As stated in the previous chapter, there are several things to take into account when looking for fonts. The main concerns are: legibility, economy, medium, history and message. Type is made to be read, but also to be printed on a certain medium and convey a certain message. Additionally, you don’t want type to take up more space than necessary, and you also don’t want to create conflicting historical associations in your work.
I recommend you use a so-called workhorse as your first typeface. A real workhorse is a neutral and “invisible” font that brings focus to the content, to the body text that will be the largest part of most designs.
A workhorse typically has the following properties:
- A good regular weight. It shouldn’t be so light that it disappears, and not so heavy that letter shapes fill in.
- At least one bold and italic weight, with enough contrast to be noticed. These complement the regular weight.
- It is economical. It should be narrow or small enough to fit large amounts of text within the available space, but the letters shouldn’t be compressed beyond recognition.
- It has good numerals. Confusing or misaligned figures are annoying, or maybe even dangerous, when immediate understanding of the numbers is required.
- It has a large array of symbols. We call these fonts expert sets, as they include characters only so-called typographic experts would think about using.
I don’t think any graphic font has ever been able to have those properties, and I suggest you stick to serif or sans-serif typefaces for the workhorse part of the design.
Similarity & Contrast
Fonts match well together if they are similar (they are harmonious and look a lot like each other) or contrasted (they are very unlike each other). Choosing a font combination with properties in between will look like a mess or a mistake, rather than a stylistic choice. Similar fonts are great for signalling a subtle change in the hierarchy, such as emphasizing or highlighting a word by setting it in italics. Contrasting fonts are great for important and large difference in hierarchy, such as a heading versus regular body text, or even a logo versus headings.
Strong similarities among fonts are, among others,
- Roughly the same character width.
- Categorized within the same classification
- The same perceived x-height. As stated earlier, some serif fonts swing above and below their x-height with curves and ornamentation, which means picking two fonts with the exact same x-height doesn’t necessarily make them look the same size.
- An even texture. This means that the darkness/lightness and the smoothness/roughness of the letterforms are the same
- Roughly the same shape for the letter n. The parts of this letter occur often in the shapes of other letters, which is why comparing the curves of the n can tell you a great deal about whether fonts match visually.
Obviously, by contrasting some of these properties instead of choosing them to be similar or identical, you can add more visual interest and balance to a design. The task is, as always, to not overdo this contrast, or you might still end up with an incoherent mess. One thing that doesn’t lend itself to contrasting, though, is the x-height – try to keep it the same for different fonts (at the same point size).
A popular combination that always seems to work well, is combining one serif and one sans-serif typeface. A third typeface, if needed at all, could then be one of graphic type. Additionally, typefaces created by the same typographer or in the same time period often go well together.
Workhorses work across all media, while other typefaces generally don’t. For example, Garamond is a beautiful serif font used very often in printed books, but on a screen it often looks awful or illegible (it’s best replaced with the sturdier Georgia). Therefore, you should always pick the fonts that will look their best when put on the final medium.
Furthermore, you shouldn’t go against the intended use of a font. When using a digital adaptation of a letterpress face, choose fonts that are faithful to the spirit as well as letters of old designs. Choose faces that suit the paper you intend to print on, or choose paper that suits the faces you want to use (if you have that freedom). Consider the medium for which a font was originally designed, and don’t stray too far from it.
When you design the typography for a message, you will always add some interpretation to it. Even if you choose a “neutral” typeface, you’ve made a choice telling your audience the message is neutral. Brands are a good example of this; they have to be authentic through typeface, and using a bland or overused typefaces carries that same message over to the brand.
Some typefaces are only suitable for some specific occasions, while others are only suitable at a certain time. Typographic trends exist, but they are hard to predict. When trends are followed, the entertainment value is higher than with straightforward corporate stuff, but beware that your design might not stand the test of time.
Most of it, though, has to do with history. Choose faces whose historical associations are in keeping with the text, and don’t go against the intended use of a typeface. For example, if I showed you a few fonts, you’d be immediately able to pick out the one that screams “cowboy” or “flower power” – using them in another context will most likely feel strange.
When you’re still not satisfied with a font, you can of course always fine-tune it yourself. You can add your own characters, or modify some of the existing ones. This should, however, be done with great care. And, most importantly, if a font requires too much changes, just drop it and pick a different one. (For now, I haven’t created a course on how to design your own fonts, yet. Sorry.)