There's a reason why we're not all graphic designers – "nice fonts" can be subjective, however, there are a lot of basics that we all can – and should – know. For any designer, setting type is a common and very important task. While honouring the text we're setting, we need to also determine its legibility and readability. In doing so, we provide the text with a range of qualities encouraging and empowering a reader to either skim quickly to a specific snippet of information or comfortably digest larger sections of the text.
While there aren't any hard rules for selecting fonts, here are a few guidelines that may help you on your way.
1. Follow the rule of 3
The only quantitative rule for design is the “Rule of 3”. When you start tweaking the fonts of your document, be sure to apply no more than three typefaces per design (or page). That’s not to say that you can’t use multiple styles within a font family (i.e. Helvetica Bold for headlines and Helvetica Light for photo credits), just be mindful of not mixing too many typefaces and styles – fight the temptation to blend Impact, Courier and Trebuchet in the same document. While there might be a few exceptions to this rule, it’s a good sanity check, to ensure that you don’t go overboard and over-complicate your design. And as a good rule of thumb, you should probably just avoid Papyrus and Comic Sans. Always. Just take our word for it.
2. Choose a fitting font for your audience
Be sure to choose a font that matches the tone and audience of your document. For example, something like a gardening magazine might use a more fun and light serif font, whereas the business would find it more appropriate to use a more structured sans-serif font.
If all of this is sounding French to you, that’s because it is! In typography, serifs are the sometimes curly details on the ends of the strokes that make up letters and symbols. A typeface with serifs is called a serif typeface and a typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French word sans, meaning “without.”
3. Avoid hard-to-read fonts
Some decorative fonts are designed to only be used for headlines. Be sure when you select a fancy or script font, that you use it sparingly, and that you can still read it. If you can’t read the type, you can be sure your audience won’t bother to try. Also avoid WordArt, which while fun to play with, is very difficult to read.
4. Use contrasting text for headlines and body copy
It’s important to define the segments of your document, breaking it up into bite-sized pieces so your reader is inclined to read it in its entirety. One way that you can do this is by clearly identifying headlines from your body paragraphs. For example, you might use a bold sans-serif heading font with a plain serif body text font. You generally don’t want to mix two similar typefaces as they won’t provide enough contrast.
5. Don't put text over a busy background
Take a look at the example below.
Even if you try your best to make text stand out on its own merit by using a bold typeface, a white fill, a dark drop shadow and even a little bit of a stroke, the readability is horrid.
At this point, it’s pretty easy to get frustrated and set off in search of a better photo, or worse, give into the “good enough” mentality. This phrase is the designer’s mortal enemy and should be avoided at all times.
TIP: Give text a containment device.
It’s important to note that the example above is a generalization: one possible and typical solution of many. The key here is to think of a way to “contain” your text in something with a simpler fill and thereby set it apart from the background. You can use a colour bar, a circle or even another photo!
Be wary of becoming a one-trick pony and always resorting to the same old design fixes. Attempt to put some fresh thought into each new challenge that arises while leveraging past experience and knowledge.
6. Be consistent and keep it simple
Consistency is key to building a brand style, or just having a stronger, more professional-appearing message. If your headings are set in a particular font, size and colour, don’t switch it midway through a document, unless you have a good reason for it. The best way to maintain consistency through a multipage document, or from document to document, is to set style sheets.
Each software program handles style sheets differently, so if you aren’t sure how to use them you may want to visit your software developer’s help section for a tutorial. Time spent learning how to use style sheets will be a great investment for your future designs.
When all is said and done, the important thing to remember is to keep it simple. And simple doesn’t have to mean boring, but instead discerning – keeping an editor’s eye on your design and font selections, so that your message doesn’t get lost in your design.