Tips for Choosing a Typeface

Let’s pull it all together with some pragmatic ways to get your typeface choice made. You might want to try these tips, which many designers use to their advantage in one way or another. Be the beneficiary of their wisdom and experience.

1. Plan Your Hierarchy

First, make sure you have a good grasp of the content and typographic hierarchy your design job will dictate. You may realize, after a thorough analysis, you need five fonts (not typefaces) to cover your various heading, sub-headings and call-outs. Can your typeface provide enough variation with bolds, italics and small caps? Or do you need two typefaces to create more distinction in the hierarchy? Three? Use a mind-mapping tool or make a traditional outline to see as much as you can before you start choosing typefaces. Consider this example of a bad and a good hierarchy using the same text. Notice the role white space plays in the hierarchy, too. Use as many levels as you need as long as there is distinction and clear purpose in your choices.

Plan-your-hierarchy in How to Choose a Typeface

2. Consider What Others Have Done Already

You’ll find that the designers before you have already figured out ways to use the typefaces you are considering, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Look around, and carefully consider what others have done already. The site Fonts In Use, for example, features typographic choices made by professional designers in various industries. And don’t dismiss familiarity when you come across it in other designers’ work. Often times “boring” and “familiar” are your best friends when it comes to choosing type. There are good reasons some typefaces get used a lot for certain purposes — they just work, and work really well.

3. Experiment the Easy Way

Here are some tips to help you experiment quickly and thoughtfully with your typeface choices:

  • Set up style sheets whether you are designing for the Web or print, which speeds up the flow of ideas because they are easy to swap out. You could also use Web Font Specimen for this purpose.
  • Play with the hierarchy by changing the size of different elements to create and release tension.
  • Judge the results and change something, but only change one thing at a time.
  • Get a second or third opinion. You might have missed the obvious.

4. Avoid Anachronisms

For instance, if you don’t know the particular history of typeface, you could end up using it in a way that makes you look a little silly. What if you picked Trajan to illustrate the title graphics of an article about ancient Greece? That would be an unintended anachronism since Greece pre-dates Rome, and Trajan was a Roman emperor. The typeface Trajan is taken from “Trajan’s Column”, which is a monument to a military victory around the year 100 A.D. Just having to answer “Trajan” to the question “What font did you set the cover of this book about Ancient Greece in?” will make you squirm just a little. It pays to double check. And sometimes it pays to be neutral by choosing something safe for an academic topic, like Arno.

Avoid-trite-anachronisms in How to Choose a Typeface

5. Avoid Trite Correlations

If you apply this rule rigorously, you are unequivocally guaranteed to retire from your design career as Typographer Emeritus. Let’s just examine this principle by example and let the lessons teach themselves:

  • Don’t use Papyrus just because your topic is “ancient” in some way, especially if it’s about Ancient Egypt. (Better yet, don’t use Papyrus at all)
  • Don’t use Comic Sans just because your topic is humorous. (Better yet, don’t use Comic Sans at all)
  • Don’t use Lithos just because your topic is about Greek restaurants.
  • Don’t use Futura just because your topic deals with “the future”.

Avoid-trite-correlations1 in How to Choose a Typeface

Does this leave room for typefaces with built-in “effects”? Yes, indeed. Just don’t do something so blatantly obvious it took you less than one second to think of it. The tell tale sign you are making a trite correlation is that you have a collection of decorative fonts you frequently peruse in your font manager while pining away for a topic to shoehorn them into. If you have not avoided these kinds of trite correlations in the past, it’s OK. Don’t live in the past, but don’t do it again.

6. Consider an Extended Type Family

If your project is ongoing and diverse, it would be wise to consider investing in a quality extended type family upfront. Why not kill all the birds you can find with one stone? When you choose an extended type family, you get the benefits of having had the type designer do more use-case scenarios than you will likely ever be faced with. Extended type families usually have serif and sans serif versions, along with multiple weights, full sets of special characters and ligatures etc., which ensure that you’ll be able to find the right solution for just about every typographic challenge you could imagine. An extended type family will also give you a very uniform, orderly mood and aesthetic, which may or may not be what you want.

Typeface-family in How to Choose a Typeface

7. Stick With the Classic Combinations

When you are stuck, go with the tried and true, especially if your deadline is tight. If you choose a neutral serif and sans serif combination, you might lose a little “edge”, but at least the integrity of your design and message won’t suffer. When is the last time you called on Caslon or Univers and regretted it? Face it: you’ll never get ITC Avant Garde Gothic and Trebuchet MS to cooperate. Instead, consult well respected typography-related resources. See what professional designers agree on. It’s likely you already have some of the classics you’ll find referenced. Perhaps those same fonts are complete and are of high quality, which makes choosing them in a pinch that much easier. You will fail them before they fail you.

Stick-with-classics in How to Choose a Typeface

8. Use a Limited Palette

You’ll find many opinions on this, but it’s also not a bad idea to consider a limited palette of typefaces you like best from lists of the most popular type of all time. They are the most popular for a reason. Some designers have gone a whole career using less than twenty typefaces most of the time. For instance, you could use the FontShop’s 100 Best Typefaces (in German, also available as a PDF) as a reference. To that list, you should try to add a few newer, and not just classic, typefaces. While you are at it, consider adding one or two unique but highly-versatile modern typefaces from independent foundries, and not just the larger established ones that might be more familiar.

In this example, we’ve combined Bembo with various fonts from Haptic Pro, a typeface family originally designed 2008 by Henning Hartmut Skibbe. Something old and something new, and you can go a long way with a style all your own:

Limited-palette in How to Choose a Typeface

Final Tip: Break The Rules

Break the rules but only after you can name some of them. Knowing the basics described in this article will help you make intelligent choices about what rules to break and how to break them. You might have to go through ninety-nine bad ideas to get to that one great idea, but the process is fun. Remember: knowledge of type gives you the power to express yourself more creatively with it. To “push the envelope”, as the cliché goes, you first need to know what and where the edges are.

Break-the-rules in How to Choose a Typeface


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