Choosing text type

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:

# of uses Type families
3 Dante MT
Hoefler Text
2 Plantin
1 Albertina MT
Bulmer MT
Adobe Caslon
Charter ITC
Columbus MT
Ehrhardt MT
Fournier MT
Adobe Garamond
Garamond 3
Janson Text
ITC Stone Informal
Stone Print
Vendetta Light

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.

some font sizes compared

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?

24 thoughts on “Choosing text type

  1. I’m using the same fonts over and over and over. With the amount of work I have on my desk it would feel like a waste of time trying out new fonts for every book. Of course, the fact that I’m a lazy person might also have something to do with it …

  2. Well, but, it’s a standard and very sensible approach. I’ve only been skipping around because I can—(1) it’s the first place I’ve worked that has a big, legal library of fonts, and (2) except when a couple of pockets of intense procrastination caused pile-ups, the pace has been leisurely.

    So, you’ve been doing mostly books for young readers, no? So I’m especially curious to know which typefaces you’ve been using over and over. Different problems, different solutions.

  3. P.S. One very good reason for not using less popular text faces: the compositor hasn’t adjusted them.

    Our comp has custom-kerned sets of all the most common text faces, e.g., Adobe Caslon, Adobe Garamond, Bembo, Palatino, Times New Roman, Minion, etc. They’ve used these thousands of times, and they’ve tweaked them so that the spacing is acceptable to their more nitpicky clients.

    Whenever I’ve used a nonstandard text face, especially the Emigre and Hoefler stuff, the first pass has come back from the proofreader riddled with PEs, most of them global kerning problems. Also, we’ve noticed that on many fonts, although the ligatures are in the font, in their usual spots, Quark doesn’t swap them in automatically. So the comp has to “re-output” the font files, whatever that means—probably fiddle with them in FontLab.

    They’re PEs, sure, so theoretically these are not changes we have to pay for, but (a) it’s not nice to blame to comp for stuff like that, as it’s really not their fault, and (b) nobody wants to make fifty global corrections to a three-hundred-page book after it’s been proofread.

  4. Well, one of the fonts I tend to use A LOT is Sabon. It has a nice italic (I think too many fonts have ugly italics …), and it works both in small and larger sizes. In addition I also use most of the common fonts you mention. Perhaps not Times New Roman all that much, but that is mostly because my computer is swamped in different legal and not-so-legal versions, and I just don’t have the energy to tidy up.

    But once I get my NEW Mac – the big-big-big and shiny one – sometime this month I will try to keep a healthy font-library. (Right now I have a Mac that refuses to start once the power is cut. At one point I spent 5 hours pushing the on/off button trying to get it to start …)

  5. Aw, thanks! Our posts just have a different focus, I think. As a type designer, you look at fonts much more closely than I do; me, I just slap it on the page and see what sticks.

    I’m so glad you started the English-language blog! I wish I could read your Spanish one; it looks fantastic.

  6. Fascinating post!!! I’m glad to know that you like typies…

    I’m going to visit your blog from now on… I liked it very much. There are not many women on typography blogs…

    Thank you very much! Francisca Reyes

  7. For the record, this is a Full-Service Blog: I know it’s kind of frowned upon, but I do try to correct typos in comments by people whose first language is not English. Especially nice people. So don’t fret about it. :)

    Stupid things that I’ve said, however, stet. I keep looking at that line above, “Fournier, meanwhile, is tiny overall—usually too small for the kind of work I’ve been doing,” and thinking, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Because of course, if the font is small overall, you can just use it in a larger size. So where I’d use 10pt Plantin, I might use 12pt Fournier. A truly inefficient typeface would be one that is, say, wide with a large x-height and for some reason doesn’t look good at a smaller size.

    Another problem is that when a font sets relatively wide but the measure can’t be increased—a typical constraint for shoots—you get too few characters per line, and the word spacing looks like crap.

    We’re not allowed to adjust the H&Js where I work; they’re standard across the entire company. And while they’re not the Quark defaults, thank Cthulhu, they’re still looser than what I typically use, and much looser than what the designer who taught me about H&Js would use. So where in a more flexible shop I could adjust the H&Js to suit the typeface and the specific job, here I have to just work around it. If the page doesn’t look good in my sample, there’s very little hope that the compositor will be able to even it out; they’re not given enough discretion to do so. So I sigh deeply and try another typeface.

  8. You get a gold star (or perhaps an Elder Sign) for citing Cthulhu. :)

    I look forward to having some influence over this sort of style decision at the next job. We are locked into using the same typefaces each time for our newsletters. Lots of Times New Roman body/Helvetica heads. Duller than dishwater. I would dread working on some titles because of the extra elbow grease necessary to make that title’s wacky combination of face, H&J, and master-page layout work. One newsletter that used New Aster for body text, on a 3-column layout, in which we frequently got indented quotations, would give me particular fits. Tracking/kerning nudges also tended to look glaringly obvious, even in the most subtle doses.

  9. Dude, I design for Tor/Forge—I hear Cthulhu’s name taken in vain at least once a week, at the production meeting (there’s some new book in the queue).

    On a three-column layout, there’s almost always going to be some crappy justification, but if you’re allowed to adjust H&Js, and if you’re willing to squish type horizontally by just 2 or 3 percent, you can do wonders. (Shhhh! Don’t tell any type designers that I’ve scaled their type. Nobody notices. Well, one designer I’ve talked to claims he can spot 3 percent scaling, but I believe that one only sees it when one is looking for it.)

    When I’m typesetting in Quark, I do not ever fit copy using range kerning; it’s too hard to undo, and it looks like crap. Instead, I typically set up as many as seven variants for a given stylesheet, e.g.,

    TX loose 1 TX loose 2 TX TX tight 1 TX tight 2 TX tight 3 TX tight 3 98

    (My Style Sheets palette is huge, as you can imagine.) Most differ in their H&Js alone, but the one with “98” at the end involves a smidge of scaling, as well. I don’t fiddle as much in InDesign, as I can have the application scale type horizontally when needed; there I typically set up only one or two “tight” variants, and I loosen paragraphs by putting in manual line breaks or nonbreaking spaces.

  10. India, your gracing us free of charge with this heap of learning more than offsets the unavailability of professional CEUs we might earn.

    (CEUs, yeah? That’s what they call ’em, right? Those little points you earn so you can paste ’em in a book you redeem for a stainless-steel place setting.)

  11. I’m not sure I’d call this “learning”; more like “habits.” I have any number of superstitious behaviors about setting up files (it’s only for the sake of the hands, of course)—typographic tics that I unfailingly indulge though I often can’t remember why I came up with the procedure.

    For example, I create a paragraph and character style sheet for everything. There is almost no local styling in my files, except in the frontmatter. There is never, ever, anything set in or based on “Normal” style, anywhere. I’ve been doing this for so long that I no longer remember what horrible thing happens when you use “Normal.” There’s just a memory of extreme pain . . .

  12. The principles embodied in those two concluding sentences I have been applying to my life for some time now.

  13. I envy you your workplace. I can barely find folks at mine who get common Simpsons refs, much less Lovecraftisms.

    Yes! Your practice of having additional tags for quick tracking changes is exactly what I do. (I deleted a paragraph from my previous post, to avoid it turning into a mini-book, on how our team lead established standards for our kerning/scaling values in Quark, after some designers were squishing things by something like -20 to fit copy.) ±3% was our outer range for tracking, so I just made a “body text tight” and a “body text loose” tag and forged ahead from there. In InDesign, for some reason, I don’t find as many reasons to use the “loose” tags, so I eventually deleted them after we switched our pubs over. Maybe it’s because we concurrently switched to OpenType.

    The nameless predecessors who worked on my newsletters used locally styled Normal paragraph text for editorial-board and boilerplate text. I ended this madness. No way in hell was I changing each of these little bits of text one by one. They are now safely under the dominion of stylesheets.

  14. As well as an excellent filter to ward off those who won’t have a chance in hell of getting me.

    Getting back to the post topic, I have to agree with Sheila — these posts are very educational, especially for those like me who haven’t ventured out of our own niches in the industry for a spell. They would make a fine PDF compilation.

  15. Ha! All I do is inhabit one niche after another. But I do tend to raise my hand whenever a freelance project (e.g., literary and other journals, publishers’ catalogues) is wafted toward me, so those introduce some head-stretching variety. I dread doing most of these projects, and I bitch nonstop until they’re out the door, but they force me to think in different ways than my regular job does.

    Right now, though, I’m mostly thinking,

    (a) Do I remember how to manage a Web site at all?


    (b) Crap! I’m going to be dealing with a Real Design Firm at my next job! They’re going to think I’m a total poseur! They’re going to be used to having their way! (The last time I ran a Web site, I worked with a programming firm that outsourced the design to a solo guy who was totally used to having all his beautiful ideas ruined by philistines. He didn’t like it, but he was used to it.)

    I feel like I should brush up, and stat! But of course, I have no idea what I should be brushing up on—user interface design? CSS? color theory? not swearing like a sailor?—so I’ll have to just figure it out when I get there.

    Mr. Award-Winning Designer has already expressed concern that I’m going to leap in at the last minute on this site relaunch and want to change everything, whereas I’d already made a pact with myself that I would not do that. Because (a) I’m not an idiot, and (b) it’ll only lead to heartbreak for everyone involved.

    Besides, it’s the Web, not print. There’ll be plenty of time to enact design creep after the new site goes live. :)

  16. Plantin is a favorite. It isn’t compressed yet gets lots of CCP. Other fonts that make good text type are:

    Mendoza Roman (surprisingly readable in small sizes) Sabon (a classic) Legacy Serif Book/Medium (a little frilly but also very readable; I spec’d a 2000-page literature book in this) Garth Graphic (also elegant in display, but it has a funny lc “y”)

    The big thing is to look for typefaces that don’t have much contrast between the thick and thin strokes of the letterforms and don’t have overblown serifs. Oddities in specific letters also will nix a font for me. Although I love Galliard Roman, Galliard Italic is too odd and angular to decipher quickly.

  17. Hi, Claire! Nice to hear from you again.

    I’ll have to look up Mendoza and Garth Graphic; never heard of them. I think I’ve used Legacy when typesetting other people’s designs, but I don’t remember what it looks or feels like.

    Me, I just started a new design today . . . in Sabon. We’ll see if I stick with it all the way to the approval stage.

  18. Looks like I’ll have to try Plantin. Unfortunately, we don’t have Mendoza; I’d love to use it. We buy new fonts by democratic vote across the design department here, and I guess I didn’t stuff the ballot box sufficiently! (This is Chicago: Vote early, vote often.)

    Some of my favorite text faces right now:

    Thanks for the tips!

  19. Those semi-colon’s get all the attention; what about those slippery apostrophe’s? Some are straight, some are curly, but they’re all capable of horrible thing’s.

    Remedy: Join the Apostrophe Protection Society in London UK:


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