What typeface should I use?
I’ve lost track of how many times I get this asked. Probably twice a week, maybe more. Even in projects where I work as a consultant, this question is usually the first step — even with amazingly skilled graphic designers. Heck, when Michael Paul Young asked me to collaborate at YWFT‘s blog, this was the subject.
Whether a simple desire for novelty, a frustration of what they’re using is just not quite right or a total lack of sense of direction, this always, always gets asked. And it’s not out of inexperience or incapacity (you can relax, now): there’s a wide offer of typefaces, nowadays, as well as a high demand of visual singularity and novelty, where typography is in a all-time spotlight.
Sure, there’s more pressure, these days. Massimo Vignelli’s idea that you can get around with just five or so typefaces to all your projects is a very dated one — from a time where the offer wasn’t wide, either in quantity as in quality. I’d say it’s intellectually lazy, coming from a Modernist hegemonic standpoint. Still, this idea had its era.
But, at the same time, there are solutions. It was never this easy to find new typefaces, and font production technology has significantly improved since digital type’s dawn. Also, media have improved significantly, where resolution is becoming less of a problem, books are in their golden era (quality wise, I’m not talking about economics), what we can now do with the web is less and less archaic and the list goes on.
For the reasons above (and because the overwhelming majority of people in the mailinglist asked me to), I’ve decided to put up this little guide on how to find the typeface your looking for. Alright, let’s get this going.
1. Why Are You Concerned About It?
Wait, what? Come on, Fábio! After that introduction? Yeah. I mean, why are you really concerned about it? Font selection is mostly a decision-making process and, for that, you need specific problems.
So, this is usually my first question, or something along these lines. And I like to start here, because I want to know at what level people are feeling stuck. The replies go from I don’t know where to look to this one sort of works, I just don’t like the terminals. As you can imagine, the approaches to these two differ wildly.
But the most usual reason, from my experience, is that people have no idea about what to do, no research was done. They have no idea about how the project will look and feel. Or they’re just emotionally overwhelmed, daydreaming about and epiphany that will spare them from the lengthy process of finding the right typeface.
As a summary, ask yourself why: it’ll tell you what to tackle first and, most likely, the very core of your project needs.
2. Know Your Brief
A graphic composition is a sum of graphic components who mutually influence eachother. And this is highly quotable. Probably it was Einstein who said it.
As such, I think that it’s not relevant whether you start, you have to start somewhere. Still, having a good brief, one that gives you direction and keeps you from derailing, is paramount.
This brief should also help you a big deal when it comes to chosing a typeface (or more) for your project: it’ll give you your target market, the overall vibe of the project, the project goals, the current problems to solve, the scope of the applications and so on. You know the drill.
But having this beforehand — and I can’t stress this enough — is mandatory. Not that someone who is consulting for you as a type expert won’t help you to get, but this person won’t do it magically: if you don’t ask yourself these questions, someone will: or the project is set to fail, big time.
Hence, the more problems you have, the more constraints you have, the better. Seriously. This will help you tremendously down the road, when it comes to do binary decisions.
3. What Kind Of Vibe Are You Looking For?
This is probably the first question, after having your brief. Skip the latter and, all of a sudden, you’re elaborating it: I mean, you can’t really skip the brief; one way or another, you’ll have to do it, or redo it.
The whole process of typeface selection involves a lot of guessing, so we want to make it as educated as we possibly can. So when you ask yourself this question, it should be somewhat obvious. And what I mean by obvious isn’t something as a 16th century Dutch with baroque italics (although it’s as valid as anything else, since everybody thinks differently), but more of an emotional tone.
What we want here is to start broad and funnel down to as little options we can. But at this stage, the feeling we want people to have while reading already chops a sea of typefaces in more than half.
Think of typefaces as a subtle visual cue that should act as an emotional reinforcement to the trance-like state that happens while reading.
I mean, the experience of reading, lengthy or brief, is some sort of assisted hallucination, where we internally emulate the discourse someone wrote. So, as a hypnotist of sorts, we want to associate that experience with a set of emotions, and we do this by the visual choices we do, not just with type.
So, if we’re aiming for something that feels serious, professional, respectful and trustworthy, we’re not choosing Comic Sans, are we? (And no, Internet, I don’t hate Comic Sans. It’s beautifully made.)
4. A Needle In A Haystack
How do we find a needle in a haystack? With a fucking big magnet.
Now that you have your set of feelings and emotions (I know how it sounds, thank you), you probably have some idea on how to translate these visually. This is where your research stage kicks in.
Diogo, a graphic designer friend, has an hilarious expression for when, in a project, one has too many options and is trying to figure out what to decide: swimming in mayonaise. I’ll spare you the physics of trying to swim in a non-Newtonian fluid, but you get the idea.
There are a lot of options. And this is good, although it can feel overwhelming. So, try to amass potential candidates, leaving out what doesn’t fit the tone of the project (even if you really like that new typeface).
Start with a big chunk of typefaces. And then, exclude, exclude, exclude. This initial stage consists in leaving out the ones that, at first glance, the ones that do not serve your project’s vibe.
But how do you know what kind of typeface serves certain vibes? Well, tough question, tough answers. You’ll have to trust and train your gut: the more experience you have, the more sensitive to subtleties your intuition is. Not the most charming and life-changing answer, but hey, it’s the truth and it works.
Still, you don’t have to be a ultra-geek of type anatomy. Some knowledge helps, sure, since those little feet refering to serifs might not be a tag in a font search engine; but being fairly educated in type classification will help you a lot. Go to a font retailer and check how foundries have tagged their typefaces. Chances are, most of them have highly subjective/emotional tags, hence the whole vibe talk above.
But the most important thing is to have an idea of what you want, and let that guide you.
5. Survival Of The Fittest – The Process, Tech & Paper Shredders
In practical terms, here’s the process: you get your brief, set your tone, have an idea of what you want and you start looking for it. You get a fuck ton of options, and you start reducing that amount by quick elemination. So, let’s say you end up with 20 candidates (this seems like the mid-range scenario, to me); so, what’s next?
Testing, my dear friend, testing.
Print them all (or make digital mockups if it’s for screen, or anything else that is closer to your final medium), see if they fit with the rest of your visual elements, see if they perform on the size you want (assuming that you know that type isn’t drawn the same way for every size). If not, toss them out of the list, thus reducing it.
Over time, the more you have worked with typefaces, stress-testing them constantly, the more you’ll have a sophisticated hunch of what works or not. For me, while interacting with Graphic Designers and Art Directors, this is the biggest tell on how experienced they are: they say stuff like something close to Arnhem, but with a bigger x-height, a bit wider and teardrop terminals instead a fancy, classic but contemporary serif for small sizes.
The mindset to adopt while excluding cases is to be over-critical. And that’s why good designers fail to have a lot of matches on Tinder. With this said, exclude options at the slightest doubt: you can always get back to them, and it makes choosing manageable. When it looks good and feels good, well, it’s good.
So, the only way to do this fast is not to skip it. In time, you’ll be faster; once your visual type culture and experience has expanded.
6. Where’s the Haystack?
Right. The amount of channels in the industry is growing exponentially: more and more foundries are offering typefaces outside of resellers, if not stepping away from them completely.
So, yes, you’ll have to widen the number of channels where you search for typefaces, and you’ll also have to curate them.
Resellers are still an excellent way to search for fonts (with some more picky on the quality of typefaces they sell than others), since they have a huge database of stuff and decent searching tools.
In addition to this, be sure to follow some typedesigners and/or foundries who’s work you admire. Especially when it comes to pairing typefaces: it’s common for foundries to release typefaces that work well together, as well as, due to personal style, there’s usually something familiar between type families.
7. Font Pairing 101
Since we’re on it, we should talk a bit about font pairing.
The Internet is crowded with decent articles on this, so I’ll concentrating on the stuff you shouldn’t be paying attention. Maybe in another article, perhaps?
For starters, forget about pairing lists, especially if they don’t tell you why two given typefaces work together. These will keep you ignorant and won’t help you next time you have to solve a similar problem.
With this, I’m not saying these are useless. Typewolf‘s collection, for example, is absolutely stellar, and it’s database of pairings is enourmous. Still, it doesn’t pretend to give you suggestions nor “definitive pairings”: it simply shows you want people are selecting, in a very tasteful curation; if you want to expand your visual culture in type pairing, go there. Seriously.
Font pairing usually deals with factors as style contrast or similarity, vertical proportions (not vertical metrics, since you can adjust those), texture’s colour, construction and so on. The best advice I can give for now (since this subject deserves a separate article) is go and read about how type designers make superfamilies, while also checking for patterns with font pairings.
8. Wrapping Up
I hope you found something useful in this article. Again, this is my view on the selection process, and there’s room for a lot of funk when it comes to this.
Hence, I’d like to encourage you to try stuff out and see what resonates with you, without being accritical. If you want to be good at this, learn as much as you can about type, while putting ideas to test.