5 Rules When Choosing The Right Typeface

Read Time: 6 Minutes

There are few design topics that generate more conversation with clients (and with other designers) than typeface rationale. Here are our basic rules choosing typefaces for client projects, personal projects, and for Evangalist itself.

Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way:

Typeface: a set of one or more fonts each composed of characters that share common design features; i.e. Garamond is a typeface that includes multiple weights and point sizes.

Font: a particular size, weight, and style of a typeface; i.e. Garamond Bold Italic at 12 point is a font within a typeface.

Now that we have that clearly defined, let’s pick the right typefaces to represent your brand in print or digital products. (this blog isn’t going to get into the differences between print and digital type – if you are doing research for a digital project, just make sure you’re picking web fonts!)

1. Your Limit Is Three.

We encourage folks to try and be successful with just two, less is more in the world of typefaces. However, there are certain cases where using a third typeface to add character or create hierarchy is totally appropriate. That’s a subjective point, but we won’t muddy the waters further than that.

If you are going to use three, you are looking to pick one for the body copy, one for headlines, and a third for special cases. A body copy typeface is going to be your workhorse – used for areas of large text and is, therefore, going to need to be highly readable. Since we are looking for legibility, try to stick to open typefaces rather than narrow or condensed ones, as they will visually bleed together in long paragraphs. Headline typefaces are where you can have fun with character, as well as your special occasion typeface, but if you’re using two of these, make sure they do not compete with each other.

2. Pick Typefaces With Multiple Weights.

Okay, so technically if a typeface DOESN’T have multiple weights, it’s just a font. But what I mean here is that some typefaces will be made up of only a normal & an italic version, or more simply, a low number of variations. This is a red flag in picking typefaces because the font hasn’t been massaged and perfected into a full family. These options tend to be of lesser quality and not as legible, and more importantly, they are not versatile. There are certainly exceptions, most commonly being decorative/display fonts. Display fonts are fine to be chosen for headlines or special uses because they will be used sparingly and may only need one weight. However, these fonts should never be chosen for your workhorse. A workhorse is just that, it needs to work in many different scenarios, so look for a typeface that can do it all.

3. Utilize Contrast To Create Hierarchy.

If you are picking your body copy typeface for legibility and your headline typeface for character then you are already establishing contrasting typefaces. This is necessary to create division between content, but more importantly we need to create hierarchy. Character alone does not make a display typeface rise in hierarchy, but adding elements like size, weight, and color draws the customer’s eye. Making the headline typeface larger, picking a typeface that is more expanded or narrow, and choosing a weight that is thinner or thicker are all ways to establish hierarchy that tells the reader what’s most important and where to look first.

Another way to add contrast is with tracking, which is the space between letters. By increasing this gap and creating more whitespace, we create the same effect of taking up real estate that using a bolder weight does.

4. Know The Character Of Your Brand.

We now know how many typefaces we are looking for, that we are to pick them based on quality of typeface, and combine typefaces based on contrast, but that doesn’t narrow us down enough. There are hundreds of thousands of typefaces out there. You have to know your brand and look at typefaces that are going to represent it. Is your brand modern? You’re probably looking for a sans serif, maybe something geometric. Does your brand need to look expensive? Maybe you want to look for something with juxtaposing stroke weights. Here are some type classifications* to help narrow down your search:

Old Style (serif) – curved strokes with axis inclines to the left, and little contrast between thick and thins.

Transitional (serif) – a more vertical axis and sharper serifs. 

Neoclassical/Didone (serif) – extreme weight contrast between thicks and thin strokes, vertical stress, and serifs with little or no bracketing.

Slab (serif) – geometric, block-like appenditures with minimal or no bracketing.

Grotesque (sans serif) – relatively straight in appearance with a slightly “squared” quality to many of the curves.

Square (sans serif) – similar to grotesque, but with more definite or even dramatic squaring of normally curved strokes. 

Geometric (sans serif) – almost monoline stroke weights with character shapes made up of geometric forms.

Humanistic (sans serif) – based on the proportions of Roman inscriptional letters, with slightly contrasting stroke weights.

Formal (script) – derived from 17th-century formal writing styles. Many characters have strokes that join them to other letters.

Casual (script) – designed to look quickly handwritten.

Blackletter (script) – blackletter, pretty self-explanatory right?

Decorative Styles are a large and diverse category – you know them when you see them.

*Classifications and descriptions courtesy of fonts.com

5. Design For Your Customer.

This is the last rule. Go ahead and throw out the previous ones.

So what if I never want you to use more than three typefaces, even though you know your customer and you think that just one more would be better. So what if I dislike most decorative typefaces and wouldn’t even give you a break down of them. Prove me wrong and use one really well. But do it only for the sake of your audience. You know them, you have researched them. As long as you are staying true to the brand voice and aren’t sacrificing hierarchy, use what will communicate best to your readers. Don’t just design something so that other designers will give you awards or follow you on Instagram. Serve your customer well, and start with a damn good typeface.

While these 5 rules aren’t comprehensive, they should steer you in the right direction.

Our goal with this post wasn’t to spoon-feed you a typeface suggestion but to put you in the position to choose what’s right for your particular application. The main thing is, if you’re breaking one of these rules (particularly the first 4), just make sure you’re doing it willingly, purposefully, and to achieve a specific outcome.