Letters, words, messages — they’re everywhere. We see them printed in books, brochures, magazines, newspapers, and print ads. We come into contact with them on a daily basis — commuting to work, shopping at the grocery store, surfing the web and using a smart phone.
While we may remember, repeat, and even act on these messages later, it’s unlikely that we will recall what face or font they were in. Only a select few are able to decipher Helvetica from Harrington, Garamond from Gill Sans or Palatino from Perpetua. But make no mistake. As subtle as it may be, typography matters.
According to graphic designer and author Daniel Will-Harris, “Type is important because it is an unconscious persuader. It attracts attention, sets the style and tone of a document, colors how readers interpret the words, and defines the feeling of the page.”
An essential element of any project, it is important that designers understand the basics of typography to help ensure that their project’s message is communicated effectively. That said, the process of choosing typography could often feel overwhelming. With a never-ending array of options to choose from (an estimated 10,000 fonts in the world) — how do you know which one is the right one for your project? Is it something simple and sophisticated? Or flashy and funky? Bold and brazen? Or open and organic?
When it comes to choosing typography, there are no steadfast rules. The process involves equal amounts of intuition, practice and common sense. Sometimes the rationale for an appropriate font can be simply that “it just feels right.” Consider these five guidelines for picking and using fonts in your next design project.
1. Read what you are designing.
While this may seem like an obvious step, it’s not uncommon for some designers to skim and scan a manuscript and immediately start breaking the text into visual elements without really interpreting what it all means. Take time to understand what you are trying to communicate upfront and look to the key messages and main ideas for inspiration.
2. Consider your audience.
Who will be the recipient of your finished product? If it’s not clear who your audience is from reading the text (Tip #1), make a point to find out. A senior citizen may find smaller font sizes difficult to read, while a lawyer or engineer might be fine squinting to read fine print. First-time readers such as children tend to respond better to rounder, more familiar typefaces, whereas young adults tend to resonate with quirkier, more sophisticated choices.
3. Consider readability and legibility.
Choose a typeface that is both readable and legible. While these two terms may sound synonymous, they aren’t. Legibility refers to the design of the typeface, how it’s spaced between characters, and how easy it is to tell one letterform from another. Readability involves typestyle and size, tracking (the adjustment of space for groups of letters and blocks of text), and how a typeface looks on the page overall.
4. Remember, size matters
Bigger is not always better. At the same time, too small isn’t a good thing either. The size you choose is just as important as the font itself, whether the text is for business cards, a print ad, a company brochure or a vinyl sign. Upon selecting a font for print, test using product proofs to ensure that it will work across the board in a wide variety of sizes.
5. Dare to compare
Perhaps the best way to see what works is to compare different typefaces and decide which ones work best. Some great online type tools make it easy to compare and contrast different font choices to help you determine which one is a winner. My favorite is www.typetester.org, which lets you compare 3 different fonts across the page in a single view. The introduction of web fonts has made it extremely easy to incorporate font style into websites in comparison to the early years of the web when fonts rendered by browsers were limited to few choices beyond Times New Roman and Arial. Google Web Fonts is a great example of how easy it is to get started with over 600 font families to choose from. And of course, lots of developer resources for implementing.
Keep in mind that, while some might argue this statement, typography is less of a science and more of an art. One type does not fit all and many of the decisions you make will be subjective. A popular saying in the design world is, “There’s no such thing as a bad font, merely a font badly used.”
If you are feeling uncertain about your choices, print it out and look at it. Ask others — graphic designers and non-designers alike — to read your work and share their opinions.
Have your own thoughts on typography or some advice about selecting typefaces? Please share them by posting your comments below.