What's Type Have to Do With It?


What's Your Type: Do Fonts Matter?

The typefaces you select suggest a lot about your personality; each has a tone and voice and character all its own. The alphabet of each typeface has a distinctive architecture, one that communicates far more than just the basic meaning of words; the right typeface can even resound on an emotional level.

Characteristics of font families -- such as serifs (little pointy feet), slab serif (rectangular feet), or san serif (no feet at all) -- create very different images. From classical to trendy and minimalist, you can skew your communications for your particular brand of success. For example, Google just transformed its iconic logo from serif to san serif, claiming it would help readability on mobile devices with smaller screens, such as smartphones. (The change has gotten a very mixed reaction.)

Just as we dress to demonstrate our individuality, we can use a typeface that enhances our expression, and allows us to connect more deeply with the reader. That ability, however, comes with a lot of choices, options and considerations. You should think carefully before choosing a typeface for a document, project, or email; it's a key factor in what you say to the outside world.

With the ease of sending emails or typing up documents on a computer, a lot of people have stopped giving typefaces the time and attention they deserve. The result is generic communication. When choosing your typeface, what do you want to convey? In order to settle on that typeface that's right for you, consider these principles:

The Voice: Can You Hear Me?

The reality is that every typeface has its own visual sound; if you mix too many of them together in a single document, you have needlessly noisy pages. Is the typeface loud or soft? Is it a conversation, dialogue, or a lecture?

When working with Julia Child on the design of her book The Way to Cook, I utilized about 12 levels of heads and subheads to define the various hierarchies of information and steps involved in all the recipes. Because this took place before computers, and all type had to be spec'ed by hand for the typesetter. I would figure out how I wanted it to look by using photocopies from a "type book" of different weights and sizes of fonts. I would paste up a mosaic of textures with dummy type in order to analyze the look, the spacing and the balance of dark and light, and how various typefaces looked in all-caps, italic, thin, regular, semi-bold, bold, condensed and so on. A typeface can have a huge family of different weights.

After that, I would put together a manuscript so large that I couldn't carry it all at one time, and send it to the typesetter to make samples. I would then tweak those samples, and, once I was happy with the results, I would mark up or spec the rest of the book for the typesetter to follow. Needless to say, things are a lot easier now.

The Size: Does Size Matter?

Some traditional typefaces have a small size, which can cause readability issues when used as a screen font. Whenever you rely on those fonts, you should go up in point size to make sure your document will remain legible.

Headlines is one thing; body copy is quite another. What will work large for display fonts doesn't always translate into a readable texture for information.

Headlines and subheads may feature a font that contrasts the body copy. Just make sure the combination of typefaces isn't too "noisy" in a way that detracts from the content; while your typeface should be distinctive, it should also be read with ease.

Availability: Are They Receiving Your Message?

Fonts that are PC or Mac-based sometimes don't translate well between the two platforms. Email is also tricky: Not everybody has an entire library of typefaces installed on their computer or device of choice -- be careful when selecting an email font that will work with a wide range of recipients. If you've ever received an email that had multiple fonts randomly throughout, as if the writer had copied and pasted from many documents, then you've experienced the perils of automatic font substitution to a different font. If you don't want that to happen: before sending anything out, re-select all type and re-specify the font. For websites, consider purchasing a license for a special font instead of using the basic ones; that's a good way to achieve more individuality.

Texture: How Does It Feel?

Typography is texture that you can read.

Sometimes we can actually feel texture through our eyes -- even on a screen. Take a look at your document. How do you react on a visceral level? Is it too crowded? Is it dull? It doesn't have to be.

If you want your message to be read, you need to make it an experience that will engage them. You can achieve that with typography and how you organize the space: the combinations of dark and light letterforms, their weights and sizes, all affect your reader. As my teacher Bradbury Thompson said: "Type can be a tool, a toy and a teacher; it can provide a means of livelihood, a hobby for relaxation, an intellectual stimulant -- and a spiritual satisfaction. I believe an avid interest in type necessarily includes a zest for everyday life."

Janet Odgis is the President and Creative Director of Odgis + Co, an award-winning certified woman-owned design firm based in New York City. For 30 years she has worked with some of the world's most prestigious corporations reinventing ways to define and express their brand. We Make Business Beautiful.