On Choosing Type

First Principles

Typography is not a science. Typography is an art. There are those who’d like to ‘scientificize’; those who believe that a large enough sample of data will somehow elicit good typography. However, this sausage-machine mentality will only ever produce sausages. That typography and choosing type is not a science trammeled by axioms and rules is a cause to rejoice.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty of choosing type, let’s briefly talk about responsibility. Fundamentally, the responsibility we bear is two-fold: first we owe it to the reader not to hinder their reading pleasure, but to aid it; second, we owe a responsibility to the typeface or typefaces we employ. Good typefaces are designed for a good purpose, but not even the very best types are suited to every situation. Personally, I’m always a little nervous about using a newly acquired typeface. A new typeface is something like a newborn baby (though it doesn’t throw-up on you): don’t drop it, squeeze it too hard, hold it upside-down; in other words, don’t abuse it, treat it respectfully, carefully.

If you’ve understood the above two paragraphs, then you’ll know that what follows is not a set of rules, but rather a list of guiding principles.

Sans or Serif?

In my opinion, a lot of time is wasted attempting to prove that one is better than the other for setting extended text. I suggest that you ignore the vague and inconclusive findings of such ramblings and decide for yourself. Oh, but seriffed types are better for extended text because the serifs lead your eye along… Stop! Nonsense.

Rather than write another ten paragraphs on this topic, I’ll simply say that we read most easily that which we are most familiar with. (feel free to disagree in the comments below). And if you’re in any doubt as to whether sans serif typefaces can be used for body text, then turn left at the end of aisle three and make your way over to the Swiss Typography department.

Guideline One: honour content

This, of course, should be every typographer’s mantra. In fact good typographers, most likely won’t even have to consciously think about this—it’s instinctual.

[typography] is a craft by which the meanings of text (or its absence of meaning) can be clarified, honored and shared….
—Robert Bringhurst

It’s worth mentioning here that these principles are equally applicable to any medium. Some of my favourite typefaces look dreadful on screen; and even good typefaces like Georgia or Verdana, designed especially for the screen, often look at best mediocre on paper. Choosing type for the web is easier owing to fewer choices; however, that’s beginning to change. We now have sIFR and ‘web fonts’, so it’s all the more important to think carefully about the type we use. Is Times/Times New Roman—narrow set and designed for narrow columns—really appropriate for long-line extended text on screen?

Guideline Two: read it

And, no, I’m not being facetious. If you’re setting text, whether it be for a novel about the Franco-Prussian war or for a single-word headline, read it—really read it. Reading the text will give up vital clues, not only for choosing the right typeface or typefaces, but will also be an aid in the overall design of the page. An example: you’re setting text for an essay on the history of blackletter; so you set the text in blackletter, right?

blackletter

Probably not. There is a place for considering the historical context; however, it would be wrong to stick rigidly to this method of choosing type. If you’re setting a text on Neanderthal man, you’re going to run into problems. (see The Elements of Typographic Style, chapter 6.3, for excellent coverage of this particular topic). On the other hand, if your only audience is the BAF (Blackletter Addicts Foundation), then perhaps blackletter is appropriate.

In addition to reading the text, one should attempt to understand it. This is not always possible. If you’re setting text for an article on String Theory or Quantum Mechanics, then perhaps full comprehension is out of the question. However, attempt to understand the thrust or theme of the text.

Guideline Three: audience and canvas

Who will read your beautifully set text? Scientists, lawyers, engineers, echo boomers, children? If it’s not obvious from the text, then find out. Historical ligatures may not go down too well with pre-school kids.

Consider too the canvas, the page. Perhaps you’re setting text within someone else’s page design and you have no control over margins or page dimensions. A cramped page, with small margins may benefit from a lighter type, whereas ample margins may well merit a blacker typeface. We’ll look at this in much more detail in a future article.

Guideline Four: does it look right?

If your text’s final destination is paper, then print it and see. Your type might look exquisite on screen, but a train wreck on paper. There really is no substitute for printing. If setting for the screen, then check it on both PC and Mac, and at different resolutions (screen sizes).

And finally…

Remind yourself that typography really is an art and that many of the decisions you make, including type choice, are subjective. If you’re unsure, ask others (designers and non-designers) to read your work. And seek out examples of great typography.

In future articles we’ll look at specific case studies, and examples of serif and sans serif typefaces that work well together, together with a list of my favourite typefaces. Perhaps you have your own methods for choosing type. If you do, then be sure to share them in the comments.


  1. Great work, John!

    Choosing type can be really hard; and often I’ll fall back on the defaults of Helvetica and such.

    I was lucky with the recent logo I made for MontrealPython, it was just around the time that Museo came out, and it worked out perfectly.

    I’m starting to develop a better sense of type, and finding the right font seems to be getting easier as time goes by. So my only tip is to keep at it, experiment, have fun, and you will see improvement. :)

  2. Beautiful overview. I heartily agree about the rendering of certain typefaces on screen as well; Futura in particular does not seem to fair well on the web.

  3. Great read, as always, John.

    For screen type it’s also worth understanding the smooth anti-alias point in XP using Standard rendering, and understanding system anti-alias generally for faces at different sizes. I always pay special attention to finding a comfortable scale when designing for the screen across platforms.

  4. Jonas

    Do you really think that anybody cares besides you typo freaks?

  5. @Jonas

    Readers may not care, they might not even counsciously notice, but can you say for sure it won’t make a difference in how they feel, perceive and understand what they read?

  6. “Sausages, responsibility, Nonsense.” – That’s headline material, heh!

    And i was disappointed when i read “And finally…” – I wanted to read more, i wanted to go on, wanted to have a few more nods. Great read, mate!

    @Jonas: 13.000 typo freaks are reading this, that is hell of enough of a reason in my book to click publish.

  7. Jonas

    @Louije

    Same question to you; can you say for sure it will make a difference? I can agree that it matters to a certain level but this is a never ending story.

  8. Nice overview that contained some funny lines as well.

    I’m especially looking forward to more discussion on when and how to mix serif and sans-serif typefaces. I have my own thoughts on how to do that best, but I’ll be interested to hear this from somebody with who has focused on this much more than I have.

  9. Shivadas

    Thanks John!
    I have a very hard time choosing type,
    I’m just starting out and was wondering:

    What would anybody here suggest as a
    nice site/book that is like a library, that is
    a good way of looking for an appropriate font?

    Thanks again!

  10. Dougal M

    My thing these days is to really try and use typefaces designed this century. Even when I see Interstate (probably the most used brand font of the 90’s) I see an old face - when I look at Helvetica, Univers and anything else by amazing Swiss typographers - I see valuable work that is relevant today only as historic artifacts. Yes we learnt a great deal from Jan Tschichold, Max Meidinger and Adrian Frutiger - but today we can also learn from Hoeffler Frere Jones and Ourtype and Jann Fromm.

    The fantastic thing about this website is that there is absolutely tons of great references to contemporary type here that it should be easy to find great relevant contemporary type.

    No offense Hamish (love the Montreal Python design) - I’m all about new type though.

  11. Another important thing to consider may be the spelling of what you’re reading: “An example: your setting text..”

    And an excellent write-up; myself, I find that text on screen prints far larger than it looks, for whatever reason. Gets me a lot of times when I first print something out.

  12. TypoJunkie

    I can’t wait for your favorite typeface combinations John!

    For me, choosing typefaces is as fun, important and interesting as designing the page margins and guidelines. I guess the way I go about it depends on the project. If I need them to contrast I’ll go one way, but if I need them to complement each other I’ll choose differently. I remember using Adobe Caslon and Legacy Sans for a school project, with some lists set with Bell Centennial. Good times!

    Oh, and I recently mixed Mousse Script with Dederon Sans. It looks REALLY nice.

    P.S. I sent you a couple of emails John, I hope you got them?

    Cheers!

  13. Kabari

    I was thinking about this article when I was browsing the book Amazon feels that I should read and noticed this:

    Guideline Three: audience and canvas

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0446501646/ref=pe_24570_8760790_fe_img_2/

    rather ominous font choice there :)

  14. APJ

    Ah, the subtlety of type :)
    I agree with Dougal M for personally I see that using typefaces of this century helps in reflecting the spirit of our age.
    Man I’m lucky an acquaintance introduced this site to me.
    Keep up the good work!

  15. Dan Dill

    I find the example of the appropriateness of type to content at

    http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/02/to-the-letter-born

    very compelling. Scroll down there to see the example using the word “change”.

  16. Loved the Lilo & Stitch example! A perfect case-in-point.

    You note that some fonts that look good on screen wind up printing out badly; I’ve noticed that it can also be the case that some fonts that look bad on screen can print out rather nicely. So “there’s no substitute for printing” is really true in every case.

  17. Dougal M

    Thanks for the nod APJ - also agreed on the comment about this site - only discovered it today - like home for a geek like me - rare to find an oasis like this for type lovers.

    Cheers.

  18. Another great article John!

    I’m very corious about the other “ten paragraphs”!!
    Can you share this ideas with us?

    Cheers from Brazil.

  19. Christie Calin

    I really agree with this article. Especially the section that states that if you
    want to know what it will look like in print, then print it. I have been working
    on a poster in Illustrator lately, and thought all looked pretty good on screen,
    but upon printing it, found a number of things that didn’t read well.
    Thanks for the sound advice!

  20. John, this is, after all, what it comes down to, isn’t it: choosing type—what, how, why? Excellent idea bringing it back around to something so elemental to what we all do and concern ourselves with.

    I still wonder, however, just now and again, is there or isn’t there continuing empirical evidence for the belief that serif type is superior for long stretches in that it results in greater comprehension? I mean, Wheildon’s book is actually old by now. Does anyone know of more recent studies?

    And Jonas, this is the nub of why type matters outwardly and why we discuss it so much in our “inside sports” kind of way. Inwardly, however, well, it’s our art for many of us. Would you have told the Impressionist crowd of painters who hotly discussed their end of painting that it didn’t matter. And, anyway, you have me curious—seriously—matter to what or to whom? I mean, what and who are the measuring stick for “mattering”?

  21. Fantastic! Been waiting for this one.

    I’m 150% with Manuel, “Sausages, responsibility, Nonsense.” is probably the best headline I have ever heard for any type related article.

  22. a big round of applause for this article, John. I too hope you’ll write more on this topic.

    Some questions I have: why did you suggest against “using a newly acquired typeface”? Well, not really against, but with caution, love and care (does it mean we should abuse “old friends”?). At some point we would need to use a new type we’ve never used before. Shouldn’t we treat it the way we treat more familiar types and basically follow your own guidelines here and see if it works for our particular project?

    And what if after all those four steps you mentioned above we’re still unsure which type to choose? What’s the next guideline (after keeping in mind that typography is an art)?

  23. Jonas, all that matters is that the typographer who uses the font understands it, because readers don’t use fonts, they read pages. The typographer creates the page as whole.

    Sure, if the typographer is heavy handed, the reader will be like, “Too much salt!” or some such thing, but if it all fits together then, “Mmm, what IS that taste?!” — and it’s likely that quality ingredients were cleverly combined.

  24. Nick, that poetic comment of yours is sooo “quote material”. It would make a perfect poster combined with Jonas question. Thanks to the both of you :)

  25. Kabari, your link leads me to something about “Homicide Detective Lauren Stillwell”, are you sure that your link is correct?

  26. Right on the spot!

    can’t wait to read more of this :)

  27. really nice article!

    thanks for this

  28. miha

    Very, very nice, I’ve been waiting for this. These are really the first principles, and even this whole page has a quote at the bottom that fits perfectly with today’s theme :)

  29. Another great article! I admit I’ve been slack in checking iLT lately, which is of course only to my detriment. As winter draws to an end here in Cape Breton I’m pulled more to the outdoors than to the computer room. But on a gloomy grey day, what is more sunshiney (or at least, attractive) than a good bout of iLT? Nothing, I say…

    I digress… :)

    I feel like the only solution for the problem of how to choose type is really … experience. And of course the guiding principles you list here, but I feel as though those would come through experience and that experience would affect how you’d use the principles. Sort of a round-about, circular-type thing.

    And it’s true what Stephen Tiano says, that it’s good to bring it all back to this, the choosing of type, the practical use of it.

    As always, I really do love iLT!

  30. Another(!) fantastic article!

    It’s all been said but lots of sound advice, proofing paper&screen, sausages&nonsense and the serif/sans debate.

    Looking forward to the next one!

  31. Eben Sorkin

    Typography can be an art, but 99% of the time it’s a craft. Type is in service to meaning. As you put it “honour content”. Making that #1 was astute indeed. But I would say when you do that it’s not a medium for self expression very often. Hence (mostly) not an art.

  32. Or perhaps that is the art: “honoring content” and keeping one’s own expression out of it.

    Quite a number of year’s ago, at the start of a civil service career during the day, I began law school at night. I left when I realized that I would be going from job to school and studying on weekends for three years, no way for me to live while still single.

    The class I that gave me the most difficult time was legal writing. The hardest thing in the world for me was to write with every last ounce of my voice wrung out of my writing. Doing the research was fine; but losing the me in my writing was the back-breaker.

    I suspect that book design in particular, and typography in general, that is totally in service to meaning and the reader is painfully hard for some of us. This is why it so deserves its place as #1 on the hit parade here.

  33. Very interesting post. +1 RSS

    thanks.

  34. great article - loved your samples, especially the Lilo&Stitch example.

    thanks ;)

  35. I sure love how unassuming your approach to this subject is, John. You have so much knowledge on it, yet I never feel like you are at some lofty level in the art that I could never hope to achieve. You are not above us preaching down, you are right along side, helping us up to a higher degree of understanding.

    I’m really looking forward to those case studies you mentioned at the end!

  36. Hi,

    On the subject of choosing a particular typeface, can you please mention the various cases where small type / big type score over each other ? I know that you love big type but there are a few blogs such as codinghorror.com and The Daily WTF which use small type and seem to have a very huge list of loyal readers. Does small type score over big type when the target audience of a blog is the geek crowd ?

    Thanks.

  37. Simon

    Great article - and so very true. Janson is a favourite for extended text, especially if leaded a bit.

    @Shivadas
    I would recommend Rookledge’s International Typefinder, ISBN 1856694062.

  38. Really good article. I think I deal with that question everyday… serif or sans serif :)

  39. lanotte

    This article is a really great read.

    I have to say that I love Helvetica and all its many versions. I almost always begin a design with Helvetica so that I can design without thinking about the type. Many times I feel Helvetica works out, and when it doesn’t I use a short list of my favorites…Futura, Gill Sans, Bernhard Modern, Garamond, Universe, and RotisSemiSans or SemiSerif. When those don’t achieve what I am looking for (which is rare) I branch out.

    I truly feel that typography is best used in the simplest form you can find for your solution, and should fall to the background. A place where only a fellow designer, lover of type, would be able to really see what the type was doing. It should bring harmony to a page and at the same time illustrate what the writer is saying.

    Typography truly is an art…well said John!

    Looking forward to your list of favorites!

  40. Congratulations, great post.
    I hope see more of this kind of subject.
    Thanks,
    Pedro

  41. Don’t forget to check your fonts on linux as well. Just because things render in firefox on windows doesn’t mean they will on linux.

  42. Tom

    Very good article.
    I’m trying to go deep into typography, it’s a really amazing world :)

  43. Bob

    Very interesting article. Very important if it comes to custom designs. I had a teacher once who explained to us why some fonts are more popular than others. He claimed this is due to the fact that Arial for example is seen as pictures and not like writing. Don’t know if it’s true but an interesting thought.

  44. ‘Typography is not a science. Typography is an art.’

    You are absolutely right, John.
    Thanks.

  45. misaias

    HELP PLIS!
    Does someone know the name of the typography used in the title of the issue U&lc?

  46. misaias
    If you mean this logo:

    then it was drawn by Herb Lubalin. It was later modified a little by Cynthia Hollandsworth and Ed Benguiat.

  47. dougalM

    Hi John, really enjoying your site. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed with the Typographica favorite typefaces of 07 – many of them seemed to be very rooted in old styles. I have had a bit of a problem with this for a while now – a lot of companies, even Hoeffler Frere Jones releasing a new version of the Scottish font they call Chronicle which is beautiful but very ubiquitous too but not of this century. I really am on a bit of a mission at present to persuade clients who are looking for an identity overhaul, to buy into contemporary faces which speak the language of today. While I respect the history of the Swiss Modern typographers such as Frutiger and Meidinger, I also feel that because their work is so readily available to designers - and all designers know that they will be safe with a Swiss Modern 60’s choice and also have them all in their type library’s – well there’s a kind of safe and easy way out there. I worry that a) if we don’t support great new type designers maybe they won’t stay in business and b) if we don’t use new typefaces our work will all end up looking them same – kind of like in the modernist years. Helvetica is so ubiquitous these days (you must have seen the film) that it would be impossible to suggest it if you were trying to create brand differentiation for example – it also was designed (well really redesigned) to not communicate character- but to deliver words. That whole concept was great in the 60’s modernist world but it’s not great now – clients are desparate to be different and we only really have a few basic tools to work with: type, colour, composition, photography etc. If one of these key elements is not doing any work then the rest of the work is let down. Consider Obama’s use of Gotham in his campaign for change – what would we be saying if they’d selected Helvetica or Univers? He made a very bold and very American statement with the selection of type and it showed. I think it’s important to understand the story behind a typeface you might select – to see if there are connections to the design project you may be working on.

    I love American type and I’m really enjoying some new European type too. Lets support the guys who are building the word architecture of the future.

    Cheers,
    DougalM

  48. I remember U&lc had a great pull-out poster of what fonts went together harmoniously and which shouldn’t be combined. It was a great help on the occasions when I was stuck.

previous post: Arise Sir Erik Spiekermann

next post: Sunday type: dotsquared type

July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts January Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts december Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March 2011 Fonts February 2011 Fonts January 2011 Fonts December 2010 Fonts November 2010 Fonts October 2010 Fonts September 2010 Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February 2010 featured fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts