How to Select the Right Typeface for Text

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Text makes up the vast area of gray in books, reports, magazines, print ads, and hundreds of other documents. Reading the material is the most essential and primary goal so it’s the designer’s job to ensure that the text is even, flows effectively and pleasant to read. It should bear the two qualities of a good text type which are legibility and readability. Legibility refers to clarity; it’s how easily one letter can be distinguished from all others. Readability refers to how well letters relate with each other to form words, sentences and paragraphs. Essentially, everything else taken into consideration, the driving factor to consider is about moderation or being medium on all sides.

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Here are seven valuable tips and hints in choosing the right and effective typeface for text that’s smooth, clear and readable.

1. Choose a typeface with similar character widths

Typefaces with similar character widths have the smoothest appearance. Reading basically has a rhythm and it can be disrupted by typefaces with varying character widths like Futura (below).

typeface-similar-width

2. Pick a typeface with medium height-to-width ratio

Letters are identified by their physical characteristics like bars, stems, curves, loops and so on. The clearer they are the legible they are to read. As they get compressed or expanded, they get distorted and makes them harder to identify.

typeface-ratio

3. The medium x-height

Lowercase characters height are commonly attached to its x-height. Characters with larger the x-height are more denser or crowded in appearance. But what we want medium; so consider the x-height carefully. Remarkably tall or short x-height characters are better suited for specialty projects.

typeface-medium-x-height

4. Observe small variations in stroke weight

Small or medium variations in stroke weight ease out line convergence which helps the eye flow and read smoothly. Try to avoid extreme variations similar to modern styles (below, left); at high resolution their beautiful but superthin strokes disappear in a glare. Too squarish geometric styles (below, right) vary little or not at all and are too uniform.

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5. Lookout for mirrors

Geometric typefaces like most san-serif fonts are so uniform that their letters are often mirror images. Thus using them for text is not an ideal choice. The basic rule is, the more distinct each letter is, the more legible the words will be.

typeface-mirror-1
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6. Stay away from typefaces with overlarge counters

So what are counters anyway. Counters are the enclosed spaces inside letters. Typestyles whose counters are very large in relation to the stroke weight should be avoided. Take a look at Avant Garde (below), note how huge the space inside the letters is than the space outside. Those large holes works like a vacuum; drawing the reader’s eye and disrupting the flow and slowing the rythm.

typeface-counters
typeface-counter-2

7. Avoid too much twists and oddities

Typographic opulence are fun to look at and sometimes appropriate on some headings, but they wear out their charm fast in text. Why is it so? Those extra swashes gives the eye too much strain making it hard to follow and is very tiring.

typeface-quirkiness

Favorite Text Faces

While many typefaces meet the requirements of readability, legibility and good looks, the following four typefaces are the ones we normally turn to most often:

Adobe Caslon
First choice for books, Caslon may be the Roman alphabet’s most readable typeface. They may not be beautiful, but strung up into sentences and paragraphs they fit in snugly and can be read comfortably for hours. Caslon will withstand even the tightest leading.

Adobe Garamond
My personal favorite. Garamond is easy to read and elegant. A little on the dressy side, Garamond is a fine display face — rare in this class — and as a result can carry a document all by itself. Garamond set is a bit small. Set it at ten-point minimum with about ten percent extra leading.

ITC Stone Serif
Stone is boring to look at but buttery to read. Characterized by its stubby, lowercase r that stucks snuggly to its neighbors, Stone is designed for outstanding fit. Stone is a large set, so nine-point is as big as you should go. Use at least thirty-five percent extra leading.

Janson Text 55 Roman
Janson holds the middle ground between the earthen, robust nature of Caslon and the elegance of Garamond. Rounder and denser, it has chiseled, staunch appearance. Janson sets are average size, which you can give about twenty percent extra leading.

5 comments

  1. Chris 14 December, 2009 at 03:26

    Great article, I found it very useful, but I wondered- should this say san-serif fonts?

    ‘5. Lookout for mirrors

    Geometric typefaces like most serif fonts are so uniform that their letters are often mirror images.’

  2. Graphire 14 December, 2009 at 10:31

    Hi Cris. Thank for noticing. Yes, it should say “san-serif” fonts.

    @szar: this page simply has Verdana, Arial, Helvetica fonts specified in the CSS font-family properties.

  3. BrushesCentral 9 April, 2010 at 22:09

    Very good read. I have learnt quite a bit about using text in body copy of a design and so on. The articles very helpful for designers wanting to learn more about type, and i will bookmark it. Thanks.

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