So, you’re looking to choose a typeface for your next project, but where do you start? With thousands of both free and paid for fonts available, it can make your head spin; but don’t despair – follow these key principles to help guide you through the process, and you’ll meet your match in no time.
To start, let us clarify the difference between typeface and font. A typeface is a complete group of characters (think of it like a family), and a font is the type variations that make up that family (bold, italic, light etc). Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into it…
Determining a font style is a great place to start when selecting your typeface. Serif, sans serif, slab serif, script, mono and display are all broad categories of typography. To keep it simple, let’s focus on serif and sans serif for now. The term serif means ‘a slight projection finishing off a stroke of a letter’, so therefore a typeface without serifs are referred to as sans (without) serif. Simple, right? Serif fonts are often considered as being traditional and classic, whereas sans serif on the other hand, as much more modern and clean. Have you ever noticed that the majority of books, magazines and newspapers are written using a serif typeface? That’s because generally speaking, serif typefaces are easier to read for longer copy, as they can help the eye travel along the line. That being said, don’t be afraid to use a sans serif font for brochures and reports, where you have more design freedom. You also need to consider your audience, as sans serifs are much more preferable for children or readers with visual impairments as their simplified letterforms are easier to recognise.
When choosing your typeface, think about how many font variations you are likely to need. Needless to say, the more fonts within the typeface, the more options you have. Simply bold, regular and italic are a thing of the past, now we are blessed with a multitude of different font weights. Helvetica is one of the most famous and popular typefaces in the world, that has been used for every typographic project imaginable, and that is not only down to how neutral it is, but also because of how flexible it is. The complete family consists of dozens of fonts, including regular, condensed, compressed, narrow, rounded, textbook and everything in between! If you think you’re likely to need such a comprehensive font library, consider variation when narrowing down your search.
Much like people, different fonts have different personalities. Whilst working on a project, it’s important to work out what fonts will match the intended tone of the communication. Serif typefaces are often associated with being reliable, formal, respectable, authoritative, and traditional; whilst on the other hand sans serifs are described as being universal, clean, modern, sensible and straightforward. Script typefaces exude elegance and creativity, whilst slab serifs come across as strong and authoritative. Each font will evoke different emotions from your audience, so working out what personality you want to portray is key to ensure that you are connecting with the right audience.
Whilst searching for your typeface, it’s easy to find one that you LOVE, but at the end of the day, if it’s not legible, then it’s not a match for you. Sometimes you need to put your personal preference to one side and find one that — you perhaps don’t love quite as much but — works much better on the project in hand. Simply put, if people can’t easily read what you’re saying, then they will disregard it. Some fonts are designed to create typographic statements, and stand out from the crowd, which is great, but it can come at the expense of legibility. A general rule of thumb is that the most legible typefaces are ‘transparent’ to the reader, having restrained characteristics, meaning they do not call much attention to themselves. This is not to say use a restrained, and transparent font on your project, as it completely depends on the brief in hand. It’s okay to be playful, and have fun, as long as it’s legible.
It’s rare that you will only need to use one style of font for your project, so that is where font pairings come in. Like gin and tonic, some things are just meant to go together. If you’ve chosen a typeface with a large variation of fonts, you’ll have a ready-made range of styles within that are specifically designed to work together. A good typeface family might even include both serif and sans serif versions. But when this is not the case, or you want to mix things up a little, you’ll need to play matchmaker. The best rule of thumb here is to pair contrasting typefaces – finding totally different, but still complementary fonts. A font with a strong structure and geometric form will work well with an elegant and traditional style, and a bold, rounded typeface will match up well with a lighter condensed style. Play around with it, have fun, but always remember that there needs to be some contrast.
To sum up, put aside your personal preference and choose a font/fonts that work with the project in hand. Make sure it says what you want to say, and to whom you want to say it to; and most importantly, make sure people can read it no matter what. Understanding some of the basics described above will help you make an informed choice for your next design project – but remember – even though there are certain ‘rules’ to typography, sometimes rules are meant to be broken.