These simple choices are worked through with simple doodles in order to better understand the problem and find a solution. In his book, Roam says:

“What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered? What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and — as much as I hate to say it — perhaps even more fun? There is. It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures.”

After discovering Roam’s book, I decided to doodle again. Once a prolific doodler and drawer, I had become inactive in lectures and similar settings, often forgetting what was said. Taking notes felt too cumbersome, and I often missed words and ideas. I decided to give doodling another shot. Instead of focusing on specifics, I would focus on concepts, key words and ideas.

Since 2011, I have been actively promoting doodling in my design classes, making a deal with my students, saying to them, “Doodle to your heart’s content, but in return I want you to doodle the content of my lectures.” They are skeptical at first, but they soon realize that doodling is better than having a quiz. I reap the benefits of doodling, and by allowing them to doodle — with the requirement that it be based on the class’ content — they become more informed of the topic and they engage in more meaningful conversations about design.

A sketchbook
A designer’s best friend: a sketchpad.

The typographic novices in my classes naturally start to apply the principles of visual hierarchy and organization, grouping ideas either by importance or by category. They will group ideas with lines, boxes, marks and more. Headings and lecture titles might be made larger, more ornate or bolder, and key concepts might be visually punctuated. It is fascinating how natural and almost second-nature the idea of visual hierarchy is to all of us. The learning curve of typography is steep for some of us, but doodling and sketchnotating really makes it easier to grasp. Below are some doodles by students in my classes.

Introduction to Typography lecture doodle by Alisa Roberts
Doodle by Alisa Roberts from my “Introduction to Typography” course.

By picking out concepts, ideas and topics, the students start to establish a hierarchy by making visual groupings and start to use visual punctuation. By the time I assign work on typographic hierarchy, the sketches tend to show more astuteness. Transferring these sketches to the computer is a challenge for those new to typography, but once they naturally understand the relationships in what they are doing, they start to make smarter design decisions.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Doodle by Aubrie Lamb from my “Identity and Branding” course.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Another by Aubrie Lamb from the same course.

As we have seen, doodling has many benefits, beyond what designers as visual communicators and problem solvers use it for. Doodling also helps our brain function and process data. Those of us who doodle should do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. We are in good company. Historically, doodlers have included presidents, business moguls and accomplished writers. Designer, educator and speaker Jason Santa Maria says this:

“Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist. They’re about being a good thinker.”

Doodling, drawing pictures and sketchnotating are about using visual skills to solve problems, to understand our world and to respond effectively. So, what are you waiting for? Doodle!

Further Reading

Unless otherwise stated, images are from Stock.XCHNG.

(al) (il)

© Alma Hoffmann for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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As a Japanese person living in Europe, I’m sometimes asked: “Japanese is a difficult language, isn’t it?” Those asking are often surprised when my answer is a simple: “No, actually, it’s not.”

While it is true (at least to many Westerners) that Japanese is an exotic language, when compared to learning other European languages, it may seem harder because it has has no relation to their own language. But from my own experiences of learning English and German (and also from seeing some European friends learning Japanese), I can say with confidence that learning spoken Japanese is, in fact, not so difficult. The grammar is in many ways simpler than most European languages. Take for example the fact that we don’t have cases, grammatical genders, nor articles. However, reading and writing in Japanese is… well, not so simple.

While discussing typography we most often focus on English language problems, which is only natural considering that the majority of design material is written in English. However, a lot can be gleamed by looking at how other languages are used as part of communication and design — it helps to lend context and a different point of view.

Japanese Scripts

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three basic scripts: Kanji — which are Chinese ideographic symbols — as well as Hiragana and Katakana — two phonetic alphabets (syllables). There are a few thousand Kanji characters, while Hiragana and Katakana have 46 each. Although there is a basic rule for when to use which script, there are many exceptions, and what’s worse is that words written in Kanji have often multiple pronunciations, depending on the context or conjunction. This is hard enough for native speaker to get right every time, so I almost feel sorry for those non-natives who are learning to read and write Japanese.

Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana Japanese scripts
From top to bottom: Kanji is mainly used for the lexical elements: nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, and so forth; Hiragana has rounded letter shapes, which are mainly used for the grammatical elements of sentences such as particles, auxiliary verbs, and suffixes of nouns; Katakana has an angular letter shape, which is most often used for foreign words and also for the purpose of emphasis.

Some say that the “tragedy” started when Japan decided to “import” the Chinese writing system, inscribing it into their own language in the 3rd century.

Since Japanese is as different from Chinese as it is to any other language, simply using the Chinese writing system was not sufficient, and a more appropriate way of writing Japanese was sought out. Some Chinese characters began to be used not for their meaning, but purely for their phonetic value. So by the 9th century, Hiragana and Katakana scripts were derived from simplified Chinese characters that were used to write Japanese phonetically.

The story doesn’t end there. As if using three scripts isn’t enough, we write in both horizontal and vertical orientation.

Horizontal? Vertical? The Unique Case Of Japanese Typography

“Vertical or horizontal?” — when setting a piece of text in Japanese, this is a question that Japanese designers constantly need to ask themselves. Being able to use both vertical and horizontal writing orientations is something so normal for us native Japanese speakers that most of us won’t even stop to wonder why this is possible, or even when and how it was first introduced.

The identical piece of text set vertically (right) and horizontally (left).
The identical piece of text set vertically (right) and horizontally (left). When it is set vertically it’s read from top to bottom, as the lines go from right to left; when it is set horizontally, it is read from left to right, like in European languages.

In general, these two writing orientations have a clear usage: vertical for something “Japanese”, “traditional”, “novels and other humanistic writings”; horizontal for “contemporary”, “business documents”, “scientific & foreign language related writings” and so on. When a main text is set horizontally, the binding is on the left-hand side, and pages progress to the right, like books in Latin scripts. Traditional books in vertical setting are the other way around, with the binding at the right hand side, and pages progressing to the left. So when you handle a Japanese book, don’t confuse the front with the back!

A typical page layout of a Japanese paperback novel
A typical page layout of a Japanese paperback novel using a vertical setting. Ogai Mori (1913), “Abe Ichizoku”, Shincyo-bunko.

traditional calligraphy is always done vertically
With its organic flow, characters are often connected and have different heights and widths
Needless to say, traditional calligraphy is always done vertically. With their organic flow, characters are often connected and have different heights and widths — which makes it impossible to disconnect and align them horizontally. Calligraphy by Keiko Shimoda, 2011 (

Horizontal setting is preferred for scientific texts, mathematical texts and language related books, where words and phrases in foreign scripts and signs are often included, as they are more easily incorporated horizontally. The example (above) is a Japanese-English dictionary. (Pocket Comprehensive English-Japanese / Japanese-English Dictionary, 2000, Obunsha)

Where the efficient use of space is important — namely newspapers and magazines — both orientations are often combined. Although it may appear a bit chaotic, or even random to foreign eyes, these two directions are usually used in a systematic way as a means to indicate different text elements on a page. For instance, a main text is often set in a vertical setting, but headings and captions may be set in a horizontal setting.

A typical newspaper layout
A typical newspaper layout — the main text is vertical but headings, diagrams, tables, and captions are placed horizontally.

The same newspaper as above, but highlighting the vertical text (orange) and the horizontal text
The same newspaper as above, but highlighting the vertical text (orange) and the horizontal text (blue). © The Nikkei (May 8th, 2009)

In a way, it’s comparable to “typographic variants” which are found in Latin typography — in Latin script text one may use bold, italic, or a different font to differentiate things such as pull quotes from the main text, whereas in Japanese we can do this by using a different orientation. Publications which accommodate non-linear or complex text (as opposed to linear text, such as novels) seem to benefit in particular from having these two orientations, which allow the layout to be highly flexible, and also to create strong visual impact.

The extreme cases of “space-efficiency-oriented typography” are informational-heavy pieces of text, such as diagrams and signage — also exploiting the two directional orientations. The Tokyo Metro map (Fig 10) is a good example of this — as you can see, both orientations are used accordingly, so that everything fits best within the limited space.

Tokyo Metro Map.
Tokyo Metro map

Tokyo Metro map with more typography in differing directions.
Tokyo Metro route map. The large type on the top is the station name which is placed horizontally. The name of the metroline may be horizontal, but the name of the stops are placed vertically.

It’s true that in many cases they look quite chaotic and sometimes even aesthetically questionable to eyes that are used to “orderly” design. But it’s easy to appreciate the visual impact and energy they create — they remind you that effective, appealing informational design does not always have to look “neat and tidy”.

Letters from my friends
Letters from my friends: when it comes to handwriting, orientation is up to a personal preference or simply one’s “mood”. But when you are writing a more official letter, or writing to somebody who is much older than you, it’s probably safer to opt for vertical orientation.

What’s Happening On Screen-Based Media?

Since the introduction of horizontal writing in the Japanese language, print-based media and signage have been employing both of these writing orientations effectively, and in ways that complement one another. But what’s been happening to screen-based media? With a few exceptions — such as word-processing machines made exclusively for the Japanese text output, or subtitles for film and TV screens, which tend to use either depending on the background image — horizontal orientation has been the dominant choice.

The prime example of this is the Web: horizontal orientation has been used almost exclusively. For the past 15 years, I have hardly come across a website that uses vertical setting. Mobile phone screens also use a horizontal orientation. I believe this may be due to the relations of hardware, operating systems and user interfaces that have become the norm, all of which have been designed to work with horizontal writing. It feels somewhat awkward to see vertical writing while all the other elements on the screen, such as the menu bar and UI elements, are horizontal.

Needless to say, the technical limitations (the support of a vertical setting by browsers is a fairly recent introduction) have largely contributed to this too. Perhaps underestimated, maybe the biggest factor for not using vertical setting for screen-based media could well be the mental association with horizontal orientation being used for something “modern” and “contemporary”.

The Nihon Keizai Newspaper website.
The Nihon Keizai Newspaper website. Although the printed newspaper employs a vertical setting for the body texts, the web-version uses a horizontal setting.

A Japanese Tea Ceremony website
So far, even with content as Japanese as a tea ceremony, a website will use a horizontal setting. (Accessed Jan. 20th, 2012)

Will Vertical Writing Orientation Die Out?

Will vertical writing orientation die out from screen-based media? Or can it make a comeback, when the technological environment allows us to use vertical settings more easily? Many e-book apps on smart phones and tablets have already started using vertical settings. With its intuitive way of navigating the screen along with the lack of external input devices (and apps being able to have more flexible/responsive layout), vertical writing seems to be incorporated much more comfortably.

I’ve spent some time reading these e-books — and pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to read. Apart from the fact that you need to scroll the screen horizontally, it’s just as comfortable as reading “normal” or horizontally set text. In fact, it’s even better for some types of publications like novels, or Manga. Our association towards this type of content when compared to the vertical setting is pretty strong mdash; it would somehow feel “wrong” to see them set horizontally.

Amazon’s Kindle has yet to support the Japanese language, but apparently they’re on their way to doing so. If they seriously want to attract Japanese readers, it would be unthinkable for them not to support vertical setting.

Soseki Natsume's “Sanshiro”
Soseki Natsume’s “Sanshiro” (1908) e-book on iPhone.

Kotobuki Shiriagari's
Kotobuki Shiriagari’s “OSHIGOTO” (2010) e-book on iPhone.

The situation also seems to be slowly changing on the Web — some interesting attempts have been made in order to familiarize ourselves with Web pages that have vertical setting. One such example is Taketori, which works just like Google translate — you can type in the URL of a Web page you wish to see in vertical setting, and Taketori does it for you. There’s also a piece of software called Kagetaka, which can switch any Web text into a vertical orientation.

Personally, I’m not too sure how well vertical setting will be supported by the users of normal Web pages, unless the way we navigate Web pages is re-developed, or a new type of browser with more innovative UI appears. Even though I complained earlier about the difficulty of the Japanese writing system, I do appreciate its diversity and flexibility, while making use of its three scripts and two orientations allows us to express subtle nuances of content — and we have been benefiting from that for decades.

I thought it would be a shame if we lose these methods of textual articulation in an age of screen-based media. But what has been happening for the last couple of years on touch-screen mobile devices (as well as the Web) can reassure us that both writing orientations may happily co-exist and collaborate on screen in the future, just as they have done off-screen for the last hundred years.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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© Shoko Mugikura for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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