There’s a nice little article that’s been doing the linky rounds called 15 tips to choose a good text type, by Juan Pablo De Gregorio, a Chilean graphic designer and a typographer. (I saw it most recently at Coudal Partners, who got it from Andy Rutledge.)
I was already thinking about this, as the famed David Moldawer asked me about it a couple of months ago, but I’m not sure I can unravel the selection process very articulately. Most of Señor De Gregorio’s advice has to do with legibility, and that is, indeed, a very big concern. But then how do you choose among the hundreds of typefaces that are quite legible, inoffensive, and suitable for text?
In my world, the next big concern is fit. As I explained recently—oh, wait, I didn’t post that yet. Ahem. Well, as I’m going to say very soon, I often have to work within strict parameters: for example, I must get at least seventy characters per line, the measure can’t be more than 24 picas, and the type size really shouldn’t be smaller than 11.3 points (though it depends—11.3pt Charter looks enormous; 11.3pt Fournier looks teensy). So that narrows it down still more. A lot of very nice typefaces just won’t ever work for the kind of books I do right now.
And then there’s the question of what variants are available, which is a big deal to me. I really can’t stand fake small caps, so if a type family doesn’t include drawn ones, I won’t use it for body text. My company still prefers small caps for a.m./p.m. (in defiance of CMS 15, if I recall correctly), and I like to use them for chapter lead-ins, quoted signage, running heads, and various other things. So that’s a total deal-breaker. Not surprisingly, therefore, any type family that includes the rare italic small caps is very dear to me. And I’ll rarely forgive a text face that lacks old-style figures. And I like to have the option of using bold, or, even better, semibold, though I can usually make do without these.
Then there’s format, which isn’t an issue at my current job. We use Quark 6.5, which can set OpenType fonts but not do anything intelligent with them, and our compositor uses Quark XPress 4, which is totally blind to OpenType. Feh! When I’m typesetting in InDesign, though, I will almost always choose a well set-up OpenType font over a Postscript one. (There are badly set-up ones, which I hate, but I haven’t had to work with many of those.) A good OpenType family in InDesign saves me a huge amount of fiddly work—well worth being hampered by a limited selection of typefaces.
And then there are typefaces I prefer because they’re pretty, or because I think the type designer is a cool person, or because the name makes some kind of stupid pun in combination with the nature of the project I’m working on.
So . . . given all these variables, what have I actually been using lately? When I took a survey of all the designs I’ve done at this job, I was surprised. There’ve been very few repeats, and those I’ve repeated are not type families I feel strongly about:
Here’s a sample I made showing the size spread of some of the typefaces on the list. All are set at 11 points (but not shown at 100 percent scale here; download the PDF [144 KB] for a better view), but obviously that doesn’t have much to do with how the font works on a page. The first line shows a couple of fonts sorted by x-height; the lines below that show a standard sample sorted by width.
Note that there’s no correlation between x-height and width—Stone Print, which is the narrowest, also has one of the tallest x-heights. Fournier, meanwhile, is tiny overall—usually too small for the kind of work I’ve been doing, and as Dean Allen advises, it “tends to lose its character at small sizes, so use it big or not at all.”
At least half of these were typefaces I’d never used before. Some were, in retrospect, bad choices; some I liked very much and hope to use again. There were many faces not on this list that I tried in sample after sample but never ended up using in a final design. And there were many that I would have loved to try but that we don’t have. (Our library is some kind of huge Agfa/Monotype/Adobe/ITC collection, most of the T.26 library (many of which don’t work in Quark 6.5 with FontReserve on Tiger, though they’re fine in InDesign and Quark 4), Hoefler & Frere-Jones minus Mercury and Verlag, and Emigre.) Had I ended up staying here longer, I would probably have settled into using the same six to ten faces for everything, as I did at my last job.
Anyone else? How do you choose? Do you use the same typefaces over and over, or do you like to experiment? What makes you covet a text face? What elements are deal-breakers?