Typeface Selection

Chosing the Right Typeface

One of the best methods to decide which typeface to use is to have a clear understanding of its application. Will the type be digital or in print? Will it require a range of weights and postures? If it requires a variety of fractions and numerals, does the typeface have a complete set of OpenType options for numbers? While every typeface has a distinct look and feel, its application ultimately dictates its usefulness.

When you look at a printed page, you see type. How the letters of that type are shaped and proportioned reflects the design qualities of a specific typeface. Those designs are stored, embodied, in a font, from which the typesetting system extracts the information needed to get that type onto the page.

Fonts and typefaces are the basic raw materials of typesetting.

Definitions: Font versus Typeface

No two words in typography are as commonly misused as font and typeface.

A typeface is a collection of characters—letters, numbers, symbols, punctuation marks, etc.—that are designed to work together like the parts of a coordinated outfit. A typeface is an alphabet with a certain design. A font, in contrast, is a physical thing, the description of a typeface—in computer code, photographic film, or metal—used to image the type. The font is the cookie cutter, and thetypeface is the cookie

When you look at a page of type, you can say, “What typeface is that? ” or “What font was used to set that? ” But you can’t say, “What font is that?” because you’re not looking at a font; you’re looking at the product of a font.

The confusion between the terms arises largely from the ambiguous use of the term font in computer programs, most of which have a Font menu. Although that menu lists what fonts are available for use by the program, it could just as easily be called the Typeface menu, as it also lists the typefaces available for your pages. In fact, since some fonts contain data for more than one typeface, it would be more accurate to call it the Typeface menu.

Choosing a Typeface

One of the best methods to decide which typeface to use is to have a clear understanding of its application. Will the type be digital or in print? Will it require a range of weights and postures? If it requires a variety of fractions and numerals, does the typeface have a complete set of OpenType options for numbers?

While every typeface has a distinct look and feel, its application ultimately dictates its usefulness.

Text Type

For text type, use typefaces designed for the purpose of uninterrupted reading such as Caslon, Bembo, and Garamond. These three work well for large areas of book text. Times New Roman — though overused today—was designed in the twentieth century to function as a newspaper typeface, and makes an adequate choice for book text as well. Clearface, Centaur, and Sabon also have clear readability.

Typeface for reading

Line length, word spacing, and leading all factor into a book text’s readability, but choosing a time-tested typeface is as good a place as any to start.

Display Type

Display type needs to quickly catch readers’ attention, much like the messages on posters, advertisements, and promotions made popular during the late nineteenth century. Using typographic size to gain attention continues to this day, where assertiveness can help cut through the competitive visual noise.

Typeface for display text

While text type rarely relies on these measures to get attention, headlines and subheads in printed and digital matter must pull in readers, delineate levels of information, tell readers where they are, and keep their attention.

Display type must be legible, of course, but because the reader can decipher the small chunks of type rather quickly, legibility may not be as important as with text type.

Also, the concept or message may call for something with more vigor and exuberance.

Slab serifs such as Rockwell, Memphis, and Clarendon all have enough weight and character for use as display type in headlines or subheads. When enlarged, many of the raw visual forms become present for Old Style and Garalde serif faces, so use these for display type with consideration. Finally, a variety of sans serifs and scripts can also do the job well.

Bibliography

  • Boardley, John (2008) On Choosing Type: First Principles. I Love Typograhy
  • Lawson, S. Alexander (2000) Anatomy of Typeface. David R. Godine, Publisher
  • Strizver, Ilene (2013) Type Rules: The Designer’s Guide to Professional Typography. Wiley

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