What makes a good typeface?

Saturday, February 23, 2013 by Richard Howe

There are so many typefaces available to choose from that selecting just one or two for your project can seem a daunting task. Here’s a quick round-up of what you need to consider.

Legibility

It sounds obvious, but people need to be able to read the text. Make sure that your typefaces are legible at the size you intend to use them and at the distance your audience will be reading them from.

‘Invisible’ body text

In print work such as brochure and flyer design, it has been traditional to use a serif font (the ones with the little lines on the ends of the strokes), in order to lead the eye smoothly from one letter to the next. On-screen web design and infographic design work, however, tends to have fewer words, and problems with displaying serifs has led to sans serif fonts becoming the norm. The key point to remember is that the type shouldn't overpower the text. A successful choice of body typeface is the one the reader doesn't notice.

Headings

For headings, you might purposely choose something a little less legible in order to attract attention to the words, or select a typeface that is antagonistic or very product-driven. Here, you can play around with more elaborate display fonts and have some fun. Remember though, to select fonts that work well together and that are true to the text.

Limited palette

In getting across that all-important message, it is best to limit yourself to two or maybe three typefaces per project. If you make careful selections, you can find a font family with a range of weights, oblique and bold options to utilise at different sizes for headings, subheadings and so on.

Have a stock of favourites which work well together and set up your typeface hierarchy at the start of the project to save you time later. By using two or three faces well, your work will acquire a consistency and confidence that speaks volumes.

Cross-platform

In an increasingly multi-device world, it is necessary to ensure that the typefaces you use are suitable for multi-browser and cross-platform use. They may need to function equally well on a printed brochure design, on a huge billboard poster, on a website homepage or on a mobile app development. Try out your typefaces on all devices and browsers to be sure they stand up to the test.

Aesthetics, audience and purpose

When a reader looks at a typeface, they have an instant reaction – amusement, attraction, intrigue, even disgust – so typeface choice is absolutely critical in how the message will be received. The audience and purpose too, must be key considerations, so don’t forget to do a bit of research. If your typeface was created for metre-wide lettering on a museum wall, chances are that it works best for large print.

It would be inappropriate to choose the same font for an academic journal as for a children’s comic. Whilst it’s okay to break the rules sometimes, you can’t go too far wrong if you use typefaces that were designed for the purpose.

A couple of other things to remember

Don’t forget special characters if necessary – you might need a full set of ligatures and true small caps or foreign letterforms and accents. It might be more cost-effective and efficient to purchase a complete typeface ¬set at the outset if you are likely to need these extra letterforms later.

Finally, make sure that you have the correct licence in place to use your typeface. Creating a consistent, high-quality typeface takes time and experience, so select fonts from a reputable foundry and use them legally.

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