All About Fonts

Author: Roger Gimbel

Font choice is critical to the success of any design piece. Visually, fonts can make the difference between greatness or coming up short. Typography can impact the effectiveness of any communication or marketing project. If your type selection is too busy, reading can be difficult, and your audience may lose interest. The same can happen if the typography is flat and uninteresting.

But fonts also have certain personalities and convey different moods. A typeface or font matched to the personality or attributes of a specific individual or group can be the element that makes your overall designs resonate with the viewer.

Today’s variable printing capabilities give designers an enormous opportunity to match typography to audiences because they can change fonts on each piece within a variable campaign. Just keep in mind that font usage in variable documents can be a little trickier since fonts will display differently based on their own attributes.

Let’s take a quick dive into fonts: the elements and terminology of typography, and how to deploy them successfully.

Blueprint alphabet. drafting blueprint paper letters
Image by FreePik

TERMINOLOGY OF FONTS

Typeface vs. Font

Strictly speaking, a typeface is a collection of fonts, while a font is a specific form of a typeface. Helvetica is the typeface, but 14 pt. Helvetica bold, or 20 pt. Helvetica italic are fonts. These terms are increasingly used interchangeably. Today almost everyone assumes when someone uses the word font, they are referring to a typeface plus its attributes.

Kerning

Letters in any word have spaces between them. Kerning refers to tightening or loosening those spaces between certain character-pairs to create a more pleasing fit.

Leading

Leading is the vertical space between the lines of type. It can be changed to impact readability.

Alignment

Type in a column or page aligns in various ways. It can align on the left or right, leaving the other side ragged. It can also align in the middle with both sides ragged. Or you can justify text, aligning exactly on each side for a very boxy effect. Each of these alignments will affect how type flows to the next line.

Fibonacci Elegant modern typeface
Image by FreePik
Serif and Sans serif

Serif typefaces have a little stroke at the end of letters. Sans serif refers to typefaces without the strokes where the letters are very linear and clear. Helvetica is a sans serif typeface. Garamond has serifs.

Specialty Fonts

In contrast to regular fonts that people use in most documents are specialty fonts, like script, which mimics handwriting, or children’s printing, or elaborate calligraphy.

Weight and Size

Weight is the thickness of a font, usually expressed as light, regular, bold, or semi bold; size refers to the height of letters and is measured in points. Designers usually choose a 10 to 12 pt. type for body text, while they reserve larger type, 48 pt. to 72 pt., for headlines and display

Vintage label typeface named Liverpool
Image by FreePik
BEST FONT PRACTICE

Font or typeface choice for a design project is not a precise science. Some of it comes down to talent. A designer’s eye and experience will tell them which fonts go together to form a harmonious presentation. Designers consider which fonts are most appropriate for the audience they want to reach and the emotions they want to convey.

Even the most talented designers approach fonts with a few guidelines. When executing a variable printing project, you also need to consider how fonts will behave in a variable environment.

Retro alphabet
Image by FreePik
Choosing the Right Font

Fonts have distinct personalities and are associated with different emotions. Some are friendly, futuristic, practical, modern, quirky, playful, serious, and so on. Fonts should communicate and resonate with their intended audiences. Pieces that target doctors will use a different font treatment than pieces that target teenage skateboarders, for example.

When creating a variable campaign, designers can segment the audience into smaller groups based on certain criteria. You can, for example, target by profession, geo-location and time of year, age, or income bracket. You might choose to deploy a different typeface for each group, with corresponding images or copy.

Serif or Sans serif

Conventional wisdom once held that serif fonts were easier to read, but that thinking is losing support. Because of the internet and websites that tend to use sans serif more often, serif fonts are increasingly regarded as more traditional, while sans serif are seen as more modern. Both can be highly readable, depending on the typeface being used, how each typeface is deployed, and how multiple fonts are paired together. Fonts should complement or balance each other, or designers should use them selectively to create contrast and dynamism.

A more general guideline is to use fonts that are easy to read in the text, and get a little more creative with headlines, pull quotes and other display copy.

abstract modern minimal alphabet fonts typography urban style fun sport technology fashion digital future creative logo font
Image by FreePik
Hierarchy

Font choices, their weight, and their size not only create visual contrast and texture, but they also create hierarchy, a visual clue for readers to recognize the most important elements on a page. A call to action, for example, should be easily seen. A headline should be punchy. Headlines are the first things anyone sees on a page. They help draw readers into the piece.

Hierarchy can be subtle, dynamic, or loud, but it should be clear to readers within seconds. The eyes should take the information in as you intended.

Simplicity

The abundance of typefaces can be a bit like being in a candy store. You want to take one, or two, of each. It’s a common mistake, especially when one is starting out, to use multiple typefaces with abandon. The result is seldom pleasing.

In fonts, as in most things, moderation is the key. Most magazines, for example, use a maximum of three typefaces. Websites use one or two. Simplicity is cleaner, more elegant, and easier to read.

Considerations for Variable Documents

Variable projects give you latitude to experiment in a way that is simply not possible with static documents. But you need to keep a few things in mind.

When you’re creating a variable project, you will create spaces in your documents into which the software will place the content. Part of the planning process entails knowing how much space to leave, based on your longest and shortest variable elements.

Fonts have different widths, weights, heights, and other attributes. These attributes will affect how type fits or flows in certain fields. A paragraph in one font may fit on four lines, while the same paragraph in a different font may require four and half, or even three lines. You’ll need to adjust for this.

Also be aware that using variable images in various sizes will create a lot more complexity. Images with a consistent size and shape will be easier to work with, eliminating a factor that makes predicting space for variable text more difficult.

If you’re working with numbers, especially in financial documents where figures align vertically over the decimal point, it may be difficult to kern the numbers. Most fonts assign the same space to each number.

The world of typefaces is vast and varied. It’s also more complex than one might expect. A few basic rules will help you gain command over the intricacies of typeface usage and help you turn out more effective designs.

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