Selecting Typefaces Shouldn’t be Scary

Computer Screen

Selecting typefaces is often perceived as being in the territory of graphic designers. But these days, almost everyone makes typeface choices, whether it is to use the default typeface on Google docs (not choosing is a choice), or select a font for a Keynote presentation.

Think about getting ready for work in the morning. What you do with your hair, the clothes you pick — what’s going on in your mind is not too different from what goes on in a designer’s mind while making a typeface decision.

When dressing up for an important meeting, you might select neutral colors and a blazer with high-quality material.

Similarly, if your slide presentation is for a corporate client you would choose a more formal typeface than if you were making a birthday invitation.

All of that is fairly intuitive but many people don’t feel confident choosing type, simply because of the mindset of “I’m not a designer.”

But everyone has basic visual common sense that they can enhance and develop with knowledge and practice. You don’t need to be in the design profession to develop a keen sense of design.

1. Be clear on purpose.

Be clear about what you are trying to achieve, before worrying about typeface choice.

You may not have a formal project brief but before you go on, make sure you are clear about these details at least:

  • The purpose of the piece
  • Objective of the piece
  • Audience

2. Eliminate the clutter

There are a gazillion typefaces out there, so don’t be overwhelmed thinking you have millions of choices. You really only have a few.

A lot of typefaces are free but low quality. A lot of good typefaces come with a price tag, but for your project may not be worth paying for (simply because you can get perfectly good ones with your Mac.

3. Know your choices

Fortunately there are many typefaces already on your computer and are free to use for personal and commercial purposes.

The fonts that come with your Mac, according to Apple, may be used for commercial purposes.

‘The fonts made available in Font Book may be used to create, display and print content on OS X running on a Mac. Such content may be used for either personal or commercial purposes. Users are, however, prohibited from copying and distributing the electronic font files made available in Font Book for use on non-Apple hardware.’

Here are a few of them:

Sans Serif fonts

Sans Serif fonts

Serif fonts

Serif Fonts

Others

Others

You can create perfectly functional and beautiful work with these. You don’t need any more than what is available on a Mac, unless you are doing a graphically adventurous design, or doing branding work requiring custom type or the exploration of other typefaces.

And how you use the fonts — your use of hierarchy and spacing — are just as important as choosing the fonts that work for your project.

4. Use the right typeface for the medium

Many serif typefaces are iterations of classic typefaces from the metal type era, designed specifically for old-school machine printing.

During the low-resolution screen era, Georgia was created for Microsoft by Matthew Carter. They envisioned an elegant font that would be legible in the screens of the day (which were low resolution by comparison to today). After that, the gorgeous Georgia became a standard web font.

You may want to think twice about using Baskerville or Times New Roman for screen presentations. The serifs are so thin, they disappear at certain screen resolutions or type sizes.

5. Know the relevant factors

Aesthetics / look and feel

Similar to creating your own personal look and feel, your typeface contributes a lot to the general appearance and vibe of your work. Do you want it to look classic and credible? Modern and exciting? Straightforward, no nonsense?

Just as people with a keen fashion sense and browse clothing sites in their free time are highly aware of trends, aesthetic sense for type is developed by exercising and exposing your eye — regularly looking at good design work, exploring and experimenting with what is out there.

Design culture

Why do classic fonts work so well as body text? Because our eyes are accustomed to them. We’ve been reading text in serif fonts since childhood. Newspaper and magazine body text is often in serif.

Type taste and reading comfort is relative and changing.

In the 1600s, because normal handwriting was much like today’s calligraphy, people in those days found paragraphs and pages of calligraphic writing easy to read. Whereas today, we can only stand reading them in short bursts — as headlines or titles for example.

The first book was in a typeface that resembled handwriting; it would be considered headachey today but back then it was perfectly acceptable.

This shows the importance of being sensitive to the culture of the time. And what your audience is comfortable with reading.

Legibility

As an example, I recently did a layout for a Directors’ report for an NGO/ ministry.

(I can’t show the images here as it is not being circulated online at the moment.)

It was 8 pp, text heavy. I used a mix of Avenir (section headings) and Georgia — body text and cover title. Type size 10 because I knew a lot of seniors would be reading it.

Tex on most pages appeared in 2 columns for shorter line lengths of type.

I didn’t have to spend anything on type licenses (it was a pro bono project). I got a lot of great feedback, including a 70+ year old saying “it’s so easy to read!”

You may tend to worry a lot about whether your work looks good, but remember, the priority is that it works well.

Available characters or family

Some fonts—display types or fun fonts—only have one type style such as Regular, and so if you plan to use italics or small caps, better check if the font is capable of that.

Another example is a John Robert Powers book I designed over 10 years ago. Readers: 20s and 30s. Typeface selected: Minion. Why: It has all the type styles needed, and has small caps. Classic but modern. Great for graphic text, also easy to read for body text for a pocket-sized book.

Personality

Typeface personality is created by unique details in the typeface. For example, American Typewriter and its curly, rounded ends give it a certain playful personality. It’s something you probably won’t use for an office contract.

Try to get a sense of the personality of the fonts you are choosing from. Googling their history will also help you understand their story and use fonts wisely.

Relationships

Font pairing is not necessary for basic office paperwork but for a powerpoint or keynote slide, for example, you can pair two different fonts to create more visual interest.

Again, it’s much like pairing clothes, creating visual interest. The basic principle is if you will pair two typefaces, they shouldn’t be too similar, otherwise what’s the point.

Arial and Helvetica in the same document don’t make sense (most people won’t even notice the difference). A serif and sans-serif work well as a pair, as you will see in many websites.

Experiment regularly and keep learning

When I was new to cooking, I would follow recipes to the letter. If the recipe said I need capers, I would buy a bottle of capers, thinking the recipe won’t work without it.

But after gaining experience cooking from recipes, I began to understand what certain ingredients would contribute to overall flavor. I learned how to substitute when recommended ingredients were unavailable (or so expensive, like capers).

I began to rely less and less on recipes.

So hopefully, you will rely less and less on tips and gain newfound confidence as you develop your sense of type.