“What Font Should I Use?”: Five Principles for Choosing and Using Typefaces


For many beginners, the task of picking fonts is a mystifying process. There seem to be endless choices — from normal, conventional-looking fonts to novelty candy cane fonts and bunny fonts — with no way of understanding the options, only never-ending lists of categories and recommendations. Selecting the right typeface is a mixture of firm rules and loose intuition, and takes years of experience to develop a feeling for. Here are five guidelines for picking and using fonts that I’ve developed in the course of using and teaching typography.

1. Dress For The Occasion

Many of my beginning students go about picking a font as though they were searching for new music to listen to: they assess the personality of each face and look for something unique and distinctive that expresses their particular aesthetic taste, perspective and personal history. This approach is problematic, because it places too much importance on individuality.

The most appropriate analogy for picking type. (Photo credit: Samuuraijohnny2. Used under Creative Commons license.)

For better or for worse, picking a typeface is more like getting dressed in the morning. Just as with clothing, there’s a distinction between typefaces that are expressive and stylish versus those that are useful and appropriate to many situations, and our job is to try to find the right balance for the occasion. While appropriateness isn’t a sexy concept, it’s the acid test that should guide our choice of font.

My “favorite” piece of clothing is probably an outlandish pair of 70s flare bellbottoms that I bought at a thrift store, but the reality is that these don’t make it out of my closet very often outside of Halloween. Every designer has a few favorite fonts like this — expressive personal favorites that we hold onto and wait for the perfect festive occasion to use. More often, I find myself putting on the same old pair of Levis morning after morning. It’s not that I like these better than my cherished flares, exactly… I just seem to wind up wearing them most of the time.

Every designer has a few workhorse typefaces that are like comfortable jeans: they go with everything, they seem to adapt to their surroundings and become more relaxed or more formal as the occasion calls for, and they just seem to come out of the closet day after day. Usually, these are faces that have a number of weights (Light, Regular, Bold, etc) and/or cuts (Italic, Condensed, etc). My particular safety blankets are: Myriad3, Gotham4, DIN5, Akzidenz Grotesk6 and Interstate7 among the sans; Mercury8, Electra9 and Perpetua10 among the serif faces.

A large type family like Helvetica Neue can be used to express a range of voices and emotions. Versatile and comfortable to work with, these faces are like a favorite pair of jeans for designers.

2. Know Your Families: Grouping Fonts


The clothing analogy gives us a good idea of what kind of closet we need to put together. The next challenge is to develop some kind of structure by which we can mentally categorize the different typefaces we run across.

Typefaces can be divided and subdivided into dozens of categories (Scotch Modern, anybody?), but we only really need to keep track of five groups to establish a working understanding of the majority of type being used in the present-day landscape.

The following list is not meant as a comprehensive classification of each and every category of type (there are plenty of great sites on the web that already tackle this, such as Typedia’s type classifications14) but rather as a manageable shorthand overview of key groups. Let’s look at two major groups without serifs (serifs being the little feet at the ends of the letterforms), two with serifs, and one outlier (with big, boxey feet).

1. Geometric Sans


I’m actually combining three different groups here (Geometric, Realist and Grotesk), but there is enough in common between these groups that we can think of them as one entity for now. Geometric Sans-Serifs are those faces that are based on strict geometric forms. The individual letter forms of a Geometric Sans often have strokes that are all the same width and frequently evidence a kind of “less is more” minimalism in their design.

At their best, Geometric Sans are clear, objective, modern, universal; at their worst, cold, impersonal, boring. A classic Geometric Sans is like a beautifully designed airport: it’s impressive, modern and useful, but we have to think twice about whether or not we’d like to live there.

Examples of Geometric/Realist/Grotesk Sans: Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Avant Garde, Akzidenz Grotesk, Franklin Gothic, Gotham.

2. Humanist Sans


These are Sans faces that are derived from handwriting — as clean and modern as some of them may look, they still retain something inescapably human at their root. Compare the ‘t’ in the image above to the ‘t’ in ‘Geometric’ and note how much more detail and idiosyncrasy the Humanist ‘t’ has.

This is the essence of the Humanist Sans: whereas Geometric Sans are typically designed to be as simple as possible, the letter forms of a Humanist font generally have more detail, less consistency, and frequently involve thinner and thicker stoke weights — after all they come from our handwriting, which is something individuated. At their best, Humanist Sans manage to have it both ways: modern yet human, clear yet empathetic. At their worst, they seem wishy-washy and fake, the hand servants of corporate insincerity.

Examples of Humanist Sans: Gill Sans, Frutiger, Myriad, Optima, Verdana.

3. Old Style


Also referred to as ‘Venetian’, these are our oldest typefaces, the result of centuries of incremental development of our calligraphic forms. Old Style faces are marked by little contrast between thick and thin (as the technical restrictions of the time didn’t allow for it), and the curved letter forms tend to tilt to the left (just as calligraphy tilts). Old Style faces at their best are classic, traditional, readable and at their worst are… well, classic and traditional.

Examples of Old Style: Jenson, Bembo, Palatino, and — especially — Garamond, which was considered so perfect at the time of its creation that no one really tried much to improve on it for a century and a half.

4. Transitional and Modern



An outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking, Transitional (mid 18th Century) and Modern (late 18th century, not to be confused with mid 20th century modernism) typefaces emerged as type designers experimented with making their letterforms more geometric, sharp and virtuosic than the unassuming faces of the Old Style period. Transitional faces marked a modest advancement in this direction — although Baskerville, a quintessential Transitional typeface, appeared so sharp to onlookers that people believed it could hurt one’s vision to look at it.

In carving Modernist punches, type designers indulged in a kind of virtuosic demonstration of contrasting thick and thin strokes — much of the development was spurred by a competition between two rival designers who cut similar faces, Bodoni and Didot. At their best, transitional and modern faces seem strong, stylish, dynamic. At their worst, they seem neither here nor there — too conspicuous and baroque to be classic, too stodgy to be truly modern.

Examples of transitional typefaces: Times New Roman, Baskerville.
Examples of Modern serifs: Bodoni, Didot.

5. Slab Serifs


Also known as ‘Egyptian’ (don’t ask), the Slab Serif is a wild card that has come strongly back into vogue in recent years. Slab Serifs usually have strokes like those of sans faces (that is, simple forms with relatively little contrast between thick and thin) but with solid, rectangular shoes stuck on the end. Slab Serifs are an outlier in the sense that they convey very specific — and yet often quite contradictory — associations: sometimes the thinker, sometimes the tough guy; sometimes the bully, sometimes the nerd; sometimes the urban sophisticate, sometimes the cowboy.

They can convey a sense of authority, in the case of heavy versions like Rockwell, but they can also be quite friendly, as in the recent favorite Archer. Many slab serifs seem to express an urban character (such as Rockwell, Courier and Lubalin), but when applied in a different context (especially Clarendon) they strongly recall the American Frontier and the kind of rural, vernacular signage that appears in photos from this period. Slab Serifs are hard to generalize about as a group, but their distinctive blocky serifs function something like a pair of horn-rimmed glasses: they add a distinctive wrinkle to anything, but can easily become overly conspicuous in the wrong surroundings.

Examples of Slab Serifs: Clarendon, Rockwell, Courier, Lubalin Graph, Archer.

3. Don’t Be a Wimp: The Principle of Decisive Contrast

So, now that we know our families and some classic examples of each, we need to decide how to mix and match and — most importantly — whether to mix and match at all. Most of the time, one typeface will do, especially if it’s one of our workhorses with many different weights that work together. If we reach a point where we want to add a second face to the mix, it’s always good to observe this simple rule: keep it exactly the same, or change it a lot — avoid wimpy, incremental variations.

This is a general principle of design, and its official name is correspondence and contrast. The best way to view this rule in action is to take all the random coins you collected in your last trip through Europe and dump them out on a table together. If you put two identical coins next to each other, they look good together because they match (correspondence). On the other hand, if we put a dime next to one of those big copper coins we picked up somewhere in Central Europe, this also looks interesting because of the contrast between the two — they look sufficiently different.

What doesn’t work so well is when put our dime next to a coin from another country that’s almost the same size and color but slightly different. This creates an uneasy visual relationship because it poses a question, even if we barely register it in on a conscious level — our mind asks the question of whether these two are the same or not, and that process of asking and wondering distracts us from simply viewing.

When we combine multiple typefaces on a design, we want them to coexist comfortably — we don’t want to distract the viewer with the question, are these the same or not? We can start by avoiding two different faces from within one of the five categories that we listed above all together — two geometric sans, say Franklin and Helvetica. While not exactly alike, these two are also not sufficiently different and therefore put our layout in that dreaded neither-here-nor-there place.


If we are going to throw another font into the pot along with Helvetica, much better if we use something like Bembo, a classic Old Style face. Centuries apart in age and light years apart in terms of inspiration, Helvetica and Bembo have enough contrast to comfortably share a page:


Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just picking fonts that are very, very different — placing our candy cane font next to, say, Garamond or Caslon does not guarantee us typographic harmony. Often, as in the above example of Helvetica and Bembo, there’s no real explanation for why two faces complement each other — they just do.

But if we want some principle to guide our selection, it should be this: often, two typefaces work well together if they have one thing in common but are otherwise greatly different. This shared common aspect can be visual (similar x-height or stroke weight) or it can be chronological. Typefaces from the same period of time have a greater likelihood of working well together… and if they are by the same designer, all the better.


4. A Little Can Go a Long Way

‘Enough with all these conventional-looking fonts and rules!’ you say. ‘I need something for my rave flyer! And my Thai restaurant menu! And my Christmas cards!’ What you’re pointing out here is that all the faces I’ve discussed so far are ‘body typefaces’, meaning you could conceivably set a whole menu or newspaper with any of them; in the clothing analogy presented in part one, these are our everyday Levis. What of our Halloween flares?

Periodically, there’s a need for a font that oozes with personality, whether that personality is warehouse party, Pad Thai or Santa Claus. And this need brings us into the vast wilderness of Display typefaces, which includes everything from Comic Sans to our candy-cane and bunny fonts. ‘Display’ is just another way of saying ‘do not exceed recommended dosage‘: applied sparingly to headlines, a display font can add a well-needed dash of flavor to a design, but it can quickly wear out its welcome if used too widely.

Time for another clothing analogy:

(Photo credit: Betsssssy25. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Betsey’s outfit works because the pink belts acts as an accent and is offset by the down-to-earthiness of blue jeans. But if we get carried away and slather Betsey entirely in pink, she might wind up looking something like this:

(Photo credit: Phillip Leroyer27). Used under Creative Commons license.)

Let’s call this the Pink Belt Principle of Type: display faces with lots of personality are best used in small doses. If we apply our cool display type to every bit of text in our design, the aesthetic appeal of the type is quickly spent and — worse yet — our design becomes very hard to read. Let’s say we’re designing a menu for our favorite corner Thai place. Our client might want us to use a ‘typically’ Asian display face, like Sho:


So far, so good. But look what happens when we apply our prized font choice to the entire menu:


Enough already. Let’s try replacing some of the rank-and-file text copy with something more neutral:


That’s better. Now that we’ve reined in the usage of our star typeface, we’ve allowed it to shine again.

5. Rule Number Five Is ‘There Are No Rules’

Really. Look hard enough and you will find a dazzling-looking menu set entirely in a hard-to-read display font. Or of two different Geometric Sans faces living happily together on a page (in fact, just this week I wound up trying this on a project and was surprised to find that it hit the spot). There are only conventions, no ironclad rules about how to use type, just as there are no rules about how we should dress in the morning. It’s worth trying everything just to see what happens — even wearing your Halloween flares to your court date.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, these five principles will have given you some guidelines for how to select, apply and mix type — and, indeed, whether to mix it at all. In the end, picking typefaces requires a combination of understanding and intuition, and — as with any skill — demands practice. With all the different fonts we have access to nowadays, it’s easy to forget that there’s nothing like a classic typeface used well by somebody who knows how to use it.

Some of the best type advice I ever received came early on from my first typography teacher: pick one typeface you like and use it over and over for months to the exclusion of all others. While this kind of exercise can feel constraining at times, it can also serve as a useful reminder that the quantity of available choices in the internet age is no substitute for quality.

Other Resources

You may be interested in the following articles and related resources:

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  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/3000679399_6167208211.jpg
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/samuraislice/
  3. 3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myriad_(typeface)
  4. 4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gotham_(typeface)
  5. 5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FF_DIN
  6. 6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akzidenz-Grotesk
  7. 7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_(typeface)
  8. 8 http://www.typography.com/fonts/font_overview.php?productLineID=100017
  9. 9 http://www.linotype.com/363/electra-family.html
  10. 10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetua_(typeface)
  11. 11 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/love-hate1.jpg
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/love-hate1.jpg
  13. 13 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/type-mash2.jpg
  14. 14 http://typedia.com/learn/only/typeface-classifications/
  15. 15 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/geometric1.jpg
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/humanist1.jpg
  17. 17 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/old-style1.jpg
  18. 18 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/trans1.jpg
  19. 19 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/modern1.jpg
  20. 20 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/slab1.jpg
  21. 21 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/wimpy3.jpg
  22. 22 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/bump9.jpg
  23. 23 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/gill3.jpg
  24. 24 http://www.flickr.com/photos/betsssssy/448434628/in/photostream/
  25. 25 http://www.flickr.com/photos/betsssssy/
  26. 26 http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/2241062332/
  27. 27 http://www.flickr.com/people/philippeleroyer/
  28. 28 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/menu-0.png
  29. 29 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/menu-v1.png
  30. 30 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/menu-v21.png
  31. 31 http://typedia.com/learn/only/typeface-classifications/
  32. 32 http://inspirationlab.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/so-you-need-a-typeface/
  33. 33 http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Typographic-Style-Robert-Bringhurst/dp/0881791326
  34. 34 http://www.pentagram.com/what-type-are-you/
  35. 35 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/11/04/best-practices-of-combining-typefaces/

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Dan Mayer's interest in graphic design began when he was five years old and visited a printing press on a 1979 episode of Sesame Street. Originally from the US, he recently spent five years in Prague teaching classes in design theory and history at Prague College and providing art direction for Dept. of Design. Dan currently freelances and splits his time between Prague and Berlin. His work and more examples of his writing can be found at www.danmayer.com.

  1. 1

    Absolutely amazing article!!!

  2. 52

    Great stuff. Thanks for posting.

  3. 103

    Thanks for it, Tips related to fonts are good.

  4. 154

    My age-old problem is solved. Thank you very much, Dan.

  5. 205

    Really a good article, well-laid and not overly pretentious. As for Egyptian: (quoting Wikipedia here)

    Following Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and dissemination of images and descriptions via publications like Description de l’Égypte (1809) an intense cultural fascination with all things Egyptian followed. Suites of contemporary parlor furniture were produced resembling furniture found in tombs. Multicolored woodblock printed wallpaper could make a dining room in Edinburgh or Chicago feel like Luxor. While there was no relationship between Egyptian writing systems and slab serif types, either shrewd marketing or honest confusion led to slab serifs often being called Egyptians, and many early ones are named for the subject: Cairo, Karnak, and Memphis. The common metonym “Egyptian” is derived from a craze for Egyptian artifacts in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century, which led typefounders producing Slab Serifs after Figgins’ work to call their designs Egyptian.[2] However, the term Egyptian had previously been used to describe sans-serif types in England, so the term ‘Antique’ was used by British and American typefounders. The term Egyptian was adopted by French and German foundries, where it became Egyptienne.

  6. 256

    now if you can get fools to stop stretching their fonts, we’ll be alright.

  7. 307

    Nice article…

  8. 358

    Nice article, thanks.

    @ Jim Krill, be careful when trying to be a smartass, you’ll eventually come across as a dumbass.

    “Acid test or acid tests may refer to: Acid test (gold), a test used to determine whether a metal is real gold or not. Ever since, a generalized term for “verified” or “approved/tested”.”

  9. 409

    A few things:
    1. Too bad you stayed so safe with your suggestions: Rockwell, Times, Courier, Futura, etc. Apart from Archer and Gotham you hardly name anything that’s been designed within the last 10 years, let alone outside the US. Check fontshop.com: they have lists of alternatives to the same old same old. We have some great new faces, designed by contemporary designers for contemporary typography, offering Open Type features, foreign language support and, above all, lots of character, if you pardon the pun.

    2. You could have given me credit for dedicating a whole chapter in my book “Stop Stealing Sheep…” showing that dressing for the occasion is a good way to look at type.

    3. Verdana a Humanist Sans? Optima a Sans?
    Optima is like a man who wears a belt and braces at the same time because he cannot decide what is safer. Optima has serifs and it doesn’t.
    The history of modern Humanist Sans was rewritten by typefaces like FF Meta (I know, I designed and this is a little embarrassing to point out) after the Postscript revolution in the early 90s. That started a whole trend of those faces, essentially reviving the category which had fallen behind the safe and boring Helveticas and their pale sisters.

    • 460

      Thanks for your input (Erik Spiekermann, everybody! – *clap, clap, clap*)

      In response to your points:

      1. As the intended audience for this article can best be defined as ‘advanced beginners’, it seemed appropriate to use ‘safe’, widely-used typefaces for my examples. You’re right, though, that the American bias reflects my own innate chauvinism.

      2. An embarrassing admission: I haven’t read ‘Stop Stealing Sheep…’. I don’t know why not, given that I’m a big fan of your work and also of the Typomania documentary you produced, but there you have it. I can only say that I came up with the clothing analogy on my own, so I’m a bit dismayed to find out that it isn’t an original idea.

      3. It’s true that no discussion of Humanist Sans is complete without mention of Meta and other Spiekermann faces. Mea culpa.

      • 511

        Martin Silvertant

        December 17, 2010 9:11 am

        I understand your reason to state “safe” typefaces as this article is aimed at less experienced typographers. At the same time though I feel like you’re giving the reader the misleading impression (although I know this wasn’t intended) that these typefaces aren’t only safe, but are also the kings of their classification in that sense that they could be considered the best, which is not (necessarily) true. Garamond for example is a beauty, but with all the typefaces that have been designed after Garamond, and especially within the last 10 years, Garamond probably wouldn’t even make it in a top 50 (of general typefaces; not of Garalde typefaces). But I also understand that these are just prime examples and it would be up to the designer to select the most appropriate typeface instead of a safe one, as you make clear in this article. I’m just saying I understand your reasoning as well as Spiekerman’s.

        • 562

          That’s well put.

          The main thing I’ve learned from writing this article is that, when discussing something as complex and contentious as typography, you have to put almost as much care into defining what the article is NOT about as you do into covering what you actually consider to be your subject matter.

          • 613

            Martin Silvertant

            December 18, 2010 2:53 pm

            I suppose that’s true, however I’ve given it some more thought, and I actually think I would have to criticize Spiekerman more than you in regard to the choices in typefaces. In fact, if you’re interested read what I’m going to comment on his post in a minute.

    • 664

      I was a bit nervous about the reaction that this article would get from what my old type teacher used to call ‘the bowtie crowd’– i.e., the authentic type experts. And, of course, nobody can carry a bowtie quite like Mr. Spiekermann: http://www.mockduck.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/spiekermann_officina_web.jpg

      • 715


        As a reader of this article, who was legitimately looking for insight on “what font should I use – five principles for choosing and using typefaces”, THANK YOU.

        Also, THANK YOU, to the commenters who posted links to further resources on the topic.

        To all you fancy font folk, who clearly are operating on another tier of design, not so many thanks. This was obviously meant as an introduction to font principles.

        If you want good typography out in the world, encourage it for novices too.

    • 766

      Regarding point 3:

      Your very short list of typefaces that have “rewritten” the “history of modern Humanist Sans”, which implies both being early and having humanist features, misses names like Meier’s Syntax (end of 60s) and Kuester’s Today Sans (end of 80s), maybe Moellenstaedt’s Formata (early 80s), and a few others. Judging by features that are typical of the Humanist Sans category like diagonal contrast, certain construction principles and proportions, these are actually more of Humanist Sans than Meta is.
      I would object to calling Optima a Humanist Sans not because it “has serifs and it doesn’t” (presence or absence of serifs is almost secondary when it comes to classifying typefaces) but rather because of its vertical rather than diagonal contrast which makes it a didonic (here called Modern) typeface.

      This goes by the assumption that the Oldstyle / Transitional / Modern distinction applies to serif and sanserif typefaces alike. On the other hand, this article only distinguishes between Geometric and Humanist sanserifs, which makes Humanist a catch-all category for anything non-Geometric.

    • 817

      Martin Silvertant

      December 18, 2010 3:09 pm

      “Too bad you stayed so safe with your suggestions” (Erik Spiekerman)

      Initially I thought I couldn’t agree more with that statement. Of course it gets tiring to see the same typefaces being stated in topics like these, and it almost seems to imply that these typefaces are the best you can find in their classification. However, I think it also makes a lot of sense to state “the same old”. Here’s my reasoning:

      The most obvious reason is the fact that typefaces like Garamond have been around for quite a while. Just about anyone—even amateur typographers—know Garamond by name, and to some extent may know what it looks like and even recognize it when compared to other types. Exactly for this reason it’s smart to use typefaces like these as an example. However, I can see why Garamond would be interchangeable for any other Garalde type to set as an example if you wouldn’t keep the following argument into account:

      All typefaces are based on previous typefaces to some extent. Of course there are still many typefaces being released which absolutely embody the spirit of their classification in regard to the very first types that would define each classification, however I’m sure unconsciously inspirations from other classifications sneak in. In other words, recent typefaces may be more beautiful and inspirational compared to the ones that defined each classification, but they could be considered less genuine. I mean, Garamond really is a Garalde typeface. A typeface like Comenia Serif is certainly a Garalde as well, but detaches itself from the initial forms of the first types of its classification due to modern inspiration from many other types. So, in conclusion, I think the worst thing you can do while writing an article like this is naming modern fonts as an example for each classification, and especially if your target audience is amateur typographers as opposed to knowledgeable type designers like yourself.

  10. 868

    Good debate, thank Mister Spiekermann and Mister Mayer!
    Found this interesting point of view, but you must read french: http://cdsonline.blog.lemonde.fr/2008/10/13/arretez-un-peu-de-me-schtroumpfer-lair-avec-lhelvetica-reloaded/

  11. 919

    hermann ihlenburg

    December 18, 2010 8:55 am

    good article but your type family classification needs work. Venetian is a separate class that predates Old Face (like Betamax and VHS?!). And I would divide Old Face into French and Dutch, as the latter types are more compressed, slightly emboldened and have a larger x-height. Forget about the person who calls Bembo French; it influenced the Parisians 30 years later but was the move away from Venetian to a true Old Face character. Clarendon is also another separate category and not Slab Serif (I know you were compressing info to make it fit) … your comment about nineteenth-century vernacular refers to French Clarendon which is a subset of the Clarendon family. Best wishes from your old typography teacher.

    • 970

      Martin Silvertant

      December 18, 2010 3:26 pm

      “Venetian is a separate class that predates Old Face”

      Not necessarily true. The term “Old Face” is an interchangeable term for “Garalde”, but can also include the Venetian types. My reasoning for this is that the Venetian types were so short-lived that they’re not relevant enough to name as a specific classification according to many people. The true impact came from the Garalde types. The Venetian types were merely the bridge from blackletter to the Roman type as we know it today. Of course the fact that the Venetian types lead to the creation of the Garalde (and then the Transitional and so on) makes it incredibly relevant, at least in my opinion. So yes, they should be named as a separate classification, but they don’t necessarily predate “Old Style”, because in many contexts they ARE Old Style. It’s the same as calling both Betamax and VHS “videocassette”, while no one would actually think of Betamax when you say “videocassette”; one would think of the VHS instead.

      And why would you further divide Old Style into Dutch and French? How is that relevant to this article? And why only these two? What about the distinctive types from other countries?

      Furthermore, I would consider Clarendon a Slab serif. You’re right though; it does deserve its own classification, which is Egyptian. But as with the Old Style, “Egyptian” both functions as its own category as well as it’s an interchangeable term for “Slab serif”. You might have to blame us modern people for having used such classifications incorrectly which eventually shifted or changed its meaning, thus causing confusion.

      • 1021

        hermann ihlenburg

        December 18, 2010 6:26 pm

        I am not going to waste time getting into an argument with you. the fact you classify Clarendon as a slab (or Egyptian– a term also initially applied to sans serif) and use Old style when the correct term is Old Face means you dont really know your history. The types that made the bridge from blackletter to Venetian are called Ferehumanistica; they too were short-lived but that doesnt mean we dismiss them, just as we dont scoop the italian, french and dutch types that lasted from 1495 until 1740 into one “old style” or Old Face category. If you want me to expand on this answer you can take my class.

        • 1072

          Martin Silvertant

          December 19, 2010 8:29 am


          Without a doubt you know more about type history than I do, however modern (and I have to admit in many cases incorrect) usage of these terms have shifted their meanings. I stand by everything I’ve said except for categorizing Clarendon as Egyptian and Slab Serif. That was foolish. I’m not that interested in these types for some reason, so I haven’t done proper research there. But how would you categorize Clarendon? As I said in my previous post, it does deserve its very own category, and I’ve often seen the name “Clarendon” used as a classification, though I find that a bit odd.

          I mean no offense, but who are you—or any other type historian—to dismiss “Old style” as a category, saying it’s supposed to be “Old Face”, while almost no one actually uses that term anymore? I understand you would like to stick with the older, and definitely more genuine and pure terms, however that doesn’t make everything else erroneous. Since the digital age we’ve been re-writing history (partially by simplifying it). With that being said, I do applaud you for trying to keep these terms alive.

          Also, I’ve heard about Fere-humanistica and as far as I know it’s a script. I didn’t mean to imply the Venetian type was the direct bridge from blackletter to modern types, but it was the introduction of the Roman type which further influences all typefaces that would come later. Whatever came before the Venetian type is not relevant in regard to this article.

          And I have to ask again, what relevance does a sub-classification as Dutch and French types bring to this article? The goal of this article was not to list all classifications and sub-classifications available (keep in mind what the target audience is), but to illustrate the differences between the main classes and how they should be selected according to your goal.

          • 1123

            There is a huge difference between French old style and Dutch old style types and that impacts how we select them for use. Suggest you read up on AF Johnson, Morison, Harry Carter, Mosley. One reason I avoid type discussion forums is you invariably find people who know nothing and just keeping asking you to provide more (& more) information. (The “little you know about fere-humanistica” is clearly an understatement!) Read Gerard Unger’s article in Quaerendo vol 31, no 3, for a lucid discussion of the problems of typeface classification…

  12. 1174

    Definitely an extremely informative article, but above all I was inspired by the clarity and wit conveyed within your writing. Dan, thank you for this. The writing style coupled with the pool of info covered definitely leave me feeling improved as far as choosing typeface goes.


  13. 1225

    Very well-written, comprehensible and useful!
    I found the article to have just enough depth of perspective to give a good introduction and inspiration to using typefaces more consciously. I’ve read previous articles on the same subject but found this to be the most valuable so far.

    Good job and thanks!

  14. 1276

    thanks for the nice article…i too get stuck with which typeface to use….your article is good and lets once categories…

  15. 1327

    Very solid article, thanks.

    [insert elitist-esque remark about particular type classification]

    history of typography – like eg architecture – is relevant insofar as the aesthetics informs/reveals this to the reader/viewer. The digital age never rewrites typography history but merely stript it of its highly interesting past. For consumers of type this is in most contexts irrelevant. Thus arguments about type history has little value – merely factoid kung fu – but arguments about contemporary type classifications are great. Clarendon probably deserves its own catagory as aesthetically is not really very ‘slabby’ . suggestions anyone.?

    • 1378

      Well, I think one’s options are to (a) generally define it as a Slab Serif; (b) define it as a Slab Serif, but as its own distinct model, separate from later Slabs, or, (c) define it as a bracketed serif and, as such, distinct from the Slab group. The third classification is probably most exact, but I think (i.e. hope) that readers can understand why I didn’t take the discussion to this place.

      • 1429

        Douglas Bonneville

        December 21, 2010 11:32 pm

        There is no point ever getting into a font classification kung fu fest. The simplified taxonomy you provide here is perfect for beginners and intermediate students, hobbiests and designers in the context of learning. In the context of studying a formal history of type, you might grab Bringhurst’s model and to better. But in the context of learning and pragmatic application, “sweeping generalizations” are perfect. You have to start somewhere. What person new to typography is going to understand, for example, a list of Serif types: Humanist, Garalde, Transitional, Modern or Didone (di-what?), New Transitional, Glyphic, etc. And that’s good for starters, but just starters :) First, they have to know what a serif is before they can understand what a slab serif is. Then they have to know what a bracket is before they can understand the difference between slab serifs and a Clarendon. If you start deep and wide like that, you’ll lose a learning opportunity on most people.

        Font classification systems are really dependent on the goal of the classification and the context. And you can carry any system too far, to the point you end up with one font per category :)

        Font classification is a bit like painting. In order to learn your palette you need to start with a limited set of colors that covers your primaries. As you learn how to handle “black”, you can then expand into the difference between Mars Black, Ivory Black, Payne’s Gray, etc. But to a novice artist, black is black, right?

  16. 1480

    This is a great article — especially for those in the beginning stages of learning design and typography. My favorite line is, “There are only conventions, no ironcad rules”. In my opinion, this is something that should be told to every creative designer.

    Thanks for the article!

  17. 1531

    Nice insights, but I’m so shocked about your finding in the very beginning that

    “Helvetica Neue …. like a favorite pair of jeans for designers.”

    I thought its only me who is obsessed with this font. Good to know that I’m not alone in it…

  18. 1582

    Alberto "Rabendeviaregia" Macaluso

    January 11, 2011 9:22 am

    Can I translate this post on my blog, putting a link to the original?

  19. 1633

    Nice article :)

  20. 1684

    Douglas B Kelly

    March 8, 2011 7:44 am

    Great article. Coming from an old school typography background (I remember keylining!) I think type face choices and their power is lost in todays design climate.

  21. 1735

    This was really helpful! I will be using this as a reference for some time to come.

  22. 1786

    A really helpful article for a beginner like me! Thank you :)

  23. 1837

    Thank you for this article, it helps me to understand typography better. I will be experimenting more with typography for my own projects.

  24. 1888

    This was a really good typography lesson! Thanks.

  25. 1939

    This is a WONDERFUL intro to typography. I’m going to share it with all my students. Succinct, clear, informative, and very readable. Thank you!

  26. 1990

    I agree that this was a great refresher. It’s good to get affirmation of advice I have been given before. Great article.

  27. 2041

    Almost forgot!!! I’ve seen the Orca Inn (on San Juan Island) do a brochure with a 100% Comic Sans and dazzling illustrations and it was SWEET!!! You can even use Comic Sans successfully.

  28. 2092

    Thank you so much this information is invaluable!

  29. 2143

    Great article! Has left me enthused and motivated to rework my typograhical thinking. Thanks again.

  30. 2194

    Thanks! Really helpful!

  31. 2245
  32. 2296

    Fab article. Referenced in a blog spot I wrote today. Mine was about typography for clients to read. Figure there are so many good articles for designers, I wouldn’t add much but was important for clients to understand typography. For all designers, I’ve sent them to this article.

    My post can be viewed at doricdesign.blogspot.com

  33. 2347

    Rajeev Prakash Khare

    January 31, 2012 8:02 pm

    Article is fantastic and full of technical information. I am Indian Language font designer and art director. Is a wonderful work for students, designer and teachers.

  34. 2398

    Fantastic, I learned something useful I can apply to my own site and work! What’s the font name used throughout most of this article in the main body? I like how easy it is to read, but I don’t know what it is. Thank you!

  35. 2449

    Thank you for the light!

  36. 2500

    I like your ‘don’t be a wimp’ contrast rule, very Robin William’y (the graphic artist/author, not the comedian)

  37. 2551

    great post.

  38. 2602
  39. 2653

    Great post – thanks so much! Just what was needed. Not to ‘duh’ and not too ‘uh?’….

  40. 2704

    Best non-profit charity fonts?

  41. 2755

    Thank you! It’s very useful article for me!

  42. 2806

    Nice article, thanks. I think I sometimes spend too much time choosing fonts and usually end up back at arial, futura, avant-garde, and times. I design something and use some other font that I agonized over and then look at the design a year later and shake my head say, “what were you thinking?”

  43. 2857

    Great post about using fonts. I’m still a big newb to web design and this really put things in a different perspective for me, as far as web design typography is concerned. Thank you!

  44. 2908

    This is really a great tutorial for typography basics. I’m a front end developer, but I really do need a solid, foundation in aesthetics and basic typography principles in order to be successful at what I do. Thank you so much.

  45. 2959

    What font type is this? I love it!

  46. 3010

    Moreen.N Kampabits

    January 20, 2014 11:04 am

    Thanks for good tuts, I have liked them and I believe that they have inspired many especially designers.

  47. 3061

    This was written extremely well. It was easy to follow for even the most basic reader. You chose a great analogy. I also love that you gave me lots to go on without becoming verbose in your explanations. Well done.

  48. 3112

    Martin Silvertant

    December 18, 2010 3:46 pm

    You seem to be more knowledgeable about Humanist Sans than I am, as I’ve never even heard of Today Sans. This makes me curious about what you think of Cora. Of course this is a new typeface which obviously didn’t re-write history, but it seems like Cora tries to find an extreme without turning into a “serif-less serif” like Optima. And what about a typefaces like Leksa Sans and Overlock, which seem to take it even a step further. Any thoughts?

    By the way, I’m not sure Optima’s vertical contrast is the reason why it shouldn’t be considered a Humanist Sans. I think it’s rather the fact that many of its letters might as well have been part of a modern Serif type. Look at the following letters: a, b (bottom part), c, e, f (top part), o, s and t.

    I agree with your last statement. I did miss the Grotesque and Neo-Grotesque categories. I don’t think it’s justifiable to put them together with the Geometric types just because none of them are based on—or perhaps rather inspired by—handwriting.


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