How Do We Really Choose Typefaces?

There are common rules in choosing typefaces, factors that influence why we choose certain typefaces for certain projects.

Like legibility, of course.

Then, there’s purpose (for example, for the typeface Frutiger was designed by Adrian Frutiger for use in signage. The large x-heights allow easy reading from a distance).

Then we are guided by our content. What the content is, and how much of it. Serif typefaces work best for extended reading (due to the eye’s familiarity with classic serif fonts in books.) Some typefaces are just softer on the eyes than others, so we may tend to choose those. Sabon, for example is a typeface I love for reading.

There are also guidelines for pairing. In the same way red wine complements your tender juicy smoked beef brisket, a serif paragraph text elegantly complements a sans serif headline.

We are also advised to limit the number of typefaces.

And not to mention the chorus of designers echoing the request to please do not use comic sans.

Choosing typefaces requires logic, sense, and experience . Knowing how typefaces work based on experience allows you to make better choices.

But at the end of the day, we pick typefaces the same way we do our shopping. We make choices based on emotion. Then we justify them with logic.

Our own perceptions, intuition, biases, and tastes rule the game.

The general public is aware that Comic Sans is highly discouraged for official documents and presentation slides. But alas, Comic Sans still dominates the office and the projector screen. Because users love it and nothing you say will convince them that it’s a typeface for kids, not adults.

The late great Massimo Vignelli would choose from only a handful of typefaces. He said the world didn’t need any more than 12. So he ignored anything that wasn’t Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, or his all-time favorite, Helvetica.

“I don’t think that type should be expressive at all. I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.”

Massimo believed that “Design is utilitarian” and not art. His design focused on understanding problems and solving them logically, providing for “needs, not wants.” His philosophy in typeface design was an extension of these ideals.

“We like design to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant and above all timeless.”

And because of that, he kept in his design arsenal only fonts that were timeless.

Pentagram’s Michael Beirut, who worked for Massimo and was restricted by his boss’s typeface views, said that after he left his job with Massimo, “Suddenly I could use any typeface I wanted, and I went nuts. On one of my first projects, I used 37 different fonts on 16 pages.”

In a Fast Company article, he cites 13 reasons for using a typeface, and they are a mix of factors based on intuition, taste, and sense. For example “Because you like its history” or “because you like its name,” or “Because of who designed it.”

At one point I started to question why I was using Gill Sans because of a debate I read about whether you can separate a designer from their work.

“The industry needs to show people that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. We shouldn’t celebrate the work of a morally reprehensible designer; it sets a terrible example. It says that even if someone has done something awful to someone else, they’ll still be championed,” Erik Carter argued. Paula Scher, on the other hand, said, “but you can’t make a visual judgement about a typeface because the person who designed it is a predator. That’s insane. It’s pointless, actually. You could say that they shouldn’t get a royalty for it, but that’s another story.”

I haven’t used Gill Sans since.

Typographic choices reflect conviction, and in today’s age of heightened cultural awareness, and how everything you do, or choose communicates something, every little thing you do must support what you stand for.

We all love to break the rules

Michael Beirut himself ignored the “limiting typefaces” rule for the design of his own book, 79 Ways to Read About Design. “When I published my first book of essays, I wanted it to feel like a real book for readers — it had no pictures — so I asked Abbott to design it. He suggested we set each one of the 79 pieces in a different typeface. I loved this idea, but wasn’t sure how far he’d want to go with it.”

A lot of other things trump the rules — ideas, a sense of adventure, a story, your mood. And nothing is more powerful than the emotional drive behind the choices. How the typeface makes you, the designer, feel.

Typography is human after all. We rely on our eyes to make judgments. And despite how mathematically perfect and proportionate typefaces look, they look that way because of the human touch. Every detail adjusted and perfected by a typeface designer’s experienced eye.

That’s the beauty of typography and graphic design. The type is part of our language, influenced by perception, by pop culture, and even things we didn’t suspect influence our choices. That is why it’s fun, fulfilling and why we do it with so much passion, care, and obsession.