A Beginner’s Guide to Typefaces
Within graphic design, there are few things as misunderstood and misused as the typeface. In fact, typefaces are so misunderstood that they are often mistakenly called “fonts.” The two terms have become almost interchangeable—much to the dismay of graphic design professors everywhere.
Let’s begin this beginner’s guide to typefaces by getting our terminology in order. A typeface means a particular design of lettering. Times New Roman, Arial, and Futura are all examples of typefaces. Fonts, on the other hand, are variations of these typefaces—for example, in style (bold, italic, and condensed), size (12 pt, 18 pt), and spacing. So Baskerville is a typeface, while 14 pt. Baskerville Bold is a font.
Now that we’ve gotten the technical stuff out of the way, let’s get to the fun part: exploring the wonderful variety of typefaces out there and discussing which ones work best in different situations.
“Serifs” are the tiny lines attached to the characters in typefaces like Times New Roman and Garamond. They’re what give serif typefaces that pretty, old-fashioned, embellished look. These are the oldest typefaces in human history, which is why you’ll see them used in many historical documents.
Just because serif typefaces are old-fashioned doesn’t mean they’re out of style. They’re still used widely in body text, especially in print documents like novels and newspapers. Serif typefaces have a timeless, elegant appearance that many designers and business owners prefer.
While serif typefaces can be quite beautiful, their readability in an online setting has been debated. Several recent studies have shown that online readers prefer the more modern, sans-serif style in body text. This suggests that serif typefaces are less legible to the average person, although the body of research is not yet conclusive.
With that being said, it’s best to steer clear of serif typefaces in long body copy in a digital setting. In print, serif typefaces seem to be fine for longer blocks of text. Serif typefaces also work beautifully as logo fonts, titles, and subtitles. If your company wants to achieve a traditional, old-fashioned, or vintage aesthetic, serif typefaces are the way to go.
As you may have already deduced, sans-serif typefaces lack those small line details present in serif typefaces. This gives them a more modern, minimalist, and clean look. They are about four centuries younger than their serif counterparts.
Computer users tend to prefer sans-serif typefaces for online body text, according to the most recent studies. Many web designers prefer sans-serif typefaces because of their clean, crisp lines.
There has been an explosion in brands going for a modern, minimalist aesthetic in recent years. For these brands, sans-serif typefaces are the obvious choice—for logo fonts, titles, subtitles, and body text. They work great as general use, “do-it-all” typefaces. However, if you’re aiming for a more conservative or traditionally corporate feel, you will probably want to steer clear.
Scripts are meant to mimic different handwriting styles, whether it’s formal calligraphy or casual freehand writing. They can be an eye-catching and unique touch when well executed or look disastrous when done poorly. For better or for worse, script typefaces stand out from the crowd.
Script typefaces should be used sparingly and carefully. They are tied with decorative typefaces as the least legible, so they should never be used in body copy. They can work extremely well in vintage logos, formal print invitations, and to a lesser extent, titles and subtitles—especially when they are used in combination with a more legible serif typeface.
Decorative typefaces are like the Wild West of typography: a lawless place where things can get really ugly, really fast. (Seriously, why did FunkyFresh ever need to be invented?) But many of these are cute when used in moderation and in a select few settings—like children’s brands or funky vintage logos. Your brand needs to have a lot of personality to pull one of these off, and they definitely shouldn’t be used in body text or any text longer than a few words.
Typefaces That You Should Never, Ever Use
Over the years, many trusted sources have warned me of a few typefaces that should never be used under any circumstances. And I have to say, I agree with my professors in college and my graphic design colleagues on this 100 percent. The typefaces to be avoided at all costs are:
Typography doesn't come naturally to everyone, and that's okay. If you can't tell by looking what makes these fonts so awful, you may need a little extra help from a professional who knows the ins and outs of typefaces.
Why Does Any of This Even Matter?
The typefaces that you select for your logo, website, and print documents communicate who you are on both a conscious and subconscious level. They tell your audience all sorts of things about your brand identity, professionalism, company culture, and more. In short, typefaces matter more than most realize.
If all this sounds intimidating and you’d rather let a professional handle it, please contact us today. We’ve helped many clients choose the perfect typefaces to define their brand, and we’d love to do the same for you!
About the Author
Suzette Feller is a Marketing Consultant at Parklife.