There are a lot of decision to make in any given day, but is choosing a font really something we have to worry about when representing our brand?
Before color, contrast, space, balance, shape and media — the very first decision ever made in the world of design was font. Gutenberg’s printing press functioned like a giant stamp. Each letter, space, and punctuation mark was cast into it’s own metal tile. The tiles, like scrabble were then laid out to form sentences, at which point ink was run across them and a piece of paper pressed against it to transpose the print onto the paper. To this day, typography and font involves terms that stem from using these metal tiles (for example, the “em space” or “leading”).
Now, if laying out pages of text scrabble-style sounds exhausting, imagine molding each letter into the metal tiles — keeping the shape, size and style consistent. This meticulous and tedious task of casting fonts is what made possible the world we know and love today.
While we have progressed leaps and bounds from Gutenberg’s press, and can now select from thousands of uniformed fonts with the click of a button — a good designer understands the intention and nuances of typography, the art of font and how to uphold the meticulous attention it still deserves today.
I studied typography in college, and while I’d love to compress 2 years into a 5 minute article, brevity has never been my strength. I will however share a few key tips to follow when choosing a font.
Serif vs. Sans-Serif
Serifs are the little tags on the edge of letters. In the image on the left, you’ll see the first “F” is using a serif font. Famously, these are fonts like: Times New Roman, Georgia, Garamond. Sans-serif literally translates to “without serif”, so these are your straight edged fonts like the “F” on the right in the example shown. Ariel, Helvetica, Gill Sans and Futura are common sans-serif fonts.
The most important thing to consider when working with fonts is how readable it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s the coolest looking thing in the world, if people have a hard time reading it. Don’t make people work to read what you’re writing. The whole point of writing is to communicate. Make sure you’re communicating clearly.
With that being said, serifs actually play a very practical and intentional role in fonts. Serifs are designed to lead the eye across the text. This actually makes serif fonts easier on the eye to read. Now, I do realize that in 2018, sans-serif fonts are much trendier — but I promise, serif is easier on the eye. Take note, for example, at the font Medium uses for the body of it’s text…serif.
You’ll also notice Medium uses a sans-serif font for headings. This is also best practice. Historically, you want to use a sans-serif font for headings or font’s over 12 pt. Everything for the body of text or 12 pts and under is better suited for serif fonts.
Whether we intend for it to or not (and we should), font communicates information about us and our brand to our readers. Modern, classic, elegant, progressive, bold, etc,. Take a look at the picture below, which does a good job of showing how we can make assumptions about identify based on font.
Last, but not least, the font and type still has design responsibilities. Type shouldn’t look like an after thought, or something pasted on top of the design. The text is the most important part, without it, it’s just art — not a brand trying to deliver a message so as designers we want to enhance the message with design. This means, while picking a serif of sans-serif font is a great starting point we still have to pick the right one. There are thousands of fonts, some skinny, bold, tall, short, wide and so forth. Make sure that the style of the font contributes to the cohesiveness of the design and portrays the correct identity.
There are several other factors to adjust to ensure the copy plays right into the design: kerning, leading, justification, point size and more. These adjustments make sure the text fills the space appropriately without awkward spacing, gaps or widows (those dashes left at the ends of sentences when the whole word doesn’t fit on the line).
What’s your favorite font?
Typography is a science and an art that, even in a modern world, still requires a lot of thought and consideration. A good designer will use the copy and type as the core of the design. Advanced designers will play with the copy to make it the design.
While there is a lot more to typography than what I’ve laid out here, just knowing to be aware of these elements and following the basic rules will greatly improve the look, feel and function of a design.
I know we’re currently in a sans-serif world, but I have to admit, the utilitarian in me loves serif fonts for bodies of text. For me, I’d have to say I feel in love with Georgia font in college, and never looked back. What’s yours?