Which type styles are best?

by Fred Showker

Questions from our workshop attendees...

This is a loaded question even though it comes up at least once at almost every workshop. The selection of type styles is largely a matter of personal taste and utility. The answer is usually different for each example. To understand what works and what doesn't, some basic rules should be observed.

First, you should always be careful not to allow typographic technique to be its own goal. These days the DTP and design writers in magazines are having a tough time coming up with things to write about. Typography is always an easy hit, so we're continually reading about this rule or that. Sooner or later the uninitiated will begin to assert some of these techniques just for the sake of the technique.

Kerning*, for example, was highly popularized with some of the early DTP programs. Suddenly every headline and title was kerned. Although that's OK when done properly, and in good taste, kerning for the sake of kerning usually turns out to be obvious to the reader.

People read for a specific purpose.

Anything that stands in the way of the reading process is wrong. The communication process must be the sole purpose of any inventiveness. I urge you to ask four questions about any typographic project you're about to undertake:

1. How can I best expose the meaning of the text?
2. How can I make the reading seem easy?
3. How can I make understanding effortless?
4. How can I present this type so it will be perceived as "reader-friendly"?

Remember: these should be the goals of design applied to typography. All creativity and imagination should be applied strictly to the service of these goals.

Typefaces speak to your audience

You should always select a typeface that speaks to the audience in a tone that best reflects the subject matter without sacrificing readability. Your type combination will usually work when you establish and maintain a type hierarchy. Type weight is all-important in reinforcing your message levels. Headlines become heavy, subheads become bold, text is medium (perhaps even light) and italics for stress or emphasis.

Following these rules you can't go wrong.

Serif typefaces are best used for text. They are more comfortable to read, and lead to quicker understanding. I personally like text faces that have rounded or near-pointed serifs because they allow more white space in and around each character. Slab-serif style faces like Rockwell, City, and even square serif Egyptian are a little less friendly than faces like Baskerville, Bell or Garamond. Newer faces like Stone Serif and Galliard also make for fine reading.

Rockwell   Baskerville   Bell

Sans-serif type is usually ideal for display type like headlines, subheads, pull-quotes and captions because it is "type that stands apart." Sans can be used to add impact to a layout. I personally like the classic sans-serifs like Helvetica, Frutiger, and Franklin Gothic. (I really like Franklin Gothic Condensed for an excellent all-purpose, heavy sans-serif!) You may like some of the more modern sans faces like Syntax Sans, or Kabel. You'll also find sans to be the better selection in forms, and table text.

Helvetica   Frutiger   Syntax Sans

Without the serifs however, there will be less differentiation between letters, so the sans style can become a barrier to readership. Sans-serif type always needs a bit more white space around surrounding the characters and setting

Display and Decorative Fonts

Display or decorative fonts like Lithos, Droplet and others should be used with great discretion. These fonts are intended to be more ornamental than informative, so they should be reserved for headlines and display only. Script and Black fonts (Cursive, Old English, Celtic, etc,) fall into this category as well and should never be used in all-caps or in text situations.

As to helping you decide which fonts to use, I urge you to experiment. Allow yourself plenty of time and try various combinations. Remember to tack your proofed-out laser pages on the wall and stand back.

QUESTION Do the faces work together?
QUESTION Are there sufficient reader clues?
QUESTION Does the "look" support and reinforce the intentions of the copy?

Try Helvetica Black Condensed for heads contrasted against Garamond light for text. You'll find that your subheads don't need to be much larger than the body text to grab real impact, to "lead" the reader. If you're looking for a bit more progressive look, try Antique Olive for heads and Bulmer, Palatino or Melior Light for text. (Melior's square-oval circles are the perfect pairing for Olive.)

Helvetica and Garamond setting at 24 point

For homogenous design, where you use the SAME FACE for all the text, look for a serif with just a little personality so your heads and display type will have a little distinction. Try Zapf Book for it's smart extravagance, or Trump Mediaeval for its classic posture. To push the envelope, try Silica.

Zapf Book   Trump Mediaeval   Silica

These are merely suggestions. The final decision is up to you. If it is easy to read, and communicates the feeling of the message or audience, you'll probably come up with a hit, no matter which face you use!

Thanks for reading

Fred Showker

Don't forget ... we encourage you to share your discoveries about favorite or famous graphic designers and illustrators with other readers. Just comment below, join the forums for discussion, or give me a tweet at Twitter/DTG_Magazine

This article "Which type styles are best?" was originally published in 1993, as part of our responses to workshop attendees in our Dynamic Graphics "Creative Layout Techniques" seminars. The original page is here

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On February 3rd, Duncan Long said:

While the serif fonts are certainly beautiful and therefore look attractive in books and other print materials, it's my understanding that there really is little or no research that indicates that serif is easier to read than are sans typefaces (there is bogus research - but let's not go that route).

I suspect that today's reader is "typeface literate" to the point that most can read sans just as quickly and accurately, and with just as little "eye fatigue," as they will experience when reading a serif typeface.

That said, there are modern publications where a nice sans type might actually project more of the image they are trying to promote. For such a publication, it would be a clear mistake to choose a serif just because it is "easier on the eyes" during reading.

Freelance cover illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, American Media, Fort Ross, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other publishers. See my cover illustrations at: http://DuncanLong.com/art.html

On July 17th, Steve said:

Thank you for paying attention to this important question.

Well, it is really very important to select the right font. Sometimes at a first glance at the article I find it too wordy and do not have any desire to read. On the other hand nice fonts and the context too make me read even the longest posts. And as for the design, I'm sure it is the audience to decide what it likes most.

We provide the product not for us but for our audience and we should take into account their tastes first of all.

Best regards,


On September 7th, Stu Gee said:

Regarding Duncan's comment: "There really is little or no research that indicates that serif is easier to read than are sans typefaces"

There is indeed research about this, and it is not bogus. Surveys were done in with readers in America and in Germany as to the legibility of serif or sans serif font text. The German readers preferred sans serif; the American readers preferred serif. Why? Because that's what their educational text books used when they learned to read in school. Remember the "Dick and Jane" readers? They used the strongly serifed Century Schoolbook font. And what font did German children grow up reading with? Helvetica.

The point being: It's not about the superiority of Serf vs. Sans Serif . . . It's about what people are comfortable with, and their association of familiarity with a successful reading experience.

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On October 11th, Technology Guide said:

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