An introduction to typography — part 1

How to select a typeface, where to find them and what’s the purpose?

By Katarina Fegraeus. First published on my personal blog.

Since I started designing, I’ve been very interested in typography. For me it’s a big part of graphic, web & print design — good typography can really lift a piece while bad typography can completely ruin it.

Getting into typography can be intimidating and confusing, there are so many things to keep track of — kerning, x-height, legibility, styles and weight and the list goes on.

There are as many opinions on typography as there are typefaces, here’s my take on it. Step by step.

One of the first steps in the process is selecting typefaces (some may disagree, but the terms font and typeface can be used interchangeably these days). There are literally thousands of different typefaces out there, ranging from free to several hundred dollars.

Free vs. buying

It’s very tempting to go on google and search for free typefaces if you don’t know where to start. There are some reasons why it’s advisable to look a little further.

Disadvantages

  • Some (not all, of course) free typefaces are poorly made, they might not have all the characters you need or might contain spacing problems (funny spaces between letters).
  • Free typefaces tend to get very popular and overused. I can often tell a design is made by a graphic design student because of what typefaces they have selected. When I studied, everyone used Lobster and it got boring fast.
  • I know students aren’t wealthy but typefaces take time to make, so downloading a 100+ font package from a torrent site isn’t very fair.
It’s very tempting to go on google and search for free typefaces if you don’t know where to start.

Alternatives

  • MyFonts has some cheaper typefaces, even though they can be hard to find. Check out the “Special offers” page or just browse the site, sometimes it’s not too expensive to buy one or two weights.
  • FontSquirrel has free typefaces and most of them are overused, but there are some good ones there. Same with Google Fonts.
  • You need an Adobe login to use Typekit, but the site has a lot of good typefaces that you can sync to your library or use on the web.
  • Typewolf has a PDF-guide to free typefaces that you can buy for €39. I haven’t used it myself but it can be worth looking into.
Examples of different typefaces

What’s the purpose?

Before deciding what typeface to use, you need to think about what you’re gonna use it for. Is it a body text for a long book? For a graphic poster? Different typefaces work for different purposes.

Here’s a very simplified list:

  • Body text: Serif
  • Headline: Sans Serif or Slab Serif
  • Graphic elements: Script or handwritten text
Is it a body text for a long book? For a graphic poster?Different typefaces work for different purposes.

Other things to consider:

  • Do you need to use the typeface for a website? Make sure there’s a web alternative for the typeface you’re choosing, uploading an image of the typeface is not an alternative for responsive websites. Also, the typeface rendered for the web will almost never look the same as in Photoshop, choosing a lighter weight for web can help as it usually looks thicker in your browser.
  • Will the typeface appear on a busy background (something I wouldn’t recommend for any typeface but you get the idea), or printed on a coloured background? Make sure the lines aren’t too thin or they won’t be visible.
  • Is it readable? A longer text with a script typeface is very hard to read. Same with typefaces that are too thick, only use these kind of typefaces for shorter texts like headlines.
  • Does it have a special meaning? A military inspired typeface might not be the best choice for a humanitarian organisation.
  • How many different typefaces are appropriate for this particular project? Don’t use too many typefaces or it might end up looking messy. Instead, choose fewer typefaces with different kinds of weights (thin, regular, bold, etc.) to make the design more balanced.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully this will help in the quest for the perfect typeface. Please contact me with any feedback. This article (and more) can also be found on my personal blog.

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I’m a Freelance Art Director & Designer currently living in Lisbon. Identities & branding, web design and typography excites me. I used to work at Animal Stockholm as an AD & Designer.