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.

Marketing Principles Every Creative Needs to Know

Marketing is an unavoidable part of life—we sometimes love it (when we love the products being marketed), and many times we hate it (all those annoying emails! unsubscribe!). But knowing and applying marketing principles can transform a creative career.

Clients and creatives don’t naturally see eye to eye. But when we make the effort to understand our clients (and customers), we’re able to make every project meaningful for both parties.

Marketing is about adding value to one’s customer. And ironically, when you think less about yourself and, make it more about your client and their audience, it becomes a win-win.

1. What your client values is the most important thing

Knowing what your client needs the most or values the most from the project is the most important thing. Whether it’s to maximize the budget, or simply to get a poster printed on time—that is the thing they’d do anything for. That’s what they are happy to pay for.

When you know what’s at stake for them, and what they need to be successful, you’ll be able to prioritize tasks with more wisdom and make better decisions throughout the project.

I had a client last year who needed a brochure for an event that was happening in 2 weeks. (Don’t ask me how I got into such a sticky situation).

So the client needed the brochure designed and ready for print in about a week and a half. Because it was for an event, the deadline date was non-negotiable. That was the most important thing in this situation.

She produced the content immediately and wanted the cover professionally shot. Eventually she had to sacrifice that because the photoshoot was not feasible, time-wise. In the same spirit, in honour of the deadline, I made sacrifices as well. As soon as she emailed me with revisions, I worked on them right away. (Even though 1-2 days are the normal turnaround time).

And after final artwork was done, and I was out, travelling, she called me from the printer asking me to change something, I did the revisions right away, in a moving car. Because I knew what was the most important thing, I could decide what was worth the sacrifice. The result: an ecstatic client who made sure I was fully paid within days after project completion.

As a side note, you might be thinking (and rightly so) that it’s a toxic project to get into—yes, I normally may not have said yes to such a rollercoaster project, but in contrast to other projects that drag on forever, an occassional sprint is actually quite refreshing. And being able to help someone with a task that most people would say no to—there was some kind of thrill in that too.

2. Audience insights are key to communication that works

Market research is everything. Marketing revolves around the target market—their needs, where they are, how to reach them. The 4 Ps of Marketing, “product, price, place, promotion,” are all in service of the market who will be attracted to the product, pay for it, and use it.

The more you know your target audience, the more on-point your communication will be.

And it doesn’t have to be major research work. Short interviews and conversations with the audience are even better when the right questions are being asked.

With market research familiarity, you will be able to review a strategy as to whether it’s sound. How many times have creatives been misdirected and creative brilliance wasted because of a wrong understanding of the audience? What’s worse is that the business suffers and ends up wasting resources.

Resources are often wasted by working based on assumptions. If you are knowledgeable in marketing processes, you’ll be able to see which statements are assumptions, and ask for verification. By being able to confirm that data is verified, you’ll be able to work confidently, and make your work — and the entire team’s and client’s work — worthwhile.

3. The metrics that matter to the client should matter to you too

Marketers spend a lot of time measuring and analyzing data. But before that, they decide what are the metrics that matter.

What matters is what is going meet the marketing objectives.

Marketing objectives are different from communication objectives. Marketing objectives are directly related to sales targets. Being aware of targets gives you the big picture of what’s at stake in a campaign. You’ll be able to work well with the marketing team on aligning the communications strategy with the marketing strategy. You also get to see exactly where the creative work sits in the campaign and that will give you a better understanding of what you need to do.

Knowing the potential ROI and success metrics of the items you are working on will help you prioritize. We creatives make the mistake of spending time on which parts of the project are fun and can showcase our brilliance. But prioritizing what is most important to the marketing objectives are in the best interest of the client.

Being involved in various stages of the marketing campaign gives you a taste of how relevant your communication is.

Creatives are normally spared from having to worry about ROI, audience engagement statistics, all those numbers, but that is not necessarily a good thing. Creatives (graphic designers, copywriters) are rigorously trained in communication strategy and execution. Adding marketing to that equation adds tremendous value in terms of collaborating with the client, seeing eye-to-eye on their concerns, understanding them better, and being able to formulate solutions that work from both a communication and business standpoint.

4. At the end of the day, your job is really to help your clients sell

The more you can help your clients sell, the more value you are bringing to their business, a wise coach once advised me.

Focus on increasing the value of your client.

The more you can help your clients sell, the more value you are bringing to their business.

“A copywriter is a salesman, not an artist,” says Robert Bly in The Copywriter’s Handbook

Content marketing has taught me essential principles of communicating to sell, not to impress. Studying the art and science of content marketing, the logic behind keywords, and being able to track everything, really hones your skills as a communicator. Because of the instant feedback you get on your posts’ performance, you can easily assess and tweak, make improvements as you successfully contribute to the growth of your client’s audience. And knowing content marketing principles will teach you to effectively direct creative teams in executing on-strategy.

Same thing for designers—a lot of what designers do has a marketing function—selling an idea, attracting eyeballs, telling a story, which all can lead to a sale.

Creatives value things like aesthetics, taste. We see subtleties that others don’t. We have a sense of pride over the colors we choose, the typefaces we use. The beauty of our work. That’s our turf. But pride that should not get in the way, or in front of, doing effective communication work.

Design Quote Steve Jobs.jpg

5. Relationships trump everything else

At the end of the day, marketing is just a job. People are more important than profit. But strangely, when you’re all about people, that’s when projects come. That’s what makes people want to work with you.

It’s not about you

Compare a marketing person’s CV with a design person’s portfolio—a marketing person’s pride and joy are the brands they helped transform—the results.

A designer’s portfolio (most of the time) highlights visuals. Cool graphics. Jaw-droppingly gorgeous, envy-inducing work. But we can learn from marketers on how to see and tell the full story.

Make it more about the client, their story, the amazing results you helped achieve for them. That will increase the value of your services.

Make sure that clients see your work as an investment, not an expense.

When you’ve succeeded at adding value to your client—increasing their potential to sell.—then you have added value to your own work and to yourself as a creative as well.