How to Choose Typefaces: A Crash Course


           Choosing type is one of the most challenging and most rewarding parts of working as a designer. Fonts are a precious design resource and choosing them isn’t really a precise science, but there are a lot of conventions you at least need to know of.

            The proper typeface for any kind of written text is not one that hinders the reading process, but one that aids it and adds to it. More so, the proper typeface for any kind of text is one that has been designed for that purpose. There are many typefaces that are suited to many occasions (here’s looking at Helvetica & Helvetica Neue), but, you’ll find, not even these are suited to any occasion and any kind of text. So, when choosing type, ask yourself two questions: “does this font make reading this more or less pleasant?” and “does this typeface really work with this text?”

            There are a lot of questions that people who are just starting out working with type usually have. “Serif or sans?” is the biggest one of them all. There is no clear answer to this.  Some will tell you that serif fonts are better for body text because the serifs help lead the eye along the text. Others will tell you that sans serif fonts are superior because they look sleeker. The truth is there is no answer to this question that is more valid than another. You just need to figure it out for yourself in each instance you’re choosing type. You can go sans serif in one place and serif in another. Just do what feels right and you’ll find you’re putting out quality typography.

            Of course, it doesn’t all boil down to doing what feels right, there are other things to take into account. Mostly, though, if it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. Doesn’t matter if you can explain why it doesn’t feel or look right or not, if you’re not comfortable with the choice of font or a particular font pairing, then don’t go ahead with it, odds are it’s not right. You have an inborn esthete, learn to trust him, even when you’re not quite sure you understand what it is he’s saying.

            One thing you will absolutely need, when working with fonts, is to know their history. Of course, that information may seem irrelevant, but, take my word for it, knowing the history of typography is very important in choosing type.

            Of course, when referring to the history of type, we’re not merely talking about the succession of fonts and various font types. We’re actually talking about what font appeared at what time, after what other font and, most importantly, why it appeared. So let’s take a short look at the history of fonts, serifed or otherwise.

The History

             Serifed fonts have a long history, that we’ll shorten as much as possible by starting in the 15th century, when the first Old Style fonts started to emerge. Before those, the fonts used were what is now referred to as Blackletter fonts.

             Now, Blackletter fonts were complex and difficult to write or read. This did not bode well for them once the Renaissance started, as there was a new spirit of humanism and admiration for Greek and Roman art that inspired people to create simpler fonts that were more legible and elegant. Since the Romans only had uppercase letters, typographers had to spend more time designing the lowercase letters, that they developed based on Carolingian script, with significant changes in order to match the Roman uppercase letters. This font family is now known as Antiqua and is one that has not lost its charm: it still has a very humanist, very elegant and modern look to it. To drive our point across, fonts such as Garamond or Jenson are of this family.

Garamond Type Poster by Michael Lashford

 (source:Infinitüm Typeface by Angelica Baini and Garamond Type Poster by Michael Lashford)

           Typically, these typefaces have low contrast. That is to say, they have a fairly constant width of all strokes and serifs. They also have “cove” serifs, meaning that their serifs form curves when joining the main curves. More so, the thick parts of the curves don’t necessarily go vertically. Instead, there is a diagonal stress that appears in an attempt to replicate the handwriting of the scribes, who did not hold their pens at a precise 90° angle to the direction of the line.

            These fonts have been predominant until the end of the 17th century, when Transitional fonts began to emerge. To quote two examples of Transitional fonts, there are Times New Roman and Baskerville. These fonts have higher levels of contrast, with heavier vertical strokes than horizontal ones and mostly vertical stress as well as a more linear design. These fonts appear to be, to the modern eye, completely neutral. So keep that in mind when you need a “generic serif font” – you might be looking for a Transitional font.


(source: Modern Times by Amanda Shaw and Baskerville Type Specimen Book by Kandice Spurlock)

            The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th brought on a new type of font, called Modern or New Antiqua. These fonts have even more contrast than the Transitional ones did as well as long, hairline serifs and horizontal strokes. These fonts are perceived nowadays to be dry, rigid and so on. They look out-dated and old-fashioned. If you ever need an old-fashioned look in a typeface, Modern fonts are the ones you should be looking at.

            The first sans serif typefaces came out in the late 19th century, but they really started to blossom in the 1920s and 1930s. When the first sans serif fonts came out, they were named Grotesque and were not used so much, except in advertising. They only became accepted in the mainstream once the German design school of Bauhaus came into full swing in the 1920s.

            The evolution sans serif typefaces had was the exact opposite of the one that serif ones had. That is to say, while serif typefaces went from ornamental to austere, sans serif went in the exact opposite direction. There are the first typefaces, like Futura, that are very austere and utilitarian, then there are the humanist sans serif typefaces, like Frutiger.

image 3

(source: Futura is the new helvetica by Marco Oggian and Movavi Grotesque Black by Sergiy Tkachenko)

            Now that we’ve covered the history of the various kinds of typeface you’re likely to work with when doing typography, let’s look at a few tips and tricks to get you started.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Choose the appropriate font

             Well, yeah, that’s what you’re trying to do. This tip isn’t helpful at all, you’ll say. Well, I’m afraid to say that you’re wrong. You see, when choosing fonts, new designers try to assert their individuality through their choice and to go to lesser-known fonts, that are very funky, that they really like. The thing is, this approach is wrong because it’s not you who you’re making the design for. The fact that you like the font does not make it appropriate for your goal.

            On the other hand, you have people who fall-back on a single typeface that goes well in many contexts and that has a lot of different weights and cuts. There’s nothing wrong with having a few catch-all fonts that work in most cases, but that’s just the thing, most cases is not all cases. Don’t just go with Helvetica Neue for each of your projects without asking yourself if it’s appropriate, because, if you do, it’s just a matter of time until Helvetica Neue will disappoint.

  1. Know the font families

            This one is pretty straightforward. The brief historic overview we gave you above is not quite sufficient. You need to spend some time to familiarize yourself with the various font families, like Geometric Sans, Humanistic Sans, Old Style, Transitional, Modern, Slab Serifs (not to mention the many other subcategories).

            So do yourself a favor and go to Typepedia and read a bit about their font categories.

  1. Pair boldly or don’t pair at all

            OK, so you’ve read up on your families and you’re practically an expert in fonts and their classification. What now? Well, you need to start thinking about pairing fonts.

            Sometimes, one font is just not enough. You need one font for the title and another for the body from time to time. That’s perfectly fine, as long as you know the one simple rule of font pairing: don’t put two similar fonts next to one another – when pairing, make sure the fonts are plenty different.

            Why? Well, similar fonts make your brain use up energy wondering if they’re the same or not. Instead of doing this and giving your readers headaches, pick fonts that are different enough that there’s a large contrast between them.

            Of course, contrast alone does not guarantee a good pairing, but no contrast does guarantee a bad pairing. Remember that bit at the top of the article about trusting your inner esthete? That applies equally well in this context.

  1. Use flamboyant fonts sparingly

            A couple points earlier, we were talking about flamboyant, lesser known fonts. These can be appropriate, that’s true. But not in large quantities. Think of these fonts as spices. A little salt does make your meal better, but if your whole meal consists of nothing more than a large lump of salt, then you’ve got a big problem.

            For one thing, when you’re using a lot of an exotic font, then it loses its impact. More so, these fonts are special because of a particular shape they have. Experience shows us that, in 9 cases out of 10, these shapes make the font almost illegible when used in large quantities.

            Remember: a little goes a long way!

            That concludes our crash course into typography. Think there’s more a new designer just getting into typography should know? Please post it in a comment below!

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