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What Font Should I Use? 5 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. [Links checked March/03/2017]

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.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

1. Dress For The Occasion Link

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: Samuuraijohnny5. 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: Myriad6, Gotham7, DIN8, Akzidenz Grotesk9 and Interstate10 among the sans; Mercury11, Electra12 and Perpetua13 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 Link


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 Link


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 Link


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 Link


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 Link



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 Link


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 Link

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 Link

‘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: Betsssssy16. 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 Leroyer18). 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’ Link

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 Link

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 Link

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

(ik) (vf)

Footnotes Link

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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

  1. 1

    John Mindiola III

    December 14, 2010 7:11 am

    This is a nice introduction to typography. I’ll share this with my students. Rule #5 is gold.

  2. 2

    Sander Wehkamp

    December 14, 2010 7:13 am

    I really like the typefaces you’ve displayed here. Especially the grouping fonts gave me some insights about what to use in a project i’am working on at the moment.

    Thank you.

  3. 3

    Great refresh on typography!

  4. 4

    I believe you mean “litmus test” not “acid test”. Good article, though. I hate choosing fonts, but these 5 principles are very helpful.

  5. 5

    Rizqi Djamaluddin

    December 14, 2010 7:24 am

    An extra tip I learned to love (and mentioned in passing in the article, but I think it needs more attention): If two fonts will be in close proximity, try to keep the x-height (the height of a, say, lowercase ‘m’) the same. I found that this can highly influence the readability of the fonts. It can be the difference between an enjoyable read, and eyes uncomfortably re-adjusting every time they come across a page header.

    Also, contrast plays a very big role as well.

    Good article!

  6. 6

    I love typography! It’s my favorite part of design. Great article indeed.

  7. 7

    Great Article .. and absolutely correct rule #5..

  8. 9

    You forgot the number one rule: Never use Comic Sans.

  9. 11

    Brilliant article. Very well written with some solid, practical advice. It came just at the write time for me as I was just designing a website with some very close matches – Minion Pro and Chaparral Pro together. I realised that Minion wasn’t really required and Chaparral was adequate on it’s own, with it’s various weights and styles. Looks a lot better now.

    One interesting thing I’ve found is that people often suggest serif for body and sans-serif for headings when you’re mixing fonts. But I often prefer it the other way around. Is there a reason people keep suggesting this? Personally I like to have a nice serif as a header, showing off it’s character and style, with a clear, readable sans-serif in the body. Or is that just wrong? Like eating the sweet before the savory?

    Again, great article.

    • 12

      Douglas Bonneville

      December 14, 2010 8:34 am

      Oggy: the sans header / serif body pair is taken from it’s basic effectiveness in newspapers. It’s easy to read big headlines from across the street, so that you go buy the newspaper! We live in a rapidly changing environment, and perhaps the necessity for big headlines has lessened somewhat, but it’s basic effectiveness still remains. That said, a serif body copy is a better choice if there is a lot of text to read, but “a lot” is a subjective term. “It all depends” as they say :)

    • 13

      Good answer from Douglas Bonneville (whose article on combining typefaces everyone should read: )

      I would also point to the historical precedent for the sans header / serif text match. Sans faces existed in the 19th century, but largely just as a novelty item for headlines and other display contexts– nobody thought of setting an entire text in sans until the early 20th century. And even as widely-used as sans faces were used in the mid- and late- 20th century, it wasn’t until the coming of the internet that we really got used to them as a body text option.

      • 14

        It seems I get wallpapers that make me smile when I click on your link, Dan. Here is a another, just for the lazy folk like me to quickly click:

        Both of these articles are excellent and really help a want-to-be designer like myself. Thanks.

        • 15

          Thanks, Seth– I borked the link first time around.

        • 16

          Thanks for the answers guys! That was one of the articles I read that suggested it and was one of the original reasons I had the question. I suppose serif are considered more ‘readable’. Didn’t know that they weren’t using sans-serif in body for that long though!

          Although I do agree with Chris below too. I’m quite partial to a good slab (Sentinel, for example).

    • 17

      I’ve never understood why someone would put a serif as copy on a webpage either.

      Lately I’ve gotten into Slab Serifs as headings and Humanist copy and it works well, IMO.

    • 18

      for long bodies of text serif is easier and faster to read on the eyes.

  10. 19

    Amazing article. Will be use in my projects.

  11. 20

    Hugh Shannon Myers

    December 14, 2010 8:42 am

    Great article, but why is it that no one ever mentions pi fonts dingbats and other traditional printer’s tools. Since I deal with typeset chess diagrams I’d really like to see at least some recognition that there is a bit more to the typographic universe than what this and similar articles suggest. Please don’t miss-understand, given the lack of typo information for most of the history of the web and the insane notion (thank you Sir Lee!) that user’s rule when it comes to page design any information about one of the loves of my life is appreciated.

  12. 21

    Do more stuff on typography! Please please please! I really like these articles. :3

  13. 22

    I LOVE your analogy! Reading about your favorite piece of clothing and the analogy using coins made me laugh (in a good way). :) I wish I had you as my typography teacher when I was in college!

  14. 23

    This article is very helpful for a basics, student-teacher approach, but it stops short of meaningfully discussing how fonts should create an appropriate look at the higher level. In the larger picture, it’s important to examine the competitors of any client you are picking a font (and colors, and graphics) for, identify what the current overall “look and feel” is for the industry or type of business, and make sure that you are creating a look that has uniqueness and freshness within the visual language that is already established. If you get too far off base, with fonts or any other visual element – you’ve lost your client’s audience, especially online. The larger and more visible the industry, the more important accuracy in this area is. Alternatively, using an “unexpected” font where the rest of the visual language is right on target, can be very powerful. I’d like to see a higher level exploration of font usage (and other topics) that are beyond the basics – I love Smashing, but am discouraged right now with articles that are uniformly covering the lowest-level basics that there are in font usage, photography, and similar topics. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been a regular reader long, but… When do we deep dive?

  15. 24

    I’d like to see a more advanced version of this post (this is truly for beginners)

    • 25

      @Deborah and David Platt: I understand where you’re coming from in terms of deeming this article too beginner-ish. The impetus of this article came out of my observation that most resources for typography (especially those available online) focus only very basic distinctions (‘sans vs. serif’), or else have so much technical and taxonomical detail (’30 different classifications of type!’) that they do little to humanize the subject and make it accessible to beginners. While I hope that this article fills a gap for less experienced designers, I recogize that it’s not really appropriate for more sophisticated folks.

      My feeling is that it would be a good thing if more people wrote about type from a personal and subjective viewpoint and brought their own priorities to the table. With that in mind, Deborah: you should absolutely propose an article for Smashing Mag with your ideas about type. It would make a good read!

  16. 26

    Thanks for the post. I wish there were a way that all my fonts were collected in these groups when I go to choose one, instead of simply alphabetically.

    • 27

      That’s actually a great idea! Anyone know of any way to do this?

      • 28

        If you use something like universal type server/client from extensis you can categorize your type faces and search them by style. Also you can create groups of references to the fonts without duplicating the files, allowing you to create a bunch of stored pairings. I do this at work when I’m bored. :)

  17. 29

    Great post. I’ve been doing some studying on typography to figure it out better and your analogy was quite effective. Thanks.

  18. 30

    GAH! I had a very similar article written in draft form, but this is really excellent. I like the consolidation of type families that really don’t differ all that much.

  19. 31

    Thank you for this post.
    I loved “So You Need a Typeface” by Julian Hansen and I created an interactive version to it:

  20. 32

    Helvetica rules!

    But some serifs are best for readying eg.,

    • 33

      It’s funny: I actually don’t use Helvetica very much– it just kept popping up in this article as a suitable face to use for visual examples. The idea of spelling ‘I love you’ and ‘I hate you’ in different Helvetica weights is taken from Maximo Vignelli, who mentions the idea in passing in the 2003 Helvetica documentary.

  21. 34

    I’m a sucker for Myriad Pro. She’s such a timeless typeface IMO. Rockwell is a great-looking slab serif and as far as serifs go, I’ve always like Georgia’s simplicity.

    There’s something very attractive about fonts and how they present information to us. I have a wall of different typograhical layouts for inspiration. Good typography not only makes consumption of data easier, but it makes the presentation more professional.

  22. 35

    I went on your website and all your images are broken…

  23. 36

    Some say Bembo, Palatino, and Garamond are French Renaissance-Antiqua and for example Jenson, Centaur, Cambria are Venetian Renaissance Antiqua. But as you said. There are a lot of different categories and opinions ;)
    nice article

  24. 37

    Charlie Melbye

    December 14, 2010 2:41 pm

    Which font are you using for the menu items in the revised restaurant menu?

  25. 39

    Oxana Kostromina

    December 14, 2010 2:58 pm

    Thanks a lot! Great post.

  26. 40

    any ideas from coomenter for help or feedback from my font selection at thecitruslens ?

  27. 41

    Thanks, Dan. I’ll be applying these guidelines to my new website, I really like number three. It encourages me to go all out or keep it simple.

  28. 42

    Outstanding article. I have been trying to get a better idea on how to select fonts. The descriptions of different categories of fonts are awesome. The suggestions on how to find fonts that go well together are great.


  29. 43

    Thank you. Most typography articles I’ve come across either barely brush on the differences between the families and just show as many fonts as possible, or get really in-depth with the differences between them. Yours is the first I’ve read that explains the “why” of each family, and how best to use them. I’ll definitely be bookmarking this article for future reference.

    I’d love to see a follow-up article about using these rules with @font-face and web safe fonts, especially on choosing fonts to pair with each other.


    • 44

      Thanks. The first paragraph of your comment pretty much exactly hits on my rationale for writing this article, so I’m glad to see that it hit the spot.

  30. 45

    media designer

    December 14, 2010 4:57 pm

    Type nerds of the world unite! Thanks for this. What a great article!

  31. 47

    This is a great article. I found #3 interesting in regards to using fonts that are created by the same designer. Now if I am having issues with combining different fonts I now know the solution!

  32. 48

    I have been looking for an article like this in ages! Thanks for posting it up!
    Aside from color, fonts are the next big issues in my projects!

  33. 49

    Dan, this is really great stuff, thanks for sharing…

  34. 50

    Fantastic. Thanks for this excellent writeup for the casual font-and-design lovers such as myself. Although I’m pouring thousands of loan dollars into med school, part of me wishes I would have done graphic design. Since that ship has already sailed, it’s through the generosity of writers and teachers like you that I can still learn bits and pieces of your amazing art. Good design is, in my mind, medicine for the brain.

  35. 51

    pretty helpful article.
    thanks for sharing!

  36. 52

    Thanks for this article!

    But there is, in my opinion, a mistake in your Thai-example: is it right, that the dots of the prices are not in one vertical line?


    • 53

      Yeah, good point.

      I skimped a bit on the details of the menu layout, as the images of this article– much to my surprise– wound up taking almost more time than the actual writing.

  37. 54

    Thanks for the heads up!

    I think for too long I have been using just the one font in projects (the clients chosen font) so I forgot about mixing it up!


  38. 55

    Dude, thanks for this article. Would you recommend any font with personality connected with FLYing for my site:

  39. 56

    Michael Pekarek

    December 15, 2010 3:40 am

    great post, thank you so much :) !

  40. 57

    thank you for your advice.

  41. 58

    Thanks. I love being reminded of the basics of typography design again. It gets so jumbled up with all the options, it is easy to forget the basics we learned.

  42. 59

    This is a very interesting one. Will gladly read more articles like this, and/or additions to this one :)

  43. 60

    very nice insights and well thought out article – thanks!

  44. 61

    Martin Silvertant

    December 15, 2010 8:18 am

    “Examples of Old Style: Jenson, Bembo, Palatino, and — especially — Garamond”

    Why is Garamond especially a good example? Because of its “perfection” according to the people from that time? What about Caslon?

    I always get a bit annoyed when I see the classification ‘Old Style’. I know it’s not an incorrect classification, but I think it’s quite bad to put Venetian types like Jenson and Centaur together with Garalde types like Garamond and Caslon. They’re just too different. I guess they’re often put together because the Venetian types reigned for only 60 years (if I remember correctly) and thus, in terms of quantity this classification just isn’t relevant enough. Either way, Venetian types are often called ‘Old Style’, but not the other way around, so you might want to correct your statement. Your description of ‘Old Style’ perfectly fits Venetian type, which is indeed the first Roman type (Jenson is one of the oldest—if not THE oldest—Roman type[s]), but NOT the first typeface; a few blackletter typefaces were made before that. The Garalde types are not directly based on calligraphy, but rather on Venetian types.

    Other than that it’s a nice article. Nothing new, but still helpful for those not as experienced with typefaces.

    • 62

      Not to sidestep your point, but I think each of the type groupings I’ve provided could be rightly called over-simplifications, in the sense that they overlook sub-classifications like the Venetian vs. Geralde distinction that you point out. My implicit argument is that once you expand your taxonomy to include such distinctions, the whole mapping of typefaces becomes so complex that it’s not really manageable or useful for the lay person. I recognize that there’s a difference between making typography accessible versus dumbing it down, and I can only hope that my article succeeds in the former point without falling prey to the latter.

      To get to the specifics of your comment: I characterized Garamond as an ‘especially’ good example because it was the most acclaimed typeface of the period that I’m loosely calling the ‘Old Style period’. It would be like saying “apples are the most popular food within the food group known as ‘Fruits and Vegetables'”. As you say, there’s a certain amount of conflation going on here, but I think it’s a reasonably instructive generalization.

  45. 63

    One of the things that I’d love to see an article on is how geographic location alters these principles – for example, here in the UK Slab Serifs are only very, very rarely used, yet there is a strong American tradition of their use in specific ways. Similar with typeface choice in general – I can generally look at a piece of text-based design (admittedly on paper here is easiest) and tell whether the designer was from the UK or US, at a glance.

    • 64

      This is a really great idea for an article. I have a friend who does a excellent lecture on tendencies in American vs. Dutch design (these being two countries he has lived and worked in)… but it’s generally hard to find a capable author who has sufficient experience and critical perspective to write on design principles in various locations.

  46. 65

    Love the article, and the Pentagram test linked is great fun: i’m New Alphabet, what are you?

  47. 66

    Very interesting article man.
    Thanks :)

  48. 67

    Weird !!! Because I learned and worked typo since a long time ago, I both think that explaining your way of working types is as unuseful, but also that it may interest complete beginners… So I’m splitted beteween my happiness for newbies, and my despite for graphic designers, who are laughing at your post.
    thanks anyway for giving so moch of your time about basics.

  49. 68

    Knowledge of typographic principles and history is infinitely more important than typographic rules.

  50. 69

    Thanks so much for this. This is brilliant, useful and much needed information. Especially for new design students. I work in the library at a school part time and have passed this on to the dean of design. Kudos and one more reason I love Smashing Magazine.

  51. 70

    Absolutely amazing article!!!

  52. 71

    Great stuff. Thanks for posting.

  53. 72

    Thanks for it, Tips related to fonts are good.

  54. 73

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

  55. 74

    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.

  56. 75

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

  57. 76

    Nice article…

  58. 77

    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”.”

  59. 78

    erik spiekermann

    December 17, 2010 4:12 am

    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 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.

    • 79

      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.

      • 80

        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.

        • 81

          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.

          • 82

            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.

    • 83

      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:

      • 84


        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.

    • 85

      Karsten Luecke

      December 18, 2010 4:36 am

      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.

    • 86

      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.

  60. 87

    Good debate, thank Mister Spiekermann and Mister Mayer!
    Found this interesting point of view, but you must read french:

  61. 88

    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.

    • 89

      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.

      • 90

        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.

        • 91

          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.

          • 92

            hermann ihlenburg

            December 19, 2010 10:18 am

            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…

  62. 93

    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.

  63. 94

    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.


  64. 95

    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!

  65. 96

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

  66. 97

    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.?

    • 98

      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.

      • 99

        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?

  67. 100

    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!

  68. 101

    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…

  69. 102

    Alberto "Rabendeviaregia" Macaluso

    January 11, 2011 9:22 am

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

  70. 103

    Nice article :)

  71. 104

    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.

  72. 105

    Brett Widmann

    April 14, 2011 4:19 pm

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

  73. 106

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

  74. 107

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

  75. 108

    This was a really good typography lesson! Thanks.

  76. 109

    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!

  77. 110

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

  78. 111

    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.

  79. 112

    Thank you so much this information is invaluable!

  80. 113

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

  81. 114

    Thanks! Really helpful!

  82. 115
  83. 116

    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

  84. 117

    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.

  85. 118

    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!

  86. 119

    Pedro Alves

    April 8, 2012 1:16 am

    Thank you for the light!

  87. 120

    Chris Hayes

    June 7, 2012 10:04 pm

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

  88. 121

    great post.

  89. 122


  90. 123

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

  91. 124

    Best non-profit charity fonts?

  92. 125

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

  93. 126

    Steve Bonin

    May 23, 2013 5:28 pm

    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?”

  94. 127

    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!

  95. 128

    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.

  96. 129

    What font type is this? I love it!

  97. 130

    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.

  98. 131

    Christopher R.

    March 21, 2014 5:49 pm

    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.


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