Typography Basics: Choosing the Right Font for Your Design
Selecting and Using Fonts
There are thousands of fonts available to designers. Which one is right for your project?
Typography is a major component of any document, print or Web page. Using the correct font is one of most critical elements of any successful design and sets the tone for the reader’s interpretation of the content. The reader must be able to experience your design in a way that allows them to understand and learn from it. Making it difficult for the reader to comprehend your message by poor font selection and usage will hinder the success of the pages you worked hard to complete.
The font you choose should be dictated by the intended audience, message of the project and the characteristics of the typeface. For instance, fonts Blade or Feast of Flesh (both cheerfully available from dafont.com) would not work well for your family Christmas card's audience, but may work fine for a haunted house flyer.
A quick history of typography
Typography is a result of Johann Gutenberg’s use of movable type in the 1400s. He was the first European to use individual letters, numbers and spaces that could be assembled, printed, removed and reused. Along with his invention of oil-based ink, movable type became the foundation of printing for centuries.
The creation of alphabets, numerals and characters in a single style, weight and size (called a font) turned typography into an art form.
Definition of Font and Typeface
Font is generally referred to as an alphabet that has an upper and lower cast, numbers and characters in a single size, weight and style.
Typeface is a family of fonts in various sizes, weights and style. For example, the Franklin Gothic typeface shown below has various fonts within it, each a different weight and style.
Tips for choosing the right font
First, if you don’t know the difference between a serif font like Times New Roman and a sans serif font like Myriad, here is an example below.
Serifs are the small finishing strokes on the end of a character. Sans serif fonts do not have these small finishing strokes.
You should limit the number fonts you use on the page to at most two. I have often used a serif font like Sabon for body text and a sans serif font like Mryiad for titles. These balance well on a page in addition to adding strong visual contrast.
You can switch that around and use a serif for the title and sans serif for body.
You can use one font with various weights and end up with a nicely designed page. Franklin Gothic is a good example of a typeface with various fonts within it.
Avoid using two sans serif or two serif fonts together on the page as there is little contrast between the two. Using too many fonts can create distractions and confusion.
Historically, serif fonts are used for most newspapers, books and magazines. However, no scientific studies point to using one over the other. If you should use a sans serif for all your body copy, experiment around to find one that reads well and is easy on the eyes.
However, if you are doing a Web site, you should use a sans serif font. The text will look cleaner and render better in smaller point size for use on PC screens.
Do not underline to emphasize a word or Web site address. Underlining goes back to the days of typewriters. You should use bold or italics for emphasis. I know programs still offer that option but avoid it, if possible. However, a paragraph rule works well for a title, as it spans the width of the column. Also avoid the triple whammy - bold, italics and underline all at once.
Do not use all capital letters for large segments of text. Studies have shown that all caps slow down reading speed and are interpreted as SHOUTING! Who wants to be shouted at while reading? You can do titles in all caps, as long as they are short blocks of text.
Never use all caps in a script font. The letters won’t connect and would be difficult to read.
Watch your use of color. Limit use of colors to two or three. For example, on many of the brochures I do, I use a dark gold for a main title, dark blue for a sub title, and black for body text. I maintain that consistency throughout the brochure.
Let your page breathe
Use white space to your advantage and resist the temptation to put text or a graphic on every part of the page. Use line spacing or leading space before and after a paragraph, and letter spacing along with margin and column sizes to accomplish this. It is all too easy to use the default settings and to depend on that to work all the time. Experiment with the settings that are available to come up with a pleasing page design.
Text on Background
Be careful when reversing type, white or light color, out of a background. Make sure that the type is big and bold and avoid delicate serif fonts. Be careful using text on top of a photograph.
Body copy should be a minimum of 9 pt and a maximum of 14 pt. Remember your audience in determining type size. Not everyone can read small type easily. Leading should be 2 points more than the point size of the type, that is, 11 point type, 13 point leading.
Headlines and short phrases or blocks of text are usually 18 pts. and up.
Free fonts online
Thousands of free fonts are available for you to experiment with on Web sites like dafont.com, or 1001freefonts.com. Be aware that free fonts may not have standard fonts like Helvetica, Garamond, etc.
You have many choices and decisions to make when you start your design. The combinations of fonts, colors, sizes and placement are almost endless. Hopefully, this advice will help you in combining it all to get a great looking and easy-to-read design.