Typography | Basics

Choosing typefaces

With literally thousands of typefaces readily available it would be logical to ask “How do I go about choosing (and using) the best typeface—or combination of typefaces—for my publication?”

Unfortunately, there’s no simple and quick answer to this question— the choice of what’s best will vary with several factors, including the intended audience and their aesthetic values, the tone or attitude you’re trying to convey, the medium you’re designing for, and the content of the publication.

The following guidelines give only a very brief overview of a complicated and subjective topic—entire books have been dedicated to it. But if you combine the following guidelines with your own aesthetic values and common sense you’ll probably avoid making those formal wedding invitations look like a ransom note. Unless, of course, that’s how you want them to look!

Choosing Text Fonts for Body Copy
Extended blocks of text, or body copy, are written (presumably) with the intention of being read. Choosing the wrong font can make a section of text dramatically harder to read. Generally, serif text fonts are dramatically easier to read than sans serif text fonts. Studies (see Type and Layout by Colin Wheildon, Strathmoor Press) have shown that more than five times as many readers will show good comprehension of a block of text when a serif text font is used instead of a sans serif text font.

Does this mean that all copy must look the same? Not at all. Within the category of serif text fonts there are many distinct options. The typeface Times differs dramatically from Kepler, Adobe Jensen, Ellington,® Chaparral, Bembo,® Utopia, or ITC Veljovic®—to name just a few!

While some of the differences between serif text fonts seem almost insignificant when single words are isolated, each of these fonts has a distinct look and feel when applied to extended copy. Some look more (or less) modern, formal, or just better than others in
a given situation. Having a wide variety of serif text faces to choose from means that you’ll be able to most effectively convey the intended message of any publication or document.

Choosing Fonts for Headlines
You have many more options in style and flavor when choosing fonts for headlines. Headlines are arguably the most important part of a publication—whether or not they’re understood at a glance can determine if anything else is read (or looked at), regardless of how easy or hard it is to read the remaining information. Considerations beyond readability—such as the publication’s style, content, or other design considerations—will also affect your choice of headline fonts.

Serif versus Sans Serif
There is virtually no difference in the readability of headlines set in serif versus sans serif typefaces (see Type and Layout by Colin Wheildon, Strathmoor Press). Other typographic considerations, such as whether or not the headline is set only in capitals versus mixed (upper- and lowercase) will have a more dramatic impact than whether or not your typeface has serifs. Headlines that are set in capitals are significantly harder to read than those of mixed case.

Display and Decorative Typefaces
Many display and decorative typefaces are eye-catching and visually pleasing, but can be hard to read. Should they be used in headlines? If you consider readability alone—probably not. But many display and decorative typefaces are very effective at attracting attention— which may be your main goal when you are designing for competitive spaces such as magazine layouts. You must balance readability with the attention-grabbing ability of a display or decorative typeface.

Having a wide variety of display and decorative typefaces to choose from will keep your creative options open and help ensure that you can convey the intended message of the publication.