You’ve definitely seen it - a design that has a LOT of potential, but the font choice just...doesn't quite feel professional.
Another way to put it is, the typeface doesn't quite match the design aesthetic.
Perhaps it might work if we didn't recognize that text as Chalkboard, Myriad Pro or another common system font.
Certainly I have some favorites and styles that I gravitate toward because it’s my own aesthetic and tone. For example, I naturally love the clean look of san-serif fonts, bold fonts, handwritten fonts that feel loose (and not too repetitive or structured), and fonts that have a bit of rough-edge without overdoing it.
Going through my Communication Design program at Washington University in St. Louis, we were taught to envelop the idea that WORD and IMAGE intertwine with each other to make a design work well.
It’s difficult to make a design feel wholly complete when you focus on creating a sole illustration and then try to attach text to complement it.
At the same time, it’s also just as tough to focus on great typography and then try to fit an image to it.
Both text and image have to be considered simultaneously when considering the final product (if you know the final product needs to contain text and image).
Often times we will take a really great design or illustration and try to match a font to it…which can be tricky to do. Sometimes you can get it to work well if the illustration allows for it. Other times, there’s a bit of a mismatch.
Here are a quick few tips I have on picking the right fonts. It’s not quite as extensive as a course I would teach on typography in a school setting, but hopefully just enough for some of you to consider font choices in the future (and how they can really set the tone for design)
1. Expand your arsenal of fonts by finding some new fonts!
You are NOT limited to the fonts you have default on your computer.
In fact, there are many websites out there that have fonts (100% free for public and commercial use!) that you can use to enhance anything you create.
Three of my favorite frequented font sources are:
- DaFont.com (make sure you check the boxes that say “100% free” if you plan to use these for marketing or advertising)
- FontSquirrel.com (all 100% free for commercial use).
- GoogleFonts.com (all 100% open source and free for commercial use)
While I do have a few fonts I go to time and time again and repeat, many times when creating a logo or design for someone I end up browsing these three websites to find the EXACT font that works well.
DaFont has the most variety, although many of the uploaded fonts have some impurities or quirks with spacing or consistency. They do have a "donate" option - if you really love the font and want to support the designer.
FontSquirrel has the most professional, “tried & true” fonts. Smaller database, but every font is designed very well with the utmost attention to consistency, detail, spacing and readability.
Google Fonts have the greatest carryover to website designs as they provide source codes to import their fonts to embed on most web platforms. These fonts are designed with few impurities as well, although the number of decorative, script or handwritten variations are limited.
2. Know what style of font you are looking for.
Fonts come in many different types and styles - many people categorize fonts as being either “simple” or “decorative” - yet there are so many more ways to categorize them.
In case you may not be as familiar with all of the numerous categories, here are a top few to distinguish when selecting font choices:
For those of you not familiar with typefaces “serif” means “foot” - so serif fonts are the fonts that have the little feet on the steps of the letters.
You will usually find serif fonts in traditional applications (printed books or documents). This font style feels more romantic or old-school, and can also feel more decorative than simple sans-serif fonts.
Sans-serif means “without feet” - these letters are more clean cut along the stems and have a more modern feel to them. Sans-serif fonts will pair better with images or illustrations that have similar line-weights or shapes. Take note that sans-serifs do come in a variety of shapes (very narrow vs. very rounded, and everything in between!)
This style is meant to be more decorative and reminiscent of vintage-y or pastime styles. Often times you will find collegiate lettering, bold and groovy or curvy lettering, lower cross bars on H or A’s, swooshes and faux outlines or drop shadows.
This font style feels more organic and will usually have a distressed or rugged texture. Often, the text has some spots, splotches or scratches taken out of it, and the edges are not clean cut or straight. This is a great font style to match with rough textured illustrations.
Most handwritten fonts are meant to feel a lot looser than structured, fonts. Often times the bowls, ascenders and descenders will sit at different positions above or below the baseline, which allows the font to feel more organic and less rigid. Take some caution when using handwritten style fonts, as some fonts don’t feel natural when letters are repeated and there is no difference between how two A’s look when computerized (because when you handwrite something, all letters will vary a little bit in their shape). Many system handwritten style fonts can feel too static, so check out FontSquirrel, Google Fonts or DaFont for fonts that feel a bit more naturally hand-drawn. Handwritten fonts are usually more casual and laid-back than calligraphy script fonts, though can also feel very youthful. If your design appeals to an older age group, minimize your use of handwritten fonts that feel very juvenile.
This font style is a variant of handwritten that is more cursive and flowy. Often times, the letters will connect with each other, and may vary in width as if a brush or marker was painting each letter. This font style is excellent for sophisticated or formal applications, and is also very popular with invitations. Script fonts that are more handwritten will make a design seem more casual and laidback (down to earth), whereas script fonts that are smoother and structured will feel more formalized and upscale.
With calligraphy fonts, I would caution using ALL UPPERCASE since most uppercase script fonts are designed to start a word (without being designed to follow a letter) so each capital letter can leave awkward amounts of space, making it tougher to read.
While there are so many other sub-categories as well (celtic, digital, brush, typewriter, etc), they will usually fit into one of the above classifications.
3. Consider the style of the image or illustration you are pairing the font with, and try to match the characteristics of that image.
Let me show you a few different styles of illustration, and what I consider when pairing the font.
This is a hand drawn illustration with more texture in the line drawing (less smooth and clean). Therefore, I consider fonts that have a bit more of a rough edge to them…fonts that don’t feel as “static” or on a grid, but tend to break the baseline a bit.
I originally drew the script font, but in considering how I would be using the final product (apparel for all genders) I decided on a font that felt less cursive and feminine, yet still embodied slight grunge and hand-printed qualities that mimicked the style of the illustration.
This is a design that is very geometric based. Everything about the logo I created for CrossFit Magnify feels precise, measured (and mostly symmetrical). Therefore, I want to choose fonts that also feel very geometric and kept tight to a grid.
I chose to mix and match a narrow font (to fit in the vertical space of a postcard) with the rounded, geometric font used in the logo and bottom text.
This illustration has smoother lines than the previous unicorn illustration. As you may or may not know, I designed this solely in illustrator (instead of hand-drawing it and scanning it) so the fine lines are a bit more smooth and consistent in their width and do not vary as much with texture.
Therefore, I am going to pick fonts that still have a rustic feel, but have consistent widths and smoothness in the lettering. I chose a script front for Sirens & September to tie in with the curves of the jumprope, but also because the competition is for females and the design can use a more feminine style to it. The thinner fonts for the competition description are as smooth and thin as the illustration lines are.
This particular illustration has rounder, bolder shapes and thicker lines. It also has a very comical and young feel. Therefore, I chose fonts that were just as bold and thick to complement.
I hope that this article helps give you some insight into how I select and pair fonts with many of my illustrations. Typography pairing is a hard skill to master (as I am still working on it myself!) and it helps to be able to know a bit more about different fonts, as well as have some resources in making better decisions.
4. When in doubt, here are some basic principles:
- Don’t choose a system font…find a font that you won’t be able to recognize the name of (or that it has been used by other people many times).
- Go more simple than decorative. Decorative fonts can be hit-or-miss since they can portray strong styles. What makes a font decorative, you ask? Anytime a font has a lot of variation in thickness or weight, curls, swirls, unevenness or feels artsy, it will most likely be categorized as decorative.
- Select fonts that are more legible over fonts that are dramatic, textured, or swirly when you have larger blocks of text.
- Limit ALL CAPS to short phrases or headers, as all caps can seem like you're loud or screaming when in larger paragraph blocks.
5. Lately, take time to notice designs around you that work well, and what the text or font looks like.
Font pairing is a skill that takes a lot of time, practice, inspiration and design exposure to become proficient at. The more you are able to find and be inspired by other designs that you enjoy, the more familiar you will become with the types of fonts out there and which tend to work better in certain situations.
I hope that you found a few of these tips helpful in your next design project! Again, this is just a super brief basic intro - I could write for HOURS on the intricacies of selecting the perfect fonts and integrating text into image.