What the Font? Understanding the basics of typefaces

We are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands of different fonts every day. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that we know how they work.

So let’s start with the basics. A font is a set of characters, usually letters, numbers, punctuation marks and other symbols. Fonts are characterized by their size, weight, and style. Some fonts are larger than others, some fonts are bolder or more italic than others, and so on.

In the context that this blog post will be discussing the term ‘typeface’ is more appropriate, but for simplicities sake (there is a lot of debate in the industry about when and where to use each term) we’ll predominantly use the term ‘font’.

This article is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you a better understanding of how fonts work.

What’s with the Quick Brown Fox?

Easy one. The Quick Brown Fox jumps over the Lazy Dog is a sample sentence that includes every letter of the (English) alphabet at least once. It’s an easy way of expressing what each letter will look like in a particular font.

Font Weighting and Style

These two are pretty simple. Font weighting refers to how thick the characters it contains are, or more exactly how thick the strokes of the characters are. For instance, a font can be regular, bold, or light; with regular (understandably) referring to the standard format of the font.

Style refers to the shaping of the font within the parameters of the typeface. Fonts can be italic (or oblique), condensed (or narrow), compressed, extended (or expanded), and so on. For instance, the characters from an italic font will all have a distinct slope. The characters from a condensed or narrow font have narrower spacing than the standard spacing between them, while an extended or expanded font has wider spacing between its characters.

Font Families

There are two main families of fonts, of which most fall under ‘serif’ (e.g., Times) and  ‘sans-serif’ (e.g., Calibri). Serifs are those little features that appear at the end of strokes within characters, so a font that belongs to the ‘serif’ family has these, whereas those that are aligned to the house of sans-serif, do not. (The font you’re likely reading this in is a prime example of a san-serif font.)

A general rule of thumb is that if you’re designing something for a screen then you should stick to sans-serif fonts, particularly for body text; however, when it comes to print, you have a bit more flexibility. (Read more below)

Picking the right font for the occasion

Just as you wouldn’t (we’d hope) rock up to a black-tie event in a singlet and thongs, you should always try to choose a typeface that fits the context of the work it exists in. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to write up an annual report in something cursive like Scriptina, because it would appear inappropriate and unprofessional to do so. (It would also be difficult to read). Think about who your target audience is, and what sort of document/ text you’re writing up. A good graphic designer will know what works, and what doesn’t.

For the love of Comic Sans (Accessibility)

When selecting fonts it’s important to consider accessibility. People who are visually impaired or those who experience conditions such as Dyslexia may find it difficult to read more elaborate, (often cursive) fonts. More than 2 Million Australians and over 15% of Americans are estimated to have dyslexia, meaning that there’s a reasonable chance that some portion of your audience will as well. Know your audience, and consider what their needs are. A good Graphic Designer will take these factors into account when drafting something up for you.

To optimise accessibility try to consider the following suggestions-

Sans-serif fonts are preferred
Clear letter-spacing (letters should be distinct)
Line spacing should be at least 1.5
Font size should be at least 12-14pts
All caps and underlining reduce the readability
Letter forms such as “p” and “q” should be distinct, and not mirror images of each other.

While we haven’t really touched on it in this article, it’s worth noting that colour also plays into the readability of fonts. Always try to go with a colour that contrasts with the background it’s set upon, and for the love of good design, never do rainbows. (Never.)

Make sure you nail your design choices every time. Our team is ready to help!

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