October 17, 2017

What's Your Type?

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

One font meets another font in Rome. He asks, "Are you a Roman too?"
"No," says the other, "but I am an Italic."

If that joke made sense to you, you've come to the right place. You're a font-savvy writer who probably pays attention to the typeface you use, and you prefer some over others.  You don't have to have a font obsession like TV's Brick Heck (The Middle) to recognize that some typestyles work better than others, and a lot depends on the project.

For most of our writing, the default fonts do the trick just fine. Arial or Times New Roman are familiar friends and easy on the eyes.  But there are times when you want something that isn't so ordinary, say, for a book cover or an author website.

For the sake of simplicity, let's narrow down all fonts to one of three types: Serif, Sans Serif, and Decorative

Serif fonts like Times New Roman contain hooks, feet and other embellishments. Studies have shown that Serif is the easiest type of font to read, which is why almost every book from the beginning of time has used it. This classic font is ideal for long stretches of copy.

Sans Serif, minus all the ornamentation, is simpler, and some consider it a bit more modern. It has a clean look that advertisers and signage of all kinds have relied on for decades. The Sans Serif font Helvetica is so popular that it was the subject of a 2007 documentary.

Decorative fonts have personality and, used sparingly, are good at establishing a mood. They are only used for titles and headlines, never for body text. A little goes a long way, and if there is too much of it, the eye fatigues quickly.

A look at the covers on this week's New York Times Best Sellers list shows no preference for either Serif or Sans Serif fonts. Both are used almost equally for titles and author identification.  Decorative fonts are much rarer, appearing less than 10% of the time. In almost every case, the background or foreground art gets center stage, while the text is merely complementary.

These two book covers are quick examples of how font choice can make or break a design. The tasteful one on the left can be read even from a distance using bold text and good color contrast, and its tall font is a good match for the tall shape of a book. You could say it hits the bulls-eye.

Where do I begin with the one on the right? First of all, it's a decorative font that wasn't designed to be in all caps, nor do the two ornate fonts play nice together on the same cover. Along with leaving hardly any border on one side, the font is barely discernable against the busy background.

In the end, it's all about communication.  Feel free to experiment with style to get attention, but only take it as far as you need to.  You'll never want to sacrifice clarity for creativity.

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