I Love Typography

History of typography: Humanist

Every subject, from dentistry to dog handling has its own vocabulary — terms that are peculiar (unique) to it. Typography is no exception. Learning the lingua franca (lingo) of type will make typography that much more accessible; and that will, in turn, lead to greater understanding, and hopefully a greater appreciation for all things “type”.

Today we’re going to take a look at just one of those terms, namely “Humanist”. You may have come across this term before (or you may even be thinking, what the hell’s that?). The term Humanist is part of the nomenclature that describes type classification. During the 1800s a system of classifying type was derived, and although numerous other systems and subsets of this system exist, this basically is it:

Humanist | Old Style | Transitional | Modern
Slab Serif (Egyptian) | Sans Serif

By the end of this six-part series, you will be quite au fait with all of these terms; and just imagine the joy you will experience when you proudly exclaim to the delight of your spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, neighbor, guy at the corner shop,

Look at that Humanist inspired type! Note how the bar of the lowercasee”….

So, without further ado, let’s begin our journey — a journey that will take us from the incunabula to the present day.

[Incunabula] can refer to the earliest stages in the development of anything, but it has come to stand particularly for those books printed in Europe before 1500. — A Short History of the Printed Word

The model for the first movable types was Blackletter (also know as Block, Gothic, Fraktur or Old English), a heavy, dark, at times almost illegible — to modern eyes — script that was common during the Middle Ages. Thankfully, types based on blackletter were soon superseded by something a little easier to read, (drum roll…)—enter Humanist.


The Humanist types (sometimes referred to as Venetian) appeared during the 1460s and 1470s, and were modelled not on the dark gothic scripts like textura, but on the lighter, more open forms of the Italian humanist writers. The Humanist types were at the same time the first roman types.



So what makes Humanist, Humanist? What distinguishes it from other styles? What are its main characteristics?

1 Sloping cross-bar on the lowercase “e”;
2 Relatively small x-height;

Humanist characteristics

3 Low contrast between “thick” and “thin” strokes (basically that means that there is little variation in the stroke width);
4 Dark colour (not a reference to colour in the traditional sense, but the overall lightness or darkness of the page). To get a better impression of a page’s colour look at it through half-closed eyes.


And here are some examples of Humanist faces:

Jenson, Kennerley, Centaur, Stempel Schneidler, Verona, Lutetia, Jersey, Lynton.


Although the influence of Humanist types is far reaching, they aren’t often seen these days. Despite a brief revival during the early twentieth century, their relatively dark color and small x-heights have fallen out of favor. However, they do deserve our attention — our admiration even — because they are, in a sense, the great grand parents of today’s types.

Grab your passports and pack your toothbrushes because in part two we’re off to Venice to take a closer look at “Old Style” type. For those of you interested in testing your knowledge, can you tell which of the following are not generally considered to be Humanist types:

Erasmus, Times New Roman, Caslon, Cloister, Guardi, ITC Garamond

Further reading:

Wikipedia entry for Blackletter
A Short History of the Printed Word, chapter 4 — Chappell and Bringhurst
Type — The Secret History of Letters
, chapters 1 and 11 — Simon Loxley

Read part 2: Type Terminology: Old Style

Related post: The origins of abc.


  1. “Incunabula”—awesome word! I love the humanist header, too. This series is a tremendous idea.

  2. Great article. A lot of great information.

    Although, you might want to do an edit at the top. :P I’m sure you can find it. ;)

  3. Alec
    Yes, it’s a wonderful word, and one that I usually misspell.

    Thank you. I think I found it. Should be fixed now. Thanks for pointing that out, else I might never have spotted it :)

  4. I’ve always appreciated the time and effort of the people who create humanist typefaces. Such detail and hard work to make a typeface have that old world / modern today look. I do believe one day blackletter is going to make a come back, none of this “sans serif” stuff (ha ha). Oh and Centaur is a really nice type face.
    :) Good stuff!

  5. Robert @ It is the only reason why i would love to see a strong nationlisme in Germany again.. to get the Schwabacher back (just kidding) :-)

  6. Another way to recognise a humanist typeface is the diagonal axel in all glyphs that contain a bowl.

    It should be slightly to the right and not vertikal like in old style typefaces.

    Example of diagonal axel Im sorry that the words are in danish

  7. That reminds me: I wanted to mention something of the origins of blackletter. Interestingly, though the commonly held view is that it originated in Germany, not everyone agrees. Paul Renner in the 1920s, for one, posited that it originated in Northern France.

  8. Robert
    I can’t wait to see your blackletter revival face. I suggest Robletter ;)

    Yes, that oblique (slanted) stress is indeed another characteristic of the Humanist.

  9. Just to see if I got it right, I’m gonna say that Time New Roman and ITC Garmond are not Humanist, but that Erasmus, Caslon, Cloister and Guardi are Humanist. Am I right?

  10. Garamond is soooo humanist dude :)
    But the ITC version increased in the x-height so I think our right.

  11. Garamond’s lower case e has a straight connector. Was I right about the rest?

  12. David
    Pretty close. However, take a look at Caslon’s lowercase “e”.

    Garamond is an interesting one, especially as it does come in so many flavours (ITC, Stempel, Granjon…). It could well fit into the Humanist class of types, especially as it’s based on something from a certain Aldus Manutius. However, I put it in the Old Style camp: greater variation between thick and thin strokes; horizontal bar on the lowercase “e”. Feel free to disagree—type classification is by no means an exact science.

    Actually, I’m quite a fan of the VOX-ATypI classification. There’s also a brief bit about that sysyem here (French).

    I’m off to compare all the Garamonds (and the x-height of the ITC flavour).

  13. Tlönista

    @Wilensky: I adore Garamond and Humanist typefaces in general, and can tell you that Caslon’s pronounced thick/thin contrast definitely count it out.

    …OTOH just found out via Wikipedia that Bembo (which reminds me of Centaur) is actually Old Style so what do I know.

  14. Adam Wright

    Type classifications being as ambiguous as they are, though, these days the term ‘humanist’, in the literature, generally just means ‘with an axis suggesting a right-handed human’ - as opposed to ‘rational’ - which is what ‘modern’ is often reduced to =P

  15. Right in the first paragraph you had me, Johno. Every phrase I was thinking “So true! Oh! That’s me! So true!” Thank you for teaching us and opening up the world of type through greater understanding. Starting this blog was a genius idea, to say the least.

    The characteristics details were quite helpful, Johno. Thank you! I hope you’ll be doing that for the other classes, too?

    Wow, you type nuts and your Garamond classification! Goodness! Sufice to say, I just like Garamond. It’s one of my favorites.

    (what happened to the captcha, btw? Did you institute that javascript trick Vivien told us about a while ago?)

  16. The humanist header? Did I miss something or did it vanish in a puff of thin air?
    The sample of humanist type that you posted actually reminds me of the calligraphy that I learned from my grandfather when I was a kid. (I didn’t know about the special feature of the e, though.)
    Nice article.

  17. Very nice article, John. I find it helpful to have a list of characteristics for what makes Humanist Humanist. I look forward to seeing what it is about Old Style that makes me like it so much. (See, even after 15 years of book design and layout—much like a virtuoso musician who cannot actually read music—I have always chosen typefaces by what appeals to my eye.

    Now I do see a trend, at least with serif faces. My favorites, generally, are Old Style types—starting with Palatino, up to the latest two that I’m enamored of: Bembo and Goudy Old Style. There’s a silkiness to them, a smooth, suave look that I just really like for long stretches of text. Easy on the eyes in a physical way, attractive in the aesthetic way.

    That said, I’ve also liked Adobe Garamond a lot over time—not a true Garamond, right?—but that favor has begun to fade as I grow more fickle with age.

  18. Tlönista
    Welcome to iLT. You’re in good company—we all have a lot to learn :)

    Thanks for that definition. I particularly like,

    with an axis suggesting a right-handed human.

    Lauren (Ms Garamond)
    Yes, I plan to do that for the others too. The captcha: I killed it (humanely, of course); I’m now simply relying on Akismet and blocking the big-spam IP’s. Seems to be working—fingers crossed.

    The header only appears if you’re reading the article on its own page, rather than from the home page. However, the alternate header doesn’t seem to show in Safari. I wonder how I can fix that? CSS gurus to the rescue….
    In the meantime, you can view the alternate header image (all on its lonesome) here.

    Yes, when I look at something like Centaur, it’s almost as though I can see where the pen nib bites into the uneven texture of the paper.

    Interesting what you say:

    I have always chosen typefaces by what appeals to my eye.

    And most often that’s the best way to choose. Also reminded me of chapter 6 (Choosing and Combining Type) of Bringhurts’s The Elements of Typographic Style; and in particular this:

    6.6.3 Balance the type optically more than mathematically.

  19. You’re right about Bringhurst, of course. I mean, long before him, it seemed like common sense to go by what your eye tells you for some things. Choosing type has always worked for me. I think I understand what I already like a little better. So the trick is to expand my base to choose new types to like.

  20. By the way, Centaur is an awfully nice-looking face. Especially at the size above. That large is certainly a way to expose a font’s blemishes. And I have very little reservations about Centaur after looking it over at that size. The angled “e” does unsettle me. At smaller sizes, that’s what I like about such types. Larger, however, it does give me pause.

  21. Great article, but check your mail Johno.

    I believe there should be a reference to humanist sans-serif faces as well.

    I’m really looking forward to the next article on this one. Old style isn’t so much “my” style, but I would love to learn more on it.

  22. Johno:
    Have you tried slamming a !important behind your css rule. It is a bit of an ugly hack, but it tends to resolve things for Safari. (And it still validates, yay;-)

  23. This site is so great, i have realy learned a lot about type through it. Thank you very much for it.

  24. Squawk
    Yes, I tried that. I’ll need to take a closer look.

    Thank you. That’s great. Hope to see you here again.

  25. incidentally, “Incunabula” is autechre’s first release :)

  26. Another great article Johno, although when I exclaimed to my grilfriend “hark how the lowercase ‘e’…”, the response wasnt quite delight.

  27. Awesome Johno, nice to learn about those things, thank you!

  28. Minusf
    Thanks for that interesting fact. I only wish I knew who they were :)

    You have a difficult choice, then. You can either change your girlfriend, or change your taste in types. The latter is the cheapest option.

    If you choose the former, then please don’t tell her where I live; if you choose the latter, then I suggest something French, rich and elegant from the Porchez Typofonderie.

    Good to see you here again, and wonderful to hear that. Thank you.

  29. youtube is your friend Johno :)
    i recommend starting with “basscadet” though :)))

  30. Minusf
    Thanks for the link. Thus my education begins…

    Yes, I’ll be including those with all the other Sans Serifs. One of the reason for using the classifications outlined in the article is that they follow an approximate chronological order—that way I hope to achieve two things with this series of articles: a brief history of type, and the major type classes.

  31. Okay, thanks to you folks here, frequenting Typophiles, and the incessant reading I’ve taken to, I do believe I’m about to start to try to take up my project to design a complete serif and a complete sans family. I don’t know that I’ll end up wanting to say thanks as and if I really get involved in it, as I imagine it could become pretty much a deep entanglement.

    My initial plan is for them to be compatible so that they’d work used in a book together.

    This will no doubt be a slow and sporadic process, as I’ll be working at what they pay me to do so my wife and I can eat, but I figure I’ll cover it on my own blog. It seems like a good tme to start, as I’ll look here, in general, and to Alec’s series, in particular, for guidance.

    Part of my slow, easy-does-it pace is because I have to fight inertia cause principally by two factors:

    1) I can’t draw a lick and I’m left-handed; and

    2) I must admit to being somewhat stymied by the question of whether, for text faces not display types (the latter of which can certainly be idiosyncratic as all get-out), there really is anything new but not stupid for text that hasn’t already been done.

    Well, I need to start some calligraphic exercises to get a sense of thin and thick strokes, curves and such.


  32. mwanafunzi

    Hi Johno,

    Before I get to my question, I would like to say that I find your site extremely informative; as I am trying to learn typography.

    Now for my question - how many characteristics [above] are needed to identify a font?

    For example, Centaur only has [according to me] two of the characteristics mentioned, i.e. it only has the small x-height and the sloping bar on the “e”.

    The other thing is that Centaur seems to have high contrast between strokes. Could you please let me know if have correctly observed.


  33. I realize the question was asked of John, but I thought I’d jump in because it was something I was just thinking about yesterday. I’d be interested, too, in what others thought, but I ended up thinking, “As many characteristics as it takes.” And I suppose that goes to say that it really is open to the eye of the beholder. If two characteristics are conclusive to you, there’s your answer … until someone comes along and say, “Well , hold on. Here’s three other things that suggest otherwise.”

  34. mwanafunzi

    Thanks. First, it’s important to remember that the distinguishing characteristics are not hard and fast rules—they simply aid in identifying type.

    Second, when for example, we say “relatively low contrast between thick and thin strokes”, the “relatively” is there for a purpose. So, it may appear that Centaur (a modern Humanist revival) has high contrast between thick and thin strokes; however, if you compare Centaur with, say Bembo or Didot, you’ll see the difference. These are quite extreme examples. In other types, it’s often more difficult to make this distinction. Oddly enough, it’s sometimes best to look at these types set at smaller sizes on the page (a whole page), as then you will see how the colour of the page (relative darkness) is affected by elements like the contrast between thick and thin strokes.


    An interesting experiment is to print letters at a very large size; if you have an A4 printer, then print several of the letters from two different typefaces (one letter per page), and measure the thickest and thinnest strokes, and after a little simple arithmetic, you have a number that describes the proportion between thick and thin strokes.

    Also, learning about the characteristics of other classes of type will help in deciding that type x does bot belong to group xyz. So, then we have two methods at our disposal, that aid us in determining what type x is and is not.

    Finally, classifying type is not a precise science—the fact that there exists no universally accepted system of type classification is testament to that. However, what we learn in attempting to classify them teaches us so much about letter forms and enhances our appreciation of them.

    That you are already thinking in these terms is great.

    Looks as though we posted our responses at the same time. Yes, I agree. Sometimes a single characteristic is enough. Some faces shout “I’m classified as X”, while others have to be coaxed into revealing their “type”.

  35. mwanafunzi

    Johno, Stephen

    Thanks for the explanations. You guys have definately cleared things up for me.

    The image of Didot and Centaur has made me realise what you meant by “relative”.

    Muchly appreciated

  36. mwanafunzi, I just want to say thanks for bringing that point up. That was a really awesome question! And thanks to you, John and Steve, too. Great insight! You guys (all of you here) are making me appreciate and use typography better every day :D Thanks again John for starting iLT.

  37. Johno,

    As you already know this post helped me stop obsessing about the type face in my novel and write my own post about Humanist. Thank you for inspiring me to relearn about Humanist type faces.

    Oh! I just noticed you linked to my post already. Thank you!

  38. Hello

    I am a designer of forms and feel that typography is where I have the most room for improvement. Thanks, therefore, for the great site - I read it with delight and keen interest.

    For typography novices like me, however, it would be great if you could post the answers to your “which of these fonts is ” questions either at the start of your next post or as an addendum to the original post. I’ve had a go at this exercise but would love to know whether I got it right or not!

    Thanks again

  39. I’m with you, Jessica. I look up the fonts on http://www.myfonts.com, and check the letters and play around, but I’d like to check my answers with John’s or other peoples’.

  40. Jessica
    I’ve only just noticed your comment. A good idea and noted.
    Thanks for your kind words.

    And here’s the answer. Those not struck through are generally considered to be Humanist faces:

    Erasmus, Times New Roman, Caslon, Cloister, Guardi, ITC Garamond.

    How did you do?

  41. Hi Johno

    No worries about the delay - it has been a busy time of year!

    I did OK. Got everything right. Only one I was unsure about was Guardi, because it didn’t seem particularly “dark” in colour to me.

    Thanks again and Happy New Year

  42. Jessica
    Great to hear. Perhaps the most distinctive element for these types is the stress.
    And a happy 2008 to you too. Hope to see you for part three of this series, Transitional Types.

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