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What font should I use?

This is the most frequently asked question in any of my design related classes.

It used to be that you took a job to a designer or print shop and they picked a typeface from the dozen or so they had on hand in the correct size and weight. Now, everyone has an almost limitless number of typefaces to choose from and none of the years of training and experience designers and print shops use to make a font choice. You see the result everyday in the mail: The “ransom note” ads which use every font they have. The scripty letters which look nice but hurt your eyes to read. The pieces where the flowery font jars with the hard-biting prose. You’ll see these and more if you look. Here are some tips to keep your printed piece from causing unintended amusement. What font you choose depends upon both artistic considerations — what you like, what gets your message across best, as well as technical ones — what fonts you have or are willing to buy, what fonts are on output devices.

First consider whether you are going to spend time or money. It will cost you time to research fonts and graphic design that you could save by paying a professional to set up some guidelines. If you are going to work with a professional, be sure that you like their sense of design. Most will be happy to show you their work. If you don’t like what they’ve done for others, you probably won’t like what they do for you. Realize that designers make their living selling their time, just like doctors, teachers and other professionals. The more organized you are about what you want, the less time and effort it will take to figure out your needs and the happier everyone will be: do some initial research even if you are hiring an expert.

You will seldom need more than two typefaces: one, probably a serif (curls on the letters like this text), for main blocks of text and another, maybe a sanserif (without curls, like the title on this article), for headlines or other contrast. Studies have shown that paragraphs set in serif typefaces are easier for most people to read. Size and style (plain, bold, italic) variation can usually give all you need for emphasis and contrast.

Font choice is subjective; there are no right or wrong fonts, just ineffective fonts for a particular purpose. Times, the font I’m using now, is good for fitting a lot of text in a small space but gives a “tight” feel. Palatino, this font is more rounded and “friendly”, I prefer it for personal correspondence. Architects and other artists often like Tekton but it can be hard to read in paragraphs unless you use extra space (leading) between the lines. Engineers and bankers often pick a sanserif face like Helvetica for its simple, no nonsense feel. Helvetica light condensed is in the same type family but a different weight. It is often used for catalogs.

Look through your mail, magazines, books at the library etc. to find a font which feels right. Generally the font you choose should have both upper and lower case letters as well as plain, bold and italic styles. Show it to friends or clients to see if they think it fits your image and message. To find the name of an unknown font, look at the end of the piece to see if it is mentioned, try to match it in a font book or pay an expert.

Fonts are copyrighted: you should purchase the fonts you plan to use if they didn’t come with a software package you own. The University Bookstore and Seattle Art both have reference books and sell fonts. Most newer software includes some fonts. Corel Draw comes with an exceptionally large number of fonts. Often most of the fonts that come with a software package are not automatically installed — you may have more than you think so check your documentation. Some software includes CDs from type companies like Adobe: to use the font you call them for an unlocking code and they charge a fee to your credit card. There are also mail order font companies like Adobe or Digifont. Be sure to read the technical section below before buying fonts. One word of caution: lots of installed fonts will slow your system. You should remove fonts you don’t plan to use (except system fonts). Note that the same set of letter shapes can be called by different names: Helvetica, Swiss, Switzerland, Ariel, Geneva etc. are the same shapes with minor variations. There are often different versions of the same typeface: is your Garamond ITC Garamond, Adobe Garamond, Stemple Garamond or yet another.

Pick an overall look for your printed matter and don’t vary from it without good reason. Designers call this your “identity”. If your look is consistent, each time someone sees a piece from your company or organization, it brings you to mind even if they only glance at it. Your font contributes but is only a part of the overall feel of a piece. The spacing between lines or “leading”, the size of letters, justification, the amount of white space and many other parts come together to make an effective piece. Above all be sure it is readable. If your audience wears bifocals, 12 point is the smallest comfortable size. Left aligned text with a ragged right margin is easier to read than fully justified text.

For further reading on the subject: The Mac Is Not A Typewriter by Robin Williams — a great book for any flavor of computer user; Design for Desktop Publishing by John Miles — the basics, with examples.

There are two major kinds of fonts: PostScript, licensed from Adobe, and TrueType, originally from Microsoft. You should know if you are using a PostScript printer or not: they usually cost more. If you are only going to print on your printer, which kind you use doesn’t matter much except that non-PostScript printers usually need True-Type fonts. If you are taking part of your project to a service bureau, they will almost certainly be using a PostScript device and PostScript fonts. It is easiest if you are too: TrueType fonts may cause trouble at service bureaus. Seattle ImageSetting says they prefer PostScript fonts (except Multiple Master PostScript fonts, which are causing some problems). But, they say, things usually print okay if you use TrueType fonts and remember to include the fonts with your project. Service bureaus often have the commonly used PostScript fonts: ask about yours. When in doubt, bring the font (or turn it into a graphic in a draw program). The safest course is to run a test document to all devices you might possibly use before constructing any “real” documents. Please call us at 206-523-0872 if you have further questions.

copyright 1998 Karen Seymour

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