When looking for a typeface we are presented with a huge amount of font options. The image above features the Romeral, Fertigo and Anivers typefaces (top down). Serifs, sans-serif, slab-serifs, humanists, expressionists, renacentists, rationalists, etc. The classification is huge and there are really high quality fonts out there. So how to choose one? which is one is better for our current work?
1. Does it has all the features you need for the text you’re composing?
What kind of text are you composing? it could be an aside in the margins of a textbook, a full page text, an epigraph, a column of text for a blog, a financial column of numbers, etc. Each one has their pitfalls. For instance, if you’re composing a reading text, you’ll want to use the text figures for composing your numbers (also called oldstyle figures, or lowercase numbers), like the ones on the image above. These numbers work best when reading text since you don’t face with a BUMP of numbers on your pleasant text journey. Instead, text figures flow nicely with the text stream. However, if you’re designing a a financial report with columns of numbers you’ll want to use the lining figures with even widths since they will align vertically in a precise way.
Make sure it has all the weights you need. Medium (or regular), Bold, should be enough in most cases, but sometimes you may have to use a Semibold. Not too regular, not too heavy. Or a Light. Take a look at Museo at MyFonts (while you’re at it play around on the new MyFonts interface). It has enough weights for compositing any text. It doesn’t have variants though, and this is another issue that you must address. Does it has italics and small caps? You should always use small caps to compose acronyms like UN, USA, EU, uppercase characters are not the ones for this task. Tip: when you compose a headline using uppercase always add a bit of letter spacing, because most of the uppercase glyphs have kerning against lowercase letters, so if you compose uppercase without adding space, they would look a bit tight, since the spacing between characters is not enough.
Another feature are diacritics. Are you composing a french, portuguese or spanish text? make sure you’ve all the acute and grave accents, otherwise the text would look like… well, you know. What about ligatures? Ligatures usually replace consecutive characters that are too close to each other and if they were left like that, it would look messy. Standard ligatures help dealing with fi, fj, ft, like in “low-fi”, “fjord“, “drift”, where the hood of the f would overlap with the dot of the i. Depending on your text you’ll want to get fractions as well, where number-slash-number is replaced by a fractional representation.
2. Does it honors your content?
Easy, you can’t write an english victorian novel like Dracula with a renacentist french typeface. Ok, this is an extreme case, but keep in mind that like architecture, industrial design and graphic design, each typeface is born in a specific history moment, with specific necesities and provides solution to specific problems. For instance, you can’t use Garamond for a teens magazine. And you may argue that Garamond is clearly legible, but the fact is that even so, Garamond belongs to another age, another kind of reading, another kind of content, and even belong to another paper and ink.
Erik Spiekermann says:
“Most good typefaces have been designed for one purpose, they do not come from a designer’s whim. Bodoni designed all his faces for specific books, Times was designed for the newspaper, Frutiger for signage at Charles de Gaulle airport, Helvetica to appeal to certain graphic designers, Bell Gothic for the American telephone books, Gill for a shopfront, Century for a magazine, Meta for the German post office.”
Sjoerd Hendrik de Roos y Jan van Krimpen agreed “that new technologies need new letterforms” and it’s absolutely true. Can you imagine spencerian calligraphy on your cellphone display?
3. Is it good for your printing or display medium?
Let’s take on the previous example about spencerian on your cellphone display: what about printing? Spiekerkmann created Meta for the German post office, and it would’ve worked great printing on low quality paper, just like Fedra or Officina. They’re rock solid when it comes to low budget corporative images. On the opposite side, we found John Baskerville and it’s Baskerville typeface. He even had to invent his own paper and ink to make them print perfectly. You can’t printing those nice serifs on porous paper where ink gets all the paper wet. Make sure the typeface suits the printing medium.
Nowadays all fonts are made on screen so they usually look good on screen. Small sizes is a different story. Bad typefaces, those really cruel, don’t have hinting that allows them to display properly at small sizes. They look blurred, they hurt your eyes. Don’t use them for those small sizes.
On the other hand, be careful not to use fonts that are not intended to be used in small sizes. Fedra Sans Display can’t be used at a tiny size, it must be used at a large size, that’s why it’s a Display font. In this case for example, you should use Fedra Sans for composing small text.
Further reading and interesting font foundries
Dutch Type, by Jan Middendorp. Complete view on Google Books.
The elements of typographic style (page on Wikipedia). Buy it and read it, it’s awesome.