While some people may consider typography to be a science, it is not. It is actually an art. And I love it. I almost live by it. So much so that when I see some good typography, I feel jealous! Jealous in a “why didn’t I think of it?” way. And I think that it’s a very positive kind of jealousy to have.
People might believe that a huge collection of typefaces can help elicit interesting typography. But nothing could be further from the truth. Good typefaces are designed for a good purpose, but not even the very best types are suited to every situation. When I am working with a new typeface for a new project, I try to look at it from every angle and judge two simple things. One – if this typeface will be comforting to the readers’ eye and make it easy for them to consume the text? And two – if I am doing justice to an art that has a legacy of centuries?
While it does have a few guidelines, following them like rules which are set in stone is not going to do you much of a favour. But still, the guidelines can be a north star that steers you in the right direction. Here’s a framework that I personally try to follow and it has indeed helped me throughout my career.
To sans or to serif?
Most of us waste a lot of time attempting to prove that one is better than the other for long form text. But honestly, there is no conclusive proof regarding that. While some serif fonts work like a charm for long form content, others might not. And the same holds true for sans fonts too.
The best way to decide is to be objective about it. For example, some clothes are appropriate for a party but they won’t look respectful at a funeral. The same idea works for fonts too. My suggestion is do not get lost in technicality, try different combinations and then eliminate them one by one till you reach the ultimate choice. Get feedback from people who are not designers, or even creative professionals. They are the ones who will consume the content in the end, and their inputs matter the most.
Honour the content
This should be every designer’s mantra. For good designer, it is basically instinctive. Like a gut feeling. You can probably start by looking at similar kinds of works and study the types of fonts they use. See how easy or challenging they are to read.
Another way you can start is by choosing a few fonts. While it is helpful to narrow down your choices, always have a few additional font options handy. Because even some great typefaces look dreadful on screen and good typefaces such as Georgia or Verdana, which were developed especially for the screen, might end up looking bland on paper.
So choosing a typeface just because it is considered good, will do you more harm. Use the one that suits the medium and gels well with the content. Like Robert Bringhurst rightly said — “Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form.”
Lots of people have asked me how I choose a font for a particular communication. To be honest I don’t know the exact answer. In fact, I have never asked this question to any of my seniors. Obviously, I asked this to myself while looking at a piece of communication and figured out it is not just about choosing the right font, there are so many other things to consider.
I still have no fixed template but I think it is all depends on some basic points like what are you doing it for, is it an ad, a poster, a catalogue, a logo, or a brochure. There’s no formula. It’s like a creating a painting. When you start you have something, and by the time you finish, it become something else. Sometimes completely different from what you had started with. It is a process of interacting with the piece you working with.
Read it again and again
If you’re setting text, be it for a novel or for a headline on a Facebook ad, read it and read it well. It will give you important clues, not only for choosing the right typeface, but also help you enhance the overall design.
In addition to that try to understand the text as well. This might not be possible every time. Especially if you are working on a scientific magazine, a coffee table book, or adapting a design in a foreign language. Still try to understand the crux of the matter or theme of the text.
The viewer and the canvas
Who will read your beautifully set text? Doctors? Lawyers? Children? Senior citizens? Find out who the target group is if you don’t already have that information.
And if your text’s final destination is paper, then print it and see. Your carefully chosen font might look brilliant on screen, but become an eyesore on paper. Print and see for yourself before making the final call. If the text is for the screen, then check it on both PC and Mac, and at different resolutions.
Keep reminding yourself that the art of typography is all about the countless decisions you make. And most of them are subjective.
When in doubt, ask others (designers and non-designers) to read your work. After all, feedback is the cornerstone of great design, and it is no different in the case of typography.
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