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Choosing and Using Type

Choosing & Using Type

By Daniel Will-Harris

Type. In your lifetime you've seen billions of letters and millions of words, yet you might never have consciously noticed the typefaces you read.

Type is important because it's an unconscious persuader. It attracts attention, sets the style and tone of a document, colors how readers interpret the words, and defines the feeling of the page--usually without the reader recognizing a particular typeface.

TYPE IS YOUR PERSONALITY ON PAPER. Change your typeface and you go from casual to formal, silly to serious, staid to stylish, old fashioned to modern.

TYPE IS IMAGE. You'd dress your best if you were going to an important meeting, and your documents need to be well-dressed, too. Type can reinforce your image as a company or an individual. If you use it consistently enough, people will start to associate you with certain typefaces. They might find themselves thinking of you when they see that typeface, without knowing why.

TYPE IS POWER. Type has an effect on you even if you don't consciously notice it. You can use this power to your advantage to attract attention, strengthen your message, and improve your image, or you can overlook it and work against yourself saying one message with your text while conveying another with your font.

TYPE IS COMMUNICATION. Communication means relaying information about our logic and emotions to others. The better you learn to communicate, the better others will know you, and the better you'll know yourself because logic, emotion, and about 98-percent water are what you're made of.

TYPE IS IMPORTANT. The right typeface can encourage people to read your message. The wrong typeface or bad typography can make your message go unread.

The two most important things to remember...

There are entire books about using type (I've written several). People spend their whole lives studying the practice. But here's what it's all about:

Type is on the page to serve the text. It should make the words easy to read and provide a suitable background. Type should not overpower the text.

Type can be beautiful and decorative--but if type calls undue attention to itself or makes it more difficult to read the text--then it becomes self-conscious and distracting--like bad movie direction. Of course, some people will love this and tell you how brilliant you are--but they won't read the text. So what's the point?

There are no good and bad typefaces, there are appropriate and inappropriate typefaces. Think about your reader and the feeling you want to convey, then choose a typeface that fits.

Simplistic? Maybe so. But if everyone followed these two rules, you would have read more things in your life, and understood better what you did read.

Type Psych 101

The most common question I'm asked (besides "if you were a tree, what kind would you be (the answer, of course, is "Pecan") is "What font should I use?"

And the answer is "It all depends." The most important point you need to realize about type is that it's emotional. No, it's not going to get all weepy after watching Out Of Africa unless you printed it on an ink-jet printer and you're watching the movie in a convertible at a drive-in on a rainy night.

Type is emotional on a subliminal level because of the connotations it conveys. Here's the best example I can give (I've tried thousands of them and everyone seems to understand this one): Helvetica is the typeface used on IRS forms. Now, how do you think you're going to feel when you read something set in Helvetica? You may not consciously realize that it's the same typeface the IRS uses, you may not even know it's Helvetica. You may be under the impression that "Helvetica" is the name of a small imported sports car from Hell, or you may even know that Helvetica means "Swiss" in some foreign language (Latin). But none of that matters. What matters is that you've seen that typeface before, and not under the most pleasant circumstances.

Naturally, this little example only works in countries where Helvetica is used for tax forms. In Switzerland, where virtually everything is set in Helvetica (and tax forms end up looking like catalogs for both lingerie and heavy equipment--the kind you're not supposed to drive, or wear, after taking most over-the-counter cold remedies), then it won't have the same connotations that it has in the U.S.A.

What's Appropriate?

If your business is one that needs to be taken seriously, such as banking, don't choose a whimsical typeface such as University Roman or you'll lose credibility. If you have a fun business, such as a party service, don't use a serious typeface such as Helvetica or you'll come across as boring.

With that in mind, we get to the key to choosing the best typeface for the job: finding the most appropriate typeface. Not the prettiest, not the most space-efficient, but the most appropriate.

If you're planning on getting a tattoo like Cher or Roseanne, I suggest you forgo the cliché butterfly or heart and instead use the words "Most Appropriate." Aha, but what typeface will you use? Why, the most appropriate, of course.

If the absolutely most important thing about your document is that it has to be easy to read by anyone of any age with any kind of eyesight under any kind of lighting conditions, than the typeface you choose must fit those criteria and you'll probably end up with something that has a large x-height such as Cheltenham, Melior, or Serifa. If the most important thing is that it looks traditional, then you'll choose a typeface such as Centaur, Bembo, Bodoni, Galliard, Palatino, or Weiss. If you want something casual and friendly, you'll choose something like Cheltenham, Souvenir, or Bitstream Cooper.

How do you tell which font is Formal or Informal? Check out Esperfonto. Or look at it and decide for yourself. Hand out samples to readers and ask them what it reminds them of. Your particular readership may just love Helvetica, especially if they're tax accountants. So, you see, Helvetica really does have a place--when you want to scare people or look cold and heartless.

Here's the same text for a hotel set in different typefaces-notice what different feelings are conveyed, just by using different typefaces

Univers LinoScript

Think about your reader and the feeling you want to convey, then choose a typeface that fits If you aren't sure which typefaces are appropriate, visit Esperfonto. Esperfonto is an interactive system that helps you choose the most appropriate typeface for you particular job. Tell it if your piece is formal or casual, and then choose from a number of impressions. Esperfonto will then provide you with a list of typefaces that fit your needs. If you don't know what the faces look like, Esperfonto even provides on-screen samples.

Click here to see more dramatic examples of how different typefaces evoke different feelings.

The least you need to know to get the most out of type

Typographers would like you to believe that type is one of life's great mysteries. They say things like, "You can't use it correctly without years of experience," or "It's complicated and if you do it wrong you'll look like an idiot." These people are not unlike Parisians who make fun of you if you even try to speak French but don't do it perfectly.

Type doesn't have to be intimidating if you think about it like this: You've been looking at type for years. You've been reading it since you were a kid. You know what it looks like. It's obvious when it's hard to read.

At least 80% of typography is common sense (this is not just some random number grabbed out of the air; it's a random number plucked from my brain). Sure, there are a few things you learned in school that you need to unlearn, but overall, the basics of good type are just that, basic.

We'll start with the rules. Yes, yes, I know, you hate rules, but these are really short, simple rules--no dates, no capital cities, just a few simple things to remember. You don't even have to remember them if you don't want to, just put them up on the wall and check them once in a while.

  1. Body text should be between 10 and 12 point, with 11 point best for printing to 300 dot-per-inch printers. Use the same typeface, typesize, and leading for all your body copy.
  2. Use enough leading (or line-spacing). Always add at least 1 or 2 points to the type size. Example: If you're using 10 point type, use 12 point leading. Automatic line height will do this for you--never use less than this or your text will be cramped and hard to read.
  3. Don't make your lines too short or too long. Optimum size: Over 30 characters and under 70 characters.
  4. Make paragraph beginnings clear. Use either an indent or block style for paragraphs. Don't use both. Don't use neither, either.
  5. Use only one space after a period, not two.
  6. Don't justify text unless you have to. If you justify text you must use hyphenation.
  7. Don't underline anything, especially not headlines or subheads since lines separate them from the text with which they belong.
  8. Use italics instead of underlines.
  9. Don't set long blocks of text in italics, bold, or all caps because they're harder to read.
  10. Leave more space above headlines and subheads than below them, and avoid setting them in all caps. Use subheads liberally to help readers find what they're looking for.

Type Terms and Fundamentals

Avoiding the overused

Choosing Fonts using Esperfonto

References and Utilities

Copyright © 2000 Daniel Will-Harris,