Fonts 101

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Choosing fonts is a crucial element of designing a project. If you’ve never noticed, there are thousands of different fonts out there to choose from. Choosing a font can be quite intimidating! Here are a few bits of information to help you decide how to pick a certain font.

Styles of Typefaces.
Fonts are classified in a few basic ways: Serif, Sans Serif, Display, Dingbats and Script.

Serif SamplesSerif NSerif – A serif is a small line used to finish off a main stroke of a letter, as at the top and bottom of an “N”. Serif fonts are good for body copy (paragraphs of text) and are good for a more formal or business-like mood.

Sans Serif SamplesSans Serif – basically just means “no serif,” so that means there aren’t any small lines used to finish off the strokes of a letter. Arial and Helvetica are classic examples of sans serif typefaces. These typefaces are great for body copy because they are easy to read, and the condensed varieties are great for fitting large amounts of text into small areas. Sans Serif fonts are often chosen for a more casual, informal feel.

Dingbat SamplesDingbats – are little picture icons that are able to be typed in with a keystroke like bullets or arrows. They are great for calling attention to things or for adding extra detail.

Script SamplesScript – is easy to identify. Script typefaces are usually fancy cursive letters. Sometimes they are sleek and sometimes they look rougher like someone’s handwriting.

Display SamplesDisplay – Type that is very detailed or decorative, packed with a lot of visual impact. Generally speaking, display fonts are only meant to be used large, such as in a header. The detail in display fonts makes it very difficult to read at smaller sizes.

Some Popular Styles.
Designers don’t just pick a font because it’s nice and then run with it. There is a lot of consideration put into it, as different types of fonts convey different types of moods. Also, many typefaces have been around for centuries. Their history has become associated with them. Going with an old font that has history is a powerful way of connecting with people.

Billy The KidTraditional. If you’re designing a Wild West Poster – you know, Billy the Kid or Jesse James (we’ve all seen them) – you will notice that they used large, bold, impressive letters to grab your attention, because – HEY – they wanted the posters to be noticed from far away to catch the bad guys! The “REWARD” font is a classic example of display type. It has serifs, but the thick, boldly drawn style of the type makes it a display font. It really gets your attention. We’ve come to associate this display font with the Wild West because of these posters.

Retro PostersRetro. Retro fonts are typefaces with swing, baby swing! They are great for music like swing, jazz or big band music. They are fun for anything with a ’40s, ’50s, ’60s or even ’70s theme. These examples of movie posters show a few familiar styles of display typefaces from the 1940s and 1960s. (Pictured above: La Dolce Vita, Casablanca, Wes Wilson Poster) These are styles that transcend time because even if you don’t consciously think of it, you get the feeling that you’ve stepped backward in time when you look at them. Although they are really cool, you wouldn’t necessarily want to use one of these fonts for something contemporary or serious and serene like a meditation CD. See example below.

Font Examples

Organic or “earthy.” These are rough or unevenly drawn typefaces meant to look worn, old or natural as if someone has written them by hand. These typefaces are great for spiritual, celtic or “earthy” themes. Probably the most popular of these fonts is “Papyrus.” Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem with Papyrus – it’s been over used. There are many alternatives that have similar qualities and offer a fresher look and more impact. Here are some organic-looking typefaces that I recommend (I’ve included Papyrus in the upper left for comparison).

Organic and Earthy Fonts

eddiejClean. Now, when we say “clean” in design, we don’t mean clean as opposed to dirty or possessing profanity. We associate “clean” with sleek, fresh, perfectly drawn letters with an absence of texture or roughness. Sans serif fonts often fall into this category. These are good for calm, reserved themes such as yoga, meditation or mellow music. Great for corporate projects, they are also good for contemporary designs or when simplicity is all you need (such as when a photo is so compelling that you don’t want to take too much attention away from it).

So that’s a quick look at the wonderful world of designing with type. Some of these examples are obvious, but they help start the discussion about what “story” a typeface is “telling.” Next time you pick up a book or CD, you may find yourself contemplating whether the font was wisely chosen. This is good! You might also experience yourself critiquing movie credit type the next time you go to the movies – that’s when you know you’ve really become a type geek! (Believe me).

Tip: Try not to limit yourself to what you feel comfortable with or fonts that were installed on your computer. There’s a world of fonts out there to choose from.

Nerd Alert: Technically, the word “font” is an incorrect term to use when talking about typefaces. “Font” is actually the name for the digital files used to generate typefaces on your computer. “Typeface” is actually the correct term to describe the style of letters we use. But just between you and me and the universe, we’ve come to use “font” and “typeface” interchangeably.

Article by Gina Stewart, an Art Director in our Design Studio.

8 thoughts on “Fonts 101

  1. Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it is truly informative.

    I’m going to watch out for brussels. I’ll appreciate if you continue
    this in future. Many people will be benefited from your writing.

  2. Do you know the exact name of the font used for the Billy The Kid Reward poster? I’ve been scouring the net and can’t seem to find it anywhere.

    1. Are you referring to the word “Reward”? We can’t know the exact font because of the old methods of printing and the fact that some of these were handwritten, but it’s similar to fonts such as Playbill and Old Towne. Hope that helps.

  3. great article Gina… very informative. I particularly like how clearly you were able to express how much of an impact fonts can have with your meditation poster example.

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