Welcome to Typography 101!
DON’T PANIC-This will be mostly harmless.
If you’re looking for a college course on the subject, well, this ain’t it. What it is however, is a crash course in knowing some of the basics concerning how to choose a typeface, when a certain typeface and font is appropriate, and what you should just never do.
We’ve all seen terrible usage of type. You may not realize what’s wrong, but you know something is. Something doesn’t look professional; it doesn’t convey the proper message, and it makes you think that perhaps a six year old designed it.
Don’t be that six year old.
A few things to know:
(Source) The above image shows some of the basic terms used with letterforms and type. Learning these terms will benefit you greatly when you start reading/learning more about typography. Here is a handy resource from Adobe that gives the definitions to many common terms in the typographical world.
There are three basic groups when it comes to typefaces: Serifs, Sans Serifs, and Decorative faces. Each group has its own characteristics and the message you wish to convey will change depending on which of these three you choose.
Now, let’s break it down.
A Serif Font contains what are known as “Serifs,” hence the name. These are the little tabs you see on the stems of the letters. A Serif font gives the feeling of classical elegance, old world charm, and stability.
Family examples include: Goudy Old Style, Baskerville, and Times…
A Sans Serif font is just that, “sans,” or without serifs. Sans Serifs are especially useful when you want to create something with a clean, modern, look. They also display well on digital media.
Family examples include: Helvetica, Gill Sans, and Myriad…
Finally, Decorative faces are faces that don’t truly fall into the above categories and are more often used sparingly for greater impact. Keep in mind that a Decorative doesn’t have to be “fancy,” just think of it as something you wouldn’t use as a body text.
Family examples include: Zapfino, Edwardian Script, and Cezanne…
Here’s a family tree of sorts:
That being said, let me just tell you that in day to day usage, everyone just calls everything a “font,” but now you know a little more about what that means.
Alright, let’s move on to usage. I’ve mocked up a few (extremely) quick examples for us to analyze.
Say you’re creating a menu cover for an upscale steak house. They tell you they want something refined and classic, not too fancy, but not plain. Let’s take a look at how the three different groups of Typefaces translate into a design using the same basic template.
The first design uses a tasteful Serif font for the main and descriptive text and a Sans-Serif for the secondary text.
The second design uses a clean Sans Serif throughout the entire design.
The third design uses a fancy Decorative for the main and descriptive text, while the secondary is the same Sans Serif seen in the other two designs.
Following the guidelines of the design, I would choose the first design as best fitting the customer’s wishes. Why? First of all, the Serif has an “expensive” feel. The soft curves, flowing lines, and variation in line thickness make the font feel elegant and classic. It is beautiful to the eye, and easy to read. Combining it with the Sans Serif also helps it stand out from being any old steakhouse… this is Robert’s Steakhouse! Also, I’ve used the Serif font again to draw attention back to the description of Robert’s, tying in the idea of his steakhouse, and a good, “fine dining experience.” Plus, there is enough variation between the typefaces to add interest, but they are not so different as to be jarring when used together.
Why not the other two?
I wouldn’t say the other two are “wrong”, just that I don’t feel they convey the right message. The Sans Serif feels too modern, too uniform, and too casual. The Decorative is just too fancy for what the client specified, especially with the secondary text being decorative as well as the primary. Remember to really “see” the design, not just look at it. Take notice of how the letterforms interact with each other. Play with the leading and tracking, size, and font. A letter in itself is a design, and some designs work together better than others. Let your eye be the judge. If something seems wrong, it probably is.
Let’s have a look at another example:
Here are a series of logos for a spa named “Eden.” We have Decorative, San Serif, and Serif fonts that need to reflect feelings of tranquility and rest. Do these make you feel relaxed? Would you see these logos and think “refreshing, natural, clean, enjoyable?” I would say these logos reflect those attributes, but each design still tells us that each inception of “Eden” is different. How so?
Like this: The first example feels rustic and natural, conjuring thoughts of babbling brooks, wildflowers, perhaps a relaxing, mountain retreat atmosphere. The second, the Sans Serif, is very clean and straightforward; it feels modern, sophisticated, and high-end. You would probably expect an ambiance reflective of those qualities in a spa using that logo. The third has more of a new age feel to it. The flowing letters, large sweeping lines, and hand written attitude conveys a sense of openness and meditation. Finally, the italicized Serif has a contemporary feeling. It’s classic, yet casual and gives the impression of a comfortable space, a little refuge. Perhaps it would suit an urban area, a little retreat in the heart of a city. Again, each type choice says the same thing in an amazingly different way.
Here we have “Eden” again, however, the typefaces used here don’t really give the right impression about a spa meant to relax, rejuvenate, and refresh you. The first choice is much too childlike, and looks more like something you’d find on the sign of a kindergarten…written by that six year old we talked about earlier. Kindergartners are hardly relaxing! The second the condensed, bold, Serif feels too tight, too thick and blocky to convey a feeling of serenity. The third font is too rounded, too cartoonish and bubbly. Finally, the fourth font, the stencil, is too militaristic. It immediately conjures images of boot camp, soldiers, and weapons… not relaxing in the least. It’s amazing how something as simple as your choice of type can completely change what you’re trying to say.
Basically, just remember that your typographical choices convey a message, it says as much as what you’re actually writing. You want to be sure that you’re saying the right thing. A picture is worth a thousand words, so is the right typeface. It’s a vast world out there, concerning type, and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. The proper use and understanding of leading, kerning, tracking, grids, baselines, and a litany of other principles in typography will change the way you see, use, and understand letters. I hope I’ve given you a small bit of insight into how important type is. Now, I urge you to dive in and discover the art of letters.
Great Typography resources:
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
About Face: Reviving The Rules of Typography by David Jury
Thinking with Type: A Primer for Designers: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students by Ellen Lupton
The Art of The Letter by Doyald Young
Helvetica, A Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit
Finally, just type “Typography” into google image search and see what there is to see.