13 November 2006
Denis Ravizza and Chris Dickman
Denis Ravizza and Chris Dickman

Flow diagram of the Type-Expertise Universal Font Classification System.

As humans, we live in language. By extension, the fonts we choose for the documents we design are a fundamental aspect of the process of linguistic communication. There's certainly no shortage of fonts from which to pick - from classics, through revivals on up to brilliant new creations, the designer hoping to stay abreast of current typographic offerings is faced with a daunting task. To the existing tens of thousands of fonts are added constant new releases, from both old, established typographic firms and peppy, boutique shops.

While it would be valuable to simply have access to all available fonts and new releases in one place, the more fundamental design problem would remain - how to find the right font for the current project from among all those available? Because there's always a right font, the one perfect, inevitable, couldn't-be-otherwise font. At this point, hands are being raised from the back of the class: "How about all those classification systems they told me about back in design school?" Thank you for asking that question.

Each font has been designed to express a certain mood, feeling or meaning. The 'personality' of a font is the key to enhancing the ability of a document to convey its message. Few would choose Comic Sans for an annual report or Helvetica for a poster for a Baroque music festival - the personality of the font would contradict the intent of the document. The more appropriate the font choice, the better the message is understood. This is a fundamental aspect of all document creation, in any language. It's puzzling, then, that the font market does not integrate the two fundamental communications parameters: form and function.

Traditional classification systems attempt to make it easier to find the right font. However, the existing font classification systems date from 1954 (Classification Vox) and 1921 (Classification Thibaudeaux) and are completely obsolete, due to being designed in a closed, non-expandable manner that cannot integrate modern fonts. Worse, each font creator and vendor often have their own way of categorising their font collections. Huge lists, hybrid names, alphabetical orders and so forth have contributed to create a 'typographic jungle' in which every font user inevitably becomes lost.

This jungle intensified with the advent of the personal computer era, when the communication industry shifted from paper to screen and the font industry responded by digitising its products. No one stood back and thought about the consequences of this flood of typographic riches. How to make sense of it all? How to find that needle in the typographic haystack - quickly? It's no wonder that so many document creators in the office environment still rely on Times and Arial or Helvetica. Even many professional designers limit themselves to a handful of tried and true fonts. Classifying the font jungle is a topic that comes up at every international font design conference, but no solution has been proposed to help users quickly find the right fonts for their documents. And the jungle keeps expanding!

It was from this background that the Type-Expertise Universal Font Classification system was conceived to meet the needs not only of font users, but also font designers and vendors who require a better way to help their customers choose and purchase fonts, as well as application and operating system developers, who have an inherent need to help their users communicate more effectively.

Its objective could be said to be radical: to fundamentally change how fonts are chosen and purchased, based on a dynamic database that is both universal and multicultural. This database will be enriched over time and through usage by the users themselves, through their knowledge, their design practices and their experience. The concept of this classification is thus inversed. It is the users that will structure, mold and give it its value, not the traditional font authorities: font designers, vendors and organisations. This new classification is unique because it is comprehensive, adaptable, correctable, expandable, generally accessible, yet infinitely refined. A font choice made by the user is based on the emotions, the experience and the intuition of the individual. This choice is expressed in words via qualifications, designations and adjectives. These values are the heart of the classification system - the resulting database is its unique and invaluable strength. All those participants who use fonts thereby become a classification in themselves. The system thus doesn't embody a single classification, but instead potentially a vast number of classifications. The objective of such a font database is to become a global, inter-connected network of information that constantly enriches itself from the changing knowledge and font practices of every participating font user.

Over time, the database will contain millions of new, user-supplied font classifications. Qualifications, designations, adjectives by type of application, context, by type of document for which the font is used, by location, by language, by who created the font, by date and more, all linked to the corresponding font. Fonts then cease to be isolated, formal elements of the process of document construction - instead they become part of the larger world of human experience, thereby enriching the documents for which they are chosen.

To learn more

Readers are invited to visit the Type-Expertise site to learn more about the Universal Font Classification system, and participate in the discussions in the forums.

About Denis Ravizza
Denis Ravizza provides design and consulting services internationally through his company, Design-Expertise, which has operations in Lyon, France; Geneva, Switzerland; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. His specialty is fixing design problems, of which there seems to be no shortage.

About Chris Dickman
Chris Dickman's focus is the intersection of graphics and technology, specifically at the point where users need help to make the most effective use of a technology or service. Online for over 20 years, he lives and works from his office in Lyon.