Speaking of typefaces

Typefaces are an addiction of mine; I once had as many as 1200 of them on my computer. (“Typeface” and “font” are often used interchangeably, although there is a distinction that I won’t attempt here.) At their best they combine artistic flair and geometric precision. They are the voice, the mood, the face of written communication. More often than not, readers are oblivious to the specific fonts in front of them, and that’s as it should be. Fonts should contribute to the “feel” of the presentation without drawing undue attention to themselves.

Sans serif type

Serif type

Serifs in red

Sans serif typefaces or families — e.g., Arial, Helvetica, Futura — are considered clean, modern, sophisticated. But like Danish modern furniture, they can come off as too austere, too cold. It depends on where and why they are used. Sans serif typefaces were particularly popular for early low-resolution computer screens when details like serifs on 10- or 12-point body type were totally lost or blurred.

Serif typefaces — e.g.,Times, Century, Clarendon — go back to the earliest days of typesetting and printing. They are what most readers are used to seeing in large blocks of text — newspaper columns, magazine articles, books. Serif typefaces are considered easier to read because the serifs guide the eye along the line and also contribute to the actual word forms we’ve learned to recognize. In general, serif typefaces are considered warmer, friendlier, and more “invisible” to the reader.

There are, of course, many other type classifications with innumerable variations. But we can no more have too many typefaces to choose from than we can have too many words in the language.

My personal preference is to choose two contrasting type families, a serif and a sans serif — with all their various weights, forms, and sizes — for a page or project. I use the sans serif for heads and the serif for body type. I employ one or both of them in subheads, cutlines, etc., depending on the complexity of the hierarchy. The goal, always, is to make the page as clean, clearly organized, and reader friendly as possible while still conveying my mood and message. More than two typefaces is too much, too busy, too cluttered, and totally unnecessary. It’s undisciplined and amateurish. Two contrasting typefaces — in several appropriate sizes of light, normal, bold, small caps, and italic — is ample variety for any project. Actually, one typeface is sufficient; I just prefer the clean look of sans serif for heads and the readability of serif for text.

But I digress. There are volumes of information out there about type and its design and use. I really just wanted to post the following chart, sent to me by a friend. Type fans will enjoy it, I think. Others, not so much.

By consensus, the 100 most popular, influential, and notorious typefaces. Click twice for maximum size.
A creative compilation of the 100 "most popular, influential, and notorious" typefaces. Click twice for maximum size.

The Periodic Table of Typefaces was created by the brilliant minds (my assessment, not theirs) at Squidspot.

One thought on “Speaking of typefaces

  1. There’s a special place in my heart for Palatino. It reminds me of my early days as a wee proofreader, when many of the documents I worked on used it. Thank you for cleansing my blog palate today with this nifty post. I really enjoyed it, and looking at the table.
    Ah, Palatino. Always one of my favorites. Elegant and graceful. Not conspicuously different from other serif fonts, yet full of unique touches that clearly identify it, starting with the capital P where the bottom of the curved stroke doesn’t touch the vertical stroke. Or an S that always looks to me like it’s leaning too far backwards. I like to pair it with Optima heads, although it can stand on its own as a display type.

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