A Crash Course on Fonts
Throughout the design process, there is one element in particular that always takes up more time than clients initially expect: finding the right font. I don’t blame them; it can take me quite a bit of time myself to settle on the right fonts for my own projects. Despite what might appear as subtle differences at a glance, each font carries with it its own personality and energy, and it can take a while to go through the thousands of options available to find something that matches your style.
I wanted to try and make this a little bit easier for those who are a little lost in the dense forest of typography with a very, very brief guide on the two biggest font classifications: serif and sans serif. These may be words you’ve heard before without knowing exactly what they mean, but I assure you that even knowing these basic definitions will make it much easier to narrow down your font choices for your next project.
So, what the hell is a serif font and how is it different from a sans serif font?
Serif fonts trace their evolutionary roots back to some of the earliest known typefaces since the printing press began. Serif fonts are so named for those little strokes at the ends of each letter, and remain the most commonly used style for print. These serifs give each letter a distinctive feel and help improve readability. Times New Roman, a font I’ve been using since grade school, is a serif font.
While serif fonts embody classical elegance, sans serif fonts are more minimalist and stripped down, quite literally so. Sans serif - if you can remember your high school Latin - means “without serif”. These fonts do not have strokes at the endpoints of each letter and look more modern compared to the somewhat old-fashioned serif fonts. Helvetica is a classic and still widely-used sans serif font.
When should serif fonts be used?
Serifs continue to dominate print, but that’s not to say that print should exclusively use serifs. However, the distinctive strokes can be a bit easier on the eyes for many readers than sans serif fonts, especially for prolonged reading. The majority of books, magazines, and newspapers still use serif fonts as the standard and that is unlikely to change soon.
I must admit that I am a sans serif fanboy - it is my go-to - but serif fonts can work well in design beyond print. For example, serifs can work quite well over hero images, or those large image header banners that are fairly common in web design nowadays. While I don’t use them very often in branding projects, they do actually work quite well in logos and collateral for more “classy” ventures.
When should sans serif fonts be used?
While serifs are mostly relied on for print, there is no hard rule against using a sans serif font for written content. They are being utilized more than ever for online content, especially in blogging. You’re reading this in a sans serif font right now! Thanks to modern-day adjustments that we can make with ease like line height and kerning, sans serif fonts can be just as legible as serif fonts in both print and online content.
That said, you will see a sans serif font used overwhelmingly more in most branding projects, as they are perceived as more modern and definitely en vogue at the moment. If you look through my portfolio, it will be hard to spot a logo that doesn’t use a sans serif font for this reason. Some of this is based on my advice to clients, but much of it results from their own preferences.
Mix it up.
As it should be in the design world, there are no hard rules when it comes to fonts. These are all merely suggestions, but suggestions born out of tried and true effectiveness nonetheless. Something important to remember when it comes to sifting through all of these fonts is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be either-or. Some very successful branding projects use both a serif and sans serif font to capture the best of both typographic worlds. Especially if you have a two-word business name or if you want to incorporate a short tagline or your business location somewhere in the logo itself, experimenting with both styles can yield some very dynamic and stylish results.
Now, I couldn’t do a post on fonts without listing some of my favorites, could I? Below are some of my favorite serif and sans serif fonts that I always find myself coming back to, not for a lack of creativity, but just because they are so well-made and so versatile across a variety of different design projects. If you’re stumped for fonts in some of your own projects, these six are a great place to start.
Sans Serif Fonts
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