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Choosing a typeface with the teXt FACTOR

by Rob Threadgold

Choosing the right typeface for a communication piece is important; you’re setting out your stall as to how you want your message to be portrayed before it’s even read. It’s rather like when you get up in the morning and decide what clothes to put on – you’re probably thinking about what the weather’s like, what mood are you in, etc. People will then judge you on how you look, especially if they are seeing you for the first time. However, the problem with choosing a typeface is: where do you start with the thousands available to you?

Typefaces fall into just a few categories: Serif, Sans Serif, Script, Display and Symbol. There are other categories which cross over these – such as Slab Serif, Semi Serif, Formal Script etc. – but we don’t need to worry about them for now. Each category will have numerous fonts which convey various moods (fun/serious/impact/traditional etc), which is where it becomes much more subjective if you’re aiming to set a particular tone. If you don’t know the difference between these categories, you probably shouldn’t be selecting typefaces for communication pieces yourself!

Here’s a brief description of each typeface category:


Originally very traditional typefaces, with small decorative lines added as embellishment to the basic form of the characters – which some people call tails. Here are some basic but popular Serif fonts you may know: Times Roman, Bodoni, Perpetua, New Century Schoolbook, and Palatino.

San Serif

A font is Sans Serif if it lacks the little extensions or tails that are sometimes on characters. Here are some basic but common Sans Serif fonts: Helvetica, Avant Garde, Arial, Geneva and Verdana.


These fonts are designed to have personality; they’re more elaborate, have expressive shapes and ‘usually’ a more stylish look. You should be aware that, in general, they do not possess great legibility and readability for long galleys of text at small sizes. Here are some basic examples of Display fonts: Impact, Hobo, Art Deco and Engravers.


Script typefaces are built on the diverse and fluent stroke of handwriting. Again, not great legibility and readability for long galleys of text at small sizes, but good to use in the right place. Here are some typical examples: Brush Script, Damien, Champignon, Pacifico.


The symbol font sets are icon-based typefaces, every keyboard character having an icon/image which can be used in-line with text. You can probably rule out these speciality fonts straight away, but I’ll leave that for you to decide. Here are some popular Symbol fonts: Zapf Dingbats, Symbol Signs and Web Symbols


Although there are no hard and fast rules about what typeface should or should not be used on any given project, you can still select a typeface that will do the job well relatively quickly, with three simple steps. 

1. Choose the right category for your media. Online, printed – or maybe both.

ONLINE: It’s safe to say that the cleanest and most legible typefaces for body copy are ‘San Serif’. Have a look at websites such as Google, BBC.co.uk or even HMRC.gov.uk where information delivered clearly is absolutely key to the end user. One reason why online projects lend themselves to Sans Serif fonts is that most computer monitors will only display at 72 pixels per inch, whereas printed media is normally produced at well over 1000 dots per inch. The lesser resolution on monitors will make small complex serif characters harder to read than an equivalent Sans Serif typeface.

PRINTED MEDIA: Both Serif and San Serif typefaces will work well for the body copy. It may be of interest to know that Serif typefaces when used in print (as body copy) work really well because the individual letters are more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. 


2. Decide what you want your typeface to convey to the reader. 

Do you want your typeface to have impact without too much sophistication? Do you want something fun, or maybe something clinical? Think about if you want traditional or modern. Make a list of buzz-words that suit what you’re looking for.


3. Work out how many levels your typeface needs to cover.

Headline/Sub Heads/Body Copy/Captions/Small Caps etc? A lot of typefaces do not have many levels, so it’s important to make sure that you know how many levels you are likely to need before you select a font. You may have an idea to pair a font for headings, but ‘Font Pairing’ is a topic for another day!


Now it’s time to get down to your selection. If you don’t have many typefaces already installed on your computer, your selection process will be very easy. However, if you are looking to use something a little different you should go ahead and purchase a family of fonts; they’re not too expensive and can make a big difference to your end result. Have a look at this website (www.fontshop.com) which I find very useful for typeface selection, but remember… don’t just use something you like the look of: make sure you’ve done your homework first. And one final tip for you…


If you’re still unsure, then maybe you should think about giving the brief to a design house like us! Although you should also be aware that, as an agency, we don’t follow the rules; we create them...

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