Font, Typeface, font-style—different words, often used interchangeably to describe a different set of similar looking characters. Every computer comes with hundreds of pre-installed options, and the Web gives us even more freedom and choice. The options are nearly endless. But, with choices comes responsibility.
As designers, we are responsible for carefully considering kerning, leading, readability and legibility, adjusting our selections until we have reached typographic perfection. But, before we tackle the details, we must start at the beginning. The most important decision about type we’ll make is ensuring that we selected the right one in the first place.
So, how do we arrive at the all important first decision? By, considering the feeling, the medium, and the context in which the font will appear.
Words. While they don’t have feelings in and of themselves, their meaning communicates feelings. But consider this. Fonts, depending on their shapes, size, and color, are a language in and of themselves. Some fonts are viewed as hard, other as soft. Some are serious, others playful. That’s why our font selection can either enhance or diminish a feeling—the words actually being communicated.
When it comes to words, it’s both what you say and how you say it.
To make sure your font selection is the right one, you have to consider the medium in which it will be displayed. A decade ago, best practice dictated the use of sans-serifs on the web while serifs were the preferred fonts for print. But as the quality and resolution of our screens have improved and the browser support expanded, more and more designers have abandoned traditional font conventions for something beautiful and “trendy”. The result? Often diminished readability and a sacrifice of the user experience.
And it’s not just individual designers who have succumbed to the siren’s call of unlimited choice. Take Apple, for example. Up until recently, the iPhone, as well as the Mac OS, steadfastly employed the use of the classic Helvetica font for its interfaces. A san serif, yes, but because of Helvetica’s poor readability at small sizes, more and more people have been forced to switch on the “accessibility” feature to read the text on the latest iPhone. In this article, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini argue that with a different typeface, apple could have preserved both beauty and legibility.
Helvetica thin à la Apple might be beautiful to look at, but when it comes to readability on a small screen, most type designers would agree that this font is not ideal when used at a small point size.
Pretty only goes so far. Usually not very far at all when it comes to getting someone to read the copy. Words are meant to be read.
Lastly, and maybe the most important consideration is “context.” A font always exists in context of something else. Be it a book, a magazine, or a website, whereever the font is used, there are other visual elements that help tell the story. And that brings us to what many designers see as the holy grail of “no-nos” in a font: Comic Sans.
The endless jokes about the terrible Comic Sans have become a staple for every designer. And the “worst font ever” medal has been awarded more than once. But as we laugh along, we often forget to acknowledge the context. The font’s original intent was to work in speech bubbles in comic books. Hence the name. It wasn’t intended for email signatures, office signage or birthday announcements. (The font probably shouldn’t be a default font installed on every PC, left in the hand of non-designers, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
We all have different favorite fonts, our go-to’s, but we can’t ignore that typography is about communication. Using the wrong font can change the meaning of the message, make the user feel disabled or just look straight up wrong when placed out of context. It’s the designer’s job to ensure that the feeling, the medium, and the context is prioritized over beauty every single time.