A Lesson in Typography

What is it about fonts? There are ones that catch your eye and warmly invite you in to read their words. And then there are others that make those same words completely unreadable.

Some come together in wonderful harmony, like Liberation Sans & Liberation Serif or Georgia & Verdana.

With the ability to turn documents with heavy typeface into works of art, font choice can determine the success or failure of your print. So how do you pick the right fonts? Without spending hours analysing (and agonising over) endless font styles, that is.

Typography lesson: different types of wooden letters

At the very basics of typography are typefaces, or ‘font families’. These are fonts that share a common design but differ in style in some way. Font pairs are easily created from these families, as the Liberation examples above show so well. Others include Lucida, Freight, Fontin, Abril and Calluna. The best thing to remember is to keep it simple, and using font families is the easiest way to stick to this rule.

The most popular choice (because it’s almost impossible to fail) is using a Sans Serif as the header and a Serif as the main content. But experimenting within typefaces is staying on the safe side of adventurous.

What’s the purpose of your print?

To take it to the next level, this important question needs to be answered. Fonts that are used well create a meaningful cohesion with the content. Think about fonts people choose for their CV. Often they are plain, straight-lined, simple and easy to read in any size. This automatically gives off an air of professionalism and would definitely impress more than a CV written in a bold, slanted, curly font, right?

Here are some common moods matched with their perfect fonts:

Romance – pick light, elegant looking fonts like Archer or Hoefler and pair with a script font.

Youth – pick modern, casual looking fonts like those in the HMK family or Handu.

Energy – pick readable typefaces that share the same typography roots, like Sentinel and Clarendon.

Professional – pick a sensible yet powerful font like Century Gothic, Garamond or Elephant.

Witty – pick complementary typefaces like Cooper Black and Gotham Rounded.

Again, the rule of combining typefaces is to keep it simple. Stick to just two typefaces and use the different fonts within these families to create interest without creating conflict. This can be a hard skill to master at first, while typefaces don’t want to be too contrasting, they also shouldn’t be too similar. It’s a bit like trying to find the perfect (or near enough) partner; you want to find someone who compliments you but isn’t a copy of you.

Typefaces should have their own characters i.e. size and weight, but be similar in height, shape and mood. Fonts come in different heights, referred to as the x-height, it measures from the baseline to the top of a lowercase letter (let’s say the letter x for argument’s sake). It is possible to make fonts look more aligned by changing the point size if you’re really adamant on using a particular font. The shape of a typeface can be round, straight, vertical, horizontal and slanted. It would be hard to match a vertical font with a horizontal one because there would be a distinct difference in the spacing between the letters. And finally, a typeface that slants to the left would look odd paired with a typeface that slants to the right.

I have purposely avoided going into what are the top ‘best fitting’ typefaces as, really, there are no set rules when it comes to typography. It’s an art; free and creative, subject to personal taste. So think of these guidelines as best practices rather than absolute solutions.

Typography lesson: graphic design sign with hands writing

A final piece of advice

Be aware of a particularly pesky letter, ‘a’. It’s the only letter of the alphabet that can be written in two very different ways. Therefore, when choosing typefaces, make sure they agree on which ‘a’ they prefer to use.

Some of the fonts I’ve mentioned often come as ‘default fonts’ in writing software like MS Word and Office. But there are literally thousands of free great quality fonts available to download online designed by kind-hearted individuals. Some do specify that they are not for commercial use however, so be sure to read the small print!

Here are my top picks:

1. Da Font – at nearly 25,000 fonts and counting, downloads are compatible for Windows and OX.

2. Font Space – close behind at nearly 24,000 fonts, half of which are available for commercial use.

3. Font Squirrel – a smaller font list but all of them have been picked with commercial use in mind.

4. 1001 Fonts – new fonts are added daily, with an option to download up to 10,000 fonts (at a fee of $19.95/~£11.60)

Hopefully you’ve taken away something from this whirlwind lesson in typography. For a bit of typography fun, try out this font ‘dating’ game. It aims to help users pair typefaces together, giving them quirky characters and personalities that almost weaves a beautiful typographical story. As well as providing a surprising level of entertainment, it also provides wonderful visual aids mixed in with just the right amount of typography know-how. Spend a little time exploring, and feel like a typography match making expert by the end.

That’s all the advice I have to give. I could have given a more in-depth analysis and throw in some geeky vocabulary, but to me it isn’t a science, it’s a journey. Explore, experiment (but don’t stray so far you end up falling on your face), figure out what you like, what works for you and trust you’ve made the right decision.

Good luck on your typographical journey!

This post was brought to you by the lovely Audrey Johnson, on behalf of Toner Printer Copier UK


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About the author

Bex is our Senior Content Manager and lover of all things community. When she's not glued to her phone you can find her out cycling in the Chiltern Hills or braving the London commute on her Brompton.

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