For font nerds like us, choosing the perfect font for a design project feels a lot like searching for a needle in a haystack that’s also made of needles. With tens of thousands of typefaces available and new ones being created every day, how do you know which one to use? Where do you even begin?
The process can be overwhelming at first, but don’t let that stop you from diving right in! Today, we’re sharing some general rules of thumb for selecting fonts and including a bit of useful advice straight from the mouths of other designers.
What Types Of Fonts Are There, Exactly?
While the number of font categories could be debated for hours on end, for the sake of simplicity we’ll explain the four most basic classifications of fonts (excluding ornamental dingbats). This will help you to consider what you may be looking for based on a font’s structural presentation, allowing you to narrow down your search results a little more easily.
Serif fonts have little lines, or “feet,” at the end of a letter’s stroke. Popular serif fonts include Times New Roman, Georgia, Baskerville, American Typewriter, and Courier. Serifs are more traditional and because they seem to make long passages of printed text a little easier to digest, they are typically used in newspapers and other publications that feature longer blocks of text. Serif fonts tend to emit a serious, educational, and authoritative tone, and they look their best in printed applications.
Sans-Serif fonts are basically cut off at the ankles; they have no “feet” like their serif counterparts. Arial, Calibri, Lucida Sans, Tahoma, and Verdana are common examples of sans serif fonts. They are generally considered to be more streamlined and modern. Sans serifs are clean and easy to read, even in very small point, which makes them an excellent choice for web design and digital publications.
Decorative fonts, also known as “Display” fonts, are just that—they are meant to create attention-grabbing displays. Decorative fonts might include bold letters in really funky designs, or letterforms which are based on a specific theme like an African safari, the Old West, or Christmas. Decorative fonts are generally best applied as a focal point of a larger design, and not as the main body of text in a document or brochure because their readability is often a problem in smaller point. Always use discretion and your best judgement.
Script fonts are calligraphic in nature—think of handwritten letters from the days when beautiful penmanship was a virtue. Script fonts can be exceedingly elegant, making them ideal choices for wedding invitations or upscale restaurant logos. They can also be quite casual with a handwritten appearance that’s useful for a variety of informal designs. Script fonts may or may not be difficult to read in small point, as some have grander flourishes than others, so make appropriate selections based on their legibility in your finished design.
When you’re beginning the font selection process, a great way to see letterforms in action is with our online tool, FontPath. In the upper left-hand corner, type in some words, and you can easily preview different fonts by category: Sans Serif, Blackletter, Dingbats, Retro, Script, and many more. FontPath will get your search started on the right foot if you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for.
Consider The Size And Output Of Your Design
What are you creating? Is it a large display for print or digital signage? Are you seeking a font for headlines or the body of text in a magazine or other printed publication? Are you working on the layout of a small leaflet or business card?
Fonts will behave differently based on their size, and what looks great in large point might be completely disastrous in small point. As Fábio Duarte Martins explains, “it’s nice to spend some time checking if the typeface you’re choosing performs well on the desired size. Maybe this is obvious, but expecting a crazy thin stem not to disappear at 8pt body text is a bit naïve.”
And he’s absolutely right. What good is a beautiful font if no one can read it in the finished design? Always test potential fonts at the size they’ll be viewed, or as close to it as you can get.
Match The Tone Of Your Message
Fonts are a lot like people; they each have their own distinct personalities and quirks. Some are laid-back and fun, others are no-nonsense and straightforward, and a few are totally off the wall.
A font is your primary method of delivering a message to a particular audience, and as such, the key to choosing one is matching a font’s personality with the message your design is trying to send.
To give you an example, would you trust a bank or other financial institution that uses Comic Sans in their logo? Of course not (or at least, we’d hope not!); the nature of Comic Sans is casual and silly—it definitely does not convey the seriousness of that particular business.
“You can look at it like giving a person a voice. Take David Beckham, and then you hear his voice – not a good font choice.”
An owner of an elegant restaurant would likely prefer sophisticated and dignified lettering that represents their establishment accurately. A local law firm who wants to be viewed as a pillar of strength and authority will naturally seek a design with a font that reflects those same qualities. A children’s clothing store would prefer a playful and energetic font over a somber one any day of the week.
Font choice can be a hard decision to make because there are so many to choose from. The most important thing to remember is this: just because a font is beautiful, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for this particular project or the message you’re trying to convey.
And that’s okay! If you can’t use a font right now but you love it to pieces, anyway, save it for another project it might be better suited for in the future.
Don’t Go Font-Crazy
There are exceptions to just about every every rule—even the most unspoken rule of them all, “Never Use Comic Sans.” That being said, it’s generally a good idea to limit the number of distinct fonts in a given design to no more than three. Why? Too many fonts can leave a design looking cluttered or muddled, and the more fonts you use, the harder it is to achieve balance and harmony between them.
Pairing fonts is kind of like pairing wines with dinner. A Pinot Grigio or sangria certainly have their place somewhere, but they probably shouldn’t be served alongside an earthy beef bourguignon. They don’t complement the main course and have no business being present during the same meal.
Font must work together in a similar way. Your goal is to create a pleasing visual harmony between the typefaces in your design. For instance, you might pair a bold serif headline with a sans serif body text in a page layout; or you could pair an elaborate, decorative font with a much lighter serif or sans serif in a company’s logo.
Contrast is imperative, but balance must be maintained. Two script fonts or two decorative fonts paired together will not usually work well unless one is much plainer than the other. Balance the complex with the simple: a font that acts as your focal point should be paired with lesser “accessories” that enhance it.
If you’re in doubt, stick a bunch of different fonts together in a mockup design to see what works well together, and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to experiment, either; “rules” were made to be broken, so try breaking them every now and again! You never know what awesomeness you might come up with if you push those boundaries.
If It Feels Wrong, It Probably Is
It’s a rare experience to find the absolute perfect font for a project immediately. Take your time and don’t rush the process. If something doesn’t feel right, go with your gut and keep looking for something that does. You’ll usually know it when you see it.
One thing to keep in mind is that after staring at a project for a long time, our eyes sort of glaze over and our own judgement can feel like it’s starting to fail us. Take a sandwich break, go for a walk or catch the latest blockbuster movie, then come back to your project with “fresh” eyes. If you’re still not sure about your font choices, get a second (or third) set of eyes to look at your design and offer feedback.
When Does It Feel Right? How Will You Know?
Whitney Houston posed that same question back in the 80s because she didn’t know how she would know, either. Granted, she was talking about love but to many of us, love and type designs go hand-in-hand. How do you know when a font is right? Here’s what a few brilliant designers had to say about the subject:
And that’s “all” there is to it!
Do you have some of your own tips and tricks for font choice? Share them in the comments!