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Making Font Choices


In our last post, we talked about the different categories of fonts and how to tell them apart. So, naturally, this post is about pizza, sort of … hang on for an illustration.

on fonts and food

On Fonts and Food

Imagine that you are having a couple of friends over for pizza, and they will be showing up in about 15 minutes. You have your hand-tossed dough, sauce spread, cheese sprinkled*—the perfect blank canvass. Now what toppings are you going to choose?

Are you in the mood for something light and hip, like organic spinach artichoke arugula? Or do you want to pile on the fatty pepperoni, sausage, ham, and bacon in a no holds barred extreme meat lovers combo?

But you could see how the delicate arugula and greasy pepperoni might not work as well when paired together, right?

Before I stretch this dough metaphor too far—choosing fonts is a little like choosing pizza toppings. You should pick fonts that work well together and support the mood or feel of your overall design.

Making the Choice

Here’s a simple process that you can follow as you start picking fonts that will help you narrow your choices.

1. Read

Sounds basic. But take the time to read the text you’ll be setting, and ask yourself a few questions about it.

  • What does it say?
  • How does it sound?
  • What’s the tone of voice? Is it serious, friendly, sarcastic, etc.?
  • Is there a lot of it?
  • Who is going to be reading it? Your buddies, your grandmother, etc.?

2. Brainstorm

Write down a few key words on how the text feels, or should feel (ex. use words like “formal,” “funny,” “whimsical,” “strong,” or “serious”).

You will likely want fonts that communicate those same key words. Look at the fonts available to you, and ask yourself what kind of mood or voice they have. What invisible messages or hints do they give you?

different font moods

Of course, this can be subjective. Some fonts could overlap several different moods. Some fonts will be so neutral that they don't have a discernible mood (I’m looking at you, Helvetica).

3. Experiment

On with the fun! Start playing with different fonts until it feels right. Until the message of the words themselves and the design are one; or put another way, until all of the components agree on a consistent theme.

There’s going to be more than one right answer. Your choice may be different than mine, and that’s OK.

Here are some of my experiments setting the same phrase in the same color in several different moods.

Experiment 1

Experiment 2

Experiment 3

Experiment 4

Experiment 5

Experiment 6

Any of these may work in a given context. But do you see how each one sets a different expectation of what Friend Day might be like?

If you’re feeling stuck, here are a few things you could try:

  • Try a font you would never use, or don’t even like.
  • Look at the other elements on the page. How might they influence your choice? Are there strong geometric shapes, maybe a strong geometric sans-serif or a blocky slab-serif would work well. Is it more rustic and organic looking? Maybe a hand-written font would suit you nicely.
  • Try choosing a font that is the opposite of what you want.

The wrong font will probably be more obvious than the right one.

Wrong Font 1

Wrong Font 2

Wrong Font 3

Wrong Font 4

Wrong Font 5

A Few More Tips

As you choose and pair fonts, here are a few more things to consider.

  • Limit your selection to 2 or 3 fonts. (Unless you intentionally want to create an eclectic or chaotic feel.)
  • When pairing fonts, choose ones that contrast strongly with each another. Think twice before combining two fonts of the same category (such as two oldstyle serif fonts).
  • Fonts that are complex, pretty, or fancy will sacrifice some legibility as their letterforms won't be as quickly recoginzed. Avoid novelty fonts for running paragraph text. Form follows function.
  • Consider using fonts that were intentionally made for your medium. For example, transitional serif fonts were created to be easy to read in print, and some fonts today, like Verdana, were made to be best viewed on screen.

Where to Find Fonts

If you find your library of fonts lacking, you’re in luck. There are more fonts available today than you can shake a stick at and hundreds of places to buy them online.

You can find some beautiful faces at Myfonts.com; there are even some for free.

You may also want to check Lost Type, an interesting type Co-Op.

There are also many sites offering fonts for free, like Font Squirrel. You will find free fonts of varying degrees of quality, but there are some hidden gems in the mix. Be sure to check the license restrictions of any free fonts you download to make sure they allow for your type of project.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at picking fonts, and feel free to add your comments.

*Yes, it is also acceptable to put toppings under the cheese and sauce on top, for all of you lovers of Chicago style deep dish pizza. For the purpose of this article, I assumed thin crust. smile

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