So you’ve finished your manuscript and you’re ready to self-publish. Or maybe you’re just sitting down to design your first website. Or, you’re putting together your dream wedding invitation. You’re focused on the graphics, when suddenly it hits you: you have no idea what to do about typeface. You start scrolling through the options. Serif? Sans serif? Neoclassical? Comic sans? What the font is that?! It could be any design project. It could be any victim. It could be… YOU.
That may sound dramatic, but typeface selection can seem like a daunting task to the uninitiated. In reality, the subject of fonts is a fairly simple one if you keep a few rules in mind. There are countless font variations in the world, and that number increases everyday—but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of fonts in use have come from just four distinct font families. In this article we’ll take a look at each family and its derivatives, identify where their usage is uniquely appropriate, and briefly discuss the history of each.
Serif—The Original (and Still the Best?)
Examples: Caslon, Georgia, Palatino
Invented in the 15th century, serif (so named for the flourishes—sometimes called “feet”—which adorn the letterforms) is the oldest and most popular family of fonts in the history of print. Most of us see hundreds of messages written in serif every day. It’s the default font of choice in most word processors and e-mail clients, comprises the text of many a classic novel, and has been a mainstay in news and advertising for hundreds of years. Its many, many derivations, from Old-style to Transitional to Clarendon and Glyphic, are simply too numerous (and too consonant-heavy) to discuss in detail. It’s worth noting, however, that the default choice in any design circumstance isn’t always the correct choice. Few people will want to read an entire novel written in Times New Roman, for instance, because its spacing and width were originally structured to accommodate narrow newspaper columns. With that in mind, it may be worth experimenting with a number of different serif fonts before settling on one.
Sans Serif—The New Wave Sensation
Examples: Helvetica, Futura, Roboto
Sans serif is just what it sounds like—type, sans the serif. In effect, it’s a bolder, sleeker looking font that forgoes the “feet” of its predecessor. The history of sans serif goes back hundreds of years, and the font family has had several notable resurgences in modern memory. In the 1930s, sans serif was introduced into the world of print and advertising. It was favored by commercial printers for its simplicity and legibility at a distance, but hated by book printers for its perceived crassness, sans serif once became closely associated with the term “grotesque.” The stigma carries to this day, as serif remains the most popular choice for the printed word by far. Sans serif has, however, become a valued mainstay in the domain of digital publishing for its versatility and readability across a multitude of different devices. Needless to say, the future looks bright for sans serif.
Script—Getting Fancy with It
Examples: Dancing Script, Linotype Didot, Mr De Haviland
Script is a formal typeface that attempts to mimic the painstakingly intricate handwriting style of 17th and 18th century scribes. In print, these fonts are only really useful in a handful of formats—usually reserved for formal occasions such as weddings, funerals and family events—and are seldom used as the body font of any piece of long form writing. The reason is simple: Unless you want your essay to look like the Magna Carta, you’re nearly always better off choosing readability over style. With that said, script fonts have been used to great affect on book covers the world over, particularly in the romance genre where the font often makes for an attractive and eye-catching title.
Decorative—Always Use Responsibly
Examples: PacificA, Monoton, Lobster
Like a rebellious stepchild, the “decorative” font style is a modern spin-off of script that throws the rules out the window and embraces the chaos of modern handwriting. Decorative type may be the new kid on the block, but its usage has exploded in popularity within recent years as graphic design tools and resources have become more widely available to designers-at-large. Rarely a good choice for your book or e-book, decorative fonts are instead optimally used in large print format and advertising: such as on a poster, as the title of a book, as the header of your webpage, etc. These highly individualized fonts are best utilized in moderation and don’t often mix well, so handle them with the appropriate level of restraint.
How Do I Choose?
Ok, I hear what you’re saying. All of this general info is well and good, but how do I pick just one font out of hundreds when each font family is so densely represented? Luckily for all of us, there are a handful of stylistic guidelines for you to follow on the hunt for your dream font:
Consider the Context
What kind of project is it? If you’re writing a novel or short story, focus on legibility—your reader’s eye comfort should come before any aesthetic concerns. If you’re designing a cover, poster or advertisement, develop a cohesive visual theme first and then choose a font to suit it. If your concept is sci-fi influenced, a sleek and modern sans serif typeface may be your best choice. If you’re developing with a fantasy theme in mind, you may want to go with an “old-style” serif font which evokes the myths and legends of long ago.
Consider the Era
Like fine art, font families have historically developed incrementally through artist-driven “movements” across history. Thus, different forms of typeface have come to be thematically associated with the time period in which they were introduced or most prevalently used. A novel set in the 1930s, for instance, might prominently feature a sans serif “grotesque” style font on its cover, or as “insert text” within the story itself to convey period-appropriate print type. Contrastingly, if you’re attempting to draft a flashy-looking business proposal or print ad, you may want to choose type that portrays a sense of modernity, such as Helvetica or Futura.
There are many other things that could be said about fonts and font families, but as long as you keep these fundamental ideas in mind you should have a clear path to follow towards your design goal. And as you head off to aesthetic victory, there’s just one last rule that you must always keep in mind: No matter the theme of your project or circumstance of your work …
… Don’t use comic sans. Ever.
Just don’t do it.
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