If you know me very well, something you’ll know is that I’m really into fonts. And you’ll probably say the same thing that most people say, which is “what is there even to know about fonts?”
Believe me, there’s actually a fair bit. And even if you don’t realize it, you think about and have your decisions effected by fonts every day online and in what you read.
Fonts and font foundries are actually a pretty major business. There are entire major businesses and jobs where people just design, and try out fonts. Again, you’re probably wondering why people do this. Can’t we all just use Times New Roman for everything? Theoretically, we could use 12 point Times New Roman for everything. But the whole point of writing is to deliver a clear message — and that is the job of fonts: to create the clearest possible message using every tool you have at your disposal.
Ever since books and general literacy, writing has been very important. An incredibly important old job was Illuminating. Illuminating was generally done by monks, and it was the processes of beautifying a book, generally scriptures, with incredibly elaborate text and pictures. The text is adorned with an incredible amount of complex ligatures and provocative imagery, which is all supposed to better convey the message of the words. Below are two examples, both from the early 300s AD that demonstrate how elaborate and beautiful some early manuscripts were.
Back then, the art of copying and creating books was very, very intense, and often one single book made like the images above could take years, to even an entire lifetime of work. But monks who created art like this were, and still are, praised for their beautiful craftsmanship.
All throughout the years, ever since then, typography and fonts have been very important. Those monks back then taught us that our message can be even more clearly conveyed when the correct type goes with it.
Now days, professional typographers and designers use an incredible amount of fonts and type knowledge in order to recreate a similar effect. Their work generally isn’t quite as elaborate as the stuff shown above, but it is still incredible important, and makes a bigger difference than many people realize.
So for the first example, we’re going to look at a really basic example, which probably a lot of people would realize right away. Let’s take a body of text, say for a paper, and show what it would look like formatted normally.
This looks exactly like most people are used to seeing a paper. Notice how the category head is the same font and size as the body, but it is boldened to make sure that it stands out. The running head is on the top, in all caps, so as to make sure it doesn’t look like extra text from the previous page running down. Each category is clear to see, and it is easy to read.
Here’s the same paper, but the fonts have been changed. Here, all the wrongs fonts are being used. Each of these fonts can be used, in the right context. But here, the fonts are really hurting the message, and making it much harder to read. And besides that, it just totally looks unprofessional, right? You’d never actually turn in a paper like this.
The message here is that font use honestly does help or hinder a message. The top image, it’s easy to see the different sections, and read everything. The second image, it’s all muddled.
Use Different Weights & Fonts
Almost as bad as being clear is all the text being incredibly boring and blending together. Nobody wants to just look at just a big wall of text that looks the same. That’s a really easy way to put everyone to sleep.
Here’s two examples.
In this first example above, you can see just how much easier it is to read the body of text on the right. The category at the top, the headline, the italicized text, second category header, and then the body text. It flows very easily to the eye, and you can see what is important, and most importantly, how to read it. Your eyes are able to separate it all as different ideas, and makes it easier on everyone. In the example on the left, all the text blends together. It’s hard to see what is important, and when it stops and starts. Again, the absence of strong contrast makes it really hard to read. So you have to be aware of how to separate your ideas.
At the same time though, you have to be aware not to make things super different. Generally, you want body text to be clean and simple, and headlines to be a little stronger. But if you go too far in this direction, you create again a mismatch, which looks like it’s not part of a cohesive whole.
In both of those examples, the examples on the right show you how to use these ideas correctly. When you clearly separate the fonts, and the text size, (but not by too much!!) you can create two separate ideas that compliment each other.
The point of this lesson is that fonts are meant to flow together in order to let your eyes know where to go, and what is important and different. Walls of text are incredibly boring, and separating weights and sizes makes it so much more interesting for your eyes, as well as aiding to get the important points of your message across.
Mood & Mental Image
This is something that again, isn’t a surprise to most people, but designers spend a long time thinking about. This is that every font has a mood, and a purpose that it is meant for. When you take it out of its intended purpose, it tends to look out of place.
Here are some examples from well known logos.
Most people would recognize the Wall Street Journal logo. The font they use is all business. It’s all in capitals, tight, shortly spaced. It looks like the logo for a very professional business paper. Imagine that logo with a cursive style script, such as the one below.
Hello Kitty’s logo is hand written cursive style, and fits the mood of the company. If Wall Street Journal were to use a font like that, it would completely go against their brand. But for a playful logo, this font fits in beautifully.
Lastly, a font like this works for something like Halloween, or decorative occasions. It fits the mood of the holiday, even though you could hardly ever use this font anywhere else. Even this has its place.
The point of this lesson is to realize that every font comes with a mood associated with it, and that changes how your message comes across.
There’s a lot to know about fonts in the world. If you work for a newspaper, or do web design, there’s an incredible amount of detail and thought and testing and you-name-it that goes into every font used for everything. A number of my other blogs go into the details of the fonts that I choose for the newspaper, and why I chose them, if you want to learn more.
As a quick disclaimer for myself, don’t go too crazy with fonts in your classes. It’s pretty rare to need to use something other than a simple serif or sans serif for papers and projects.
(However, if you want to use something other than Times New Roman, might I suggest such fonts as Lora and Poly)
I hope this was helpful.