If you often find yourself wondering ‘what’s all the fuss about fonts, the hype with the type, and the lingo of the letters?’ then this one’s for you…
A few weeks ago, I had an amusing discussion with a client when working on her branding design – about fonts. About how much I love typography and the different message, emotion and personality you can convey with it, and how she really didn’t get what the big deal was. Fast forward to only recently, when I was designing branding for my husband’s new venture (he’s starting his own school – cue unashamedly proud plug: STEM School), and my husband also didn’t see what was so interesting about choosing the right fonts. In fact, when I presented two very different options to him his comment was simply ‘they look the same’!
I understand that not everyone gets as much joy from those pretty little letters as us designers, but I thought it might be helpful to give a guide for anyone struggling to get their heads around the topic.
Form & Style
There are many different styles to choose from when it comes to fonts but, in general, they each fall into one (sometimes more) of five categories: serif, sans-serif, monospace, cursive, and hand-lettering. Here is a basic rundown…
Serif fonts are probably what most people would consider a traditional typeface. They have those little kicks and flicks (serifs) on the ends of letters/characters, and they are the most widely used style in book publishing – mainly because it’s thought printed bulk text is easier to read in serif fonts, but this is an area of debate. Little tip that helps me remember: the word serif makes me think of an old country and western style sheriff wearing a cowboy hat and boots…just like serif letters wearing those lines and dashes.
Sans-serif fonts don’t have those little added bits. Sans means ‘without’ in French – so sans-serif typography is a font without serifs. They are often used for digital bulk text as they are supposedly easier to read on screens, but again this is open to opinion and there is no definitive rule.
A monospace typeface is made up of characters of equal width. In other words – each letter within the font is the same size horizontally…or at least close to the same. Monospace fonts are most common with traditional typewriters and often used in a standardised form for scriptwriting (as each letter being the same width on the page makes gauging the length of sentences easier). A monospace type can be serif or sans-serif…the key is that each letter has the same width.
The term cursive categorises fonts with joined up letters. So, instead of individual characters having space between them – they are connected together with strokes and sometimes loops. Another name for a cursive font is ‘handwriting’ but this is a bit ambiguous as it is possible to also have a handwriting sans-serif font without connected characters. Script typefaces often fall under the cursive category as they tend to include joined up letters with fancy or fun flourishes. Some cursive fonts can be used in bulk text, when they aren’t too elaborate, but they tend to be kept for emphasis and character rather than lengthy paragraphs.
Hand-lettering…I know what you’re thinking: ‘didn’t she just mention handwriting?’. I’ve put hand-lettering as a separate category because it covers a slightly different form than cursive or even sans-serif handwriting. Hand-lettering fonts are unique in style. They are created by hand, in the same way as putting pen to paper, with each letter and word being uniquely written (even if the pen is a stylus and the paper, a digital screen). They are very rarely used for bulk text and have lots of personality. I guess you could say they are a more authentic handwriting style than a cursive typed representation of handwriting. Instead of being something you type with a keyboard (though there are some convincing cursive handwriting style fonts available that look a lot like hand-lettering and let you do this – see the ‘cursive’ example above the ‘hand-lettering’ example) hand-lettering fonts tend to be used digitally for stand-alone and stand-out writing…almost being treated more as an image than text.
Personality & Message
Within each of those categories you’ll find thousands of different styles and variations and each has a slightly different personality and ‘message’. Let me explain…
Everything about the way a font looks creates personality and portrays a message. From the height to width ratio to the thickness of the strokes, from the density and size of any serifs to the spacing between letters (kerning and tracking), and from the overall shaping of characters to any quirks or flourishes.
Thicker/bolder typefaces can suggest confidence, earthy qualities or even playfulness. Whilst delicate, fine-lined fonts create ideas of elegance, romance, or sophistication.
Typography with strong contrasts tend to give the impression of being self-assured and stylised. Whether that’s in a serif font with both thick and thin strokes or a cursive type with exaggerated ascenders/descenders (the parts of a letter that go above and below the main text – such as the upper stroke of an ‘l’ or ‘h’ or the lower stroke of a ‘p’ or ‘y’).
Additional spacing between characters can make letters in some fonts look more airy or luxurious, but in other fonts it can make words feel awkward or clunky. Reduced space might make one font more endearing or approachable but another more grounded or striking.
It’s these subtle (or sometimes glaringly obvious) differences that create the ‘feel’ of a typeface, and more importantly the feel of your design or project.
Careful combinations of different styles can blend personalities and create a unique message for your branding. This also applies to other design projects or type considerations too – such as wedding stationery, typography-based prints, signage, book covers, product packaging…anything and everything that involves text.
Now, of course, the font your shopping list is typed in or the feel of your annual report typeface probably doesn’t matter…but the emotive connection your party invitation creates, or the message your brand fonts portray, does make a difference.
Sometimes you know instantly what category and personality of fonts you need for a project but other times it takes a lot of consideration (with trial and error) to create the perfect combination for the feel you are after. It’s this process I love. Working out the right selection of typography for a design makes my creative juices come alive.
If you’re still struggling to understand what all the fuss is about or want help with a creative project involving typography – do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.