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Design Basics: Fonts & Type Tools

Updated on March 18, 2017
Lee Hansen profile image

Graphic designer, digital artist and paper crafter. See 1000s of unique designs on her web sites (see Profile page) or Zazzle (imagefactory)

Et Cetera ...

Stylized, modified Chopin Script Ampersand
Stylized, modified Chopin Script Ampersand | Source

Cool Typography: Fonts, Lettering, Typefaces for Web Design and Print

Do you love fonts and typefaces? I like to play with type and lettering - I love fonts, especially the public domain and shareware kind. Look good in print and on your blog or web page with nifty typefaces, and learn to avoid typography mistakes when designing your own web site, blog or printed materials.

In this fonts article you'll find the best typography web sites and tips for working with type. You'll also learn graphic designer tricks of the trade, and how to create cool word art using dingbat fonts and clip art or manipulated typeface characters.

Too many fonts make a project look like a ransom note. Unless that's your intention, limit your design to include 1 or 2 typefaces. When in doubt, use an attractive sans serif font for headings and chapters, and a serif face for the text or body type.

Copyright applies to fonts, just as it applies to all creative works. Designers work hard to make the typefaces we use. Always check Terms of Use for any free fonts you decide to use to be sure they're okay to use without license, attribution or payment.

Photo: Typographers E gauge, font specification and layout tool by jeltovski,

Fun with Fonts Letterforms - Visual Communication & Type as Art

Type and lettering are vital methods for us to communicate visually. Artful use of typography enhances the meaning of displayed text. Letterforms perceived as images attract the eye and are highly compelling; they're important for communication in all languages.

History is filled with examples of typographic embellishment or graffiti on every markable surface - from walls to books, buildings, flags, clothing, jewelry, handbills, print media and packaging.

It seems like everyone loves fonts - you can find thousands of examples online by surfing the web sea of personal pages, DIY web sites, blog posts, and banner maker font toys. You can select and use a typeface for a specific project, or add it to your word processing and graphics editor.

One of the first things people try their hand at with any publishing tool is to change the typeface to another size, another style, another color ... then they progress to warping, or flashing, or outlines and special effects: shadows, curves, stretching, skewing, adding pattern fills, 3-D, making word art and animation.

What is it about type that is so compelling and makes us want to play with letters? Who knows, but there are many places to find fonts and typography toys, so read on and have Fun with Fonts.

Font Foundation

My first contact with a computer was because of fonts. It was in 1979, and I was working as a typesetting operator on a CompuGraphic machine. I sometimes miss the days of when you could really work with fonts as you laid out a page, tweaking the ligatures, kerns and other typographical technical adjustments.

But on the other hand, it's a lot easier to change fonts using my PC than it was for me to open a lid of a machine the size of a small automobile to remove a film strip that's spinning on a drum at thousands of RPMs just to change the font for a single headline caption.

I do still tweak fonts when they become vector art. I convert characters or phrases to outlines then modify the shapes and ligatures in Adobe Illustrator, but that's a whole different story.

Just for fun: learn the correct name pronunciation for popular European type faces we all know, love and use for our design work including Bodoni, Univers, Kabel, Palatini and Bauhaus.

Typography & Design Books

Designing with Type, 5th Edition: The Essential Guide to Typography
Designing with Type, 5th Edition: The Essential Guide to Typography

This is the type book we used as a textbook in design school.


Font Basics - Serif / Sans Serif

Those little curly things on a font are called serifs.

A serif is a calligraphic or typographic characteristic of a letterform. They appear on letters and symbols in a complete font. They're small extra curls or embellishments added to the strokes of letters to distinguish them or make them artistically unique. If a font doesn't have serifs, it's classified as a "sans serif" typeface. The term sans comes from the French word meaning "without." Sometimes typographers identify or name a sans serif with the terms "Gothic" or "grotesque" and a serif face might be referenced as a "Roman" font.

  • Popular Sans Serif Typefaces - Arial is the most well known sans serif font on Windows computers, but there are many others that predate computer fonts that have been updated for desktop publishing use. This article lists 10 classics generally used as text or body fonts.
  • Classic Serif Type Faces - Linotype presents classic and favorite serif typefaces, including history for some fonts, sample usage for more than a dozen, and a good explanation of the types of serif found on various serif typefaces (bracketed, slab, hairline).
  • Wikipedia - Learn more about serif, sans serif, Roman, black, slanted, oblique and various fontographer terms.

Design for Communication: Conceptual Graphic Design Basics
Design for Communication: Conceptual Graphic Design Basics

So you want to be a graphic designer ... you need to understand how to communicate.

Fancy font word art sample
Fancy font word art sample

Cool Font Tools

Bend me, shape me, glitter me, convert me ...

Perfect for scrapbooking and journals, a handwriting font makes the page seem more personal. If you love the look of handwritten text, you can get handwritten style fonts and even make one in your own handwriting.

Font Tools and Toys - fonts, word art makers, warpers and more.

Create Your Own Cool Fonts with PhotoShop - learn to create custom fonts using the path tool

What the Font - put a name to a face when you know what it looks like but not the font name.

Drop Caps & Manuscript Initials - Illuminata and Attention Grabbers

Drop Caps are handy devices for guiding the reader to important information. You can create them with graphics, or with HTML, or with a desktop publishing program's typographic controls and features.

This drop cap example utilizes HTML style controls - check out the linked articles below to find out how to add this feature to your manuscript, blog or web page.

Stylized drop cap with quote by H G Wells
Stylized drop cap with quote by H G Wells | Source
tom7 Public Domain Dingbats
tom7 Public Domain Dingbats | Source

Doodle Fonts, Ding Bats, Glyphs, Symbols

Type a key, get a picture ...

Cool Dingbat Collection Font Paradise ding bats collections

Tom 7/Divide by Zero Hand drawn and grungy dingbat characters.

Deliahs Doodles from Fonts for Peas Happy little doodle characters and caricature fonts, free for personal use

Dinosaur Fonts - no, not old and obsolete fonts but picture fonts with dinosaur characters instead of letters!

 Dingbat Font Halloween Monsters
Dingbat Font Halloween Monsters

Typeface Identifiers - What Font is This?

Forget the name of the font? You can figure it out with this nifty tool.

Have you ever forgotten the name of a font or typeface you used to design a project or spruce up a written document? It's frustrating, and also very common - even for professional designers. Well, don't pull out all those catalogs and sample sheets, just use an online identification program to figure out that familiar face. MyFonts offers a free service to help you get reaquainted.

What the Font is a neat online tool that can help you figure out what font you used. You can upload an image to the database or specify an URL that has the font and you'll get assistance from the font detectives at What the Font, a service of

MyFonts also offers many helpful tips and guidelines for submitting a font for identification. The best samples to submit are scanned images with characters about 100 pixels in height on a horizontal baseline.

Word Art - Font Graphics - Calligraphy, too

When you're designing a special print or online piece, you may need an illustration that's made from cleverly designed letters or characters. This section will guide you to my favorite word art and calligraphy type links and free resources. You'll find images to snag and ideas that will inspire you to use type and fonts to make your own art.

Stylized Word Art

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mom Gothic typography and ribbon band in purple and redCinco de Mayo word art with specialty color fillAutumn Stylized Lettering with Fall Leaves Fill
Mom Gothic typography and ribbon band in purple and red
Mom Gothic typography and ribbon band in purple and red | Source
Cinco de Mayo word art with specialty color fill
Cinco de Mayo word art with specialty color fill | Source
Autumn Stylized Lettering with Fall Leaves Fill
Autumn Stylized Lettering with Fall Leaves Fill | Source

© 2008 Lee Hansen

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