Airfoil geometry can be characterized by the coordinates of the upper and lower surface. It is often summarized by a few parameters such as: maximum thickness, maximum camber, position of max thickness, position of max camber, and nose radius. One can generate a reasonable airfoil section given these parameters. This was done by Eastman Jacobs in the early 1930's to create a family of airfoils known as the NACA Sections.

The NACA 4 digit and 5 digit airfoils were created by superimposing a simple
meanline shape with a thickness distribution that was obtained by fitting
a couple of popular airfoils of the time:

y = ±(t/0.2) * (.2969*x^{0.5} - .126*x - .3537*x^{2}
+ .2843*x^{3} - .1015*x^{4})

The camberline of 4-digit sections was defined as a parabola from the leading
edge to the position of maximum camber, then another parabola back to the
trailing edge.

NACA 4-Digit Series: 4 4 1 2 max camber position max thickness in % chord of max camber in % of chord in 1/10 of c

After the 4-digit sections came the 5-digit sections such as the famous NACA 23012. These sections had the same thickness distribution, but used a camberline with more curvature near the nose. A cubic was faired into a straight line for the 5-digit sections.

NACA 5-Digit Series: 2 3 0 1 2 approx max position max thickness camber of max camber in % of chord in % chord in 2/100 of cThe 6-series of NACA airfoils departed from this simply-defined family. These sections were generated from a more or less prescribed pressure distribution and were meant to achieve some laminar flow.

NACA 6-Digit Series: 6 3, 2 - 2 1 2 Six- location half width ideal Cl max thickness Series of min Cp of low drag in tenths in % of chord in 1/10 chord bucket in 1/10 of ClAfter the six-series sections, airfoil design became much more specialized for the particular application. Airfoils with good transonic performance, good maximum lift capability, very thick sections, very low drag sections are now designed for each use. Often a wing design begins with the definition of several airfoil sections and then the entire geometry is modified based on its 3-dimensional characteristics.