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An overview of tools and techniques for finding your favorite fonts—along with some insights on how to choose the right fonts for your project.

Why Typography Matters

I’ve been fortunate enough to blog about typography for Extensis for the last several years. As a published author, avid reader and designer, I’ve always loved fonts and typography, but my research for this forum in particular has only deepened my respect and appreciation for the art and craft.

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Poster for Helvetica documentary; Movies can make great typographic inspiration

Typography defines a brand. It sets the tone and style of the communication. It affects our mood and comprehension. Like the audience of a film, type affects people without their awareness.

With the advent of web fonts, pop culture references to hating Comic Sans, and insightful documentaries like Helvetica, appreciation for fonts and typography only seems to grow. And it’s no surprise that the ubiquity of computers and mobile devices acts as a catalyst for this growth. Back in the day, typesetting and font-related concerns were relegated to the print shops of old guys covered in ink setting metal plates, then publishing houses and ad agencies took over with desktop publishing, which spread as a niche fetish for graphic designers in the ’90s. While typography will probably always remain an academic discipline and aesthetic concern largely outside the mainstream, access and exposure to a virtually unlimited catalog of fonts in the digital age has opened the realm to everyday users and designers alike.

How to Get Inspired

For designers, the sheer number of typefaces can make choosing the right font a daunting task. Here’s a list of some places I find inspiration:

1. Typography blogs—Some favorites of ours include I Love Typography and Typographica, but as you can see, there are plenty to dig into.

2. Street signs and signage—Jean Francois Porchez, who maintains iPhoto folders for inspiration he’s labeled “Street Signs” and “Historical.” While your eyes may glaze over your native land’s street signs, foreign signage is always a nice source of inspiration for functional, unobtrusive choices.

3. Musician websites, flyers, record covers—As both a musician and designer, this may sound a bit prejudiced, but some of the best design I’ve seen comes from the music world. Even with today’s global hyperconnectivity, indie music maintains a regional focus, so it’s nice to soak up fonts and design flavors from the nooks and crannies of the world.

4. The movies, and opening title sequences—Kyle Cooper consistently incorporates new fonts into his work. Custom fonts like those featured in the opening credits of movies like Se7en and Spider-Man 2 help set the tone—and set each film apart from all the others using Trajan.

5. Hot agencies and websites—I regularly come across awesome websites using fresh new typefaces and clean design, and I bookmark them. Three of my most recent favorites are Vox, Humanaut (agency), and Inc. Magazine’s website.

6. Top font foundries—After learning more about Helvetica-hating type designer Bruno Maag, I became a fan of his typeface design. This taught me an important lesson: Whenever I see a font I like, I look up the foundry.

7. Books and magazines—Amidst a sea of bad design (romance paperbacks notwithstanding), good book covers just seem to jump off the shelves at me. When I see one I like, I snap a photo of it and file it. I also like to make a note of the designer and look up their website to see more of their work, paying particular attention to their use of typography. Magazines feature and even create the latest fonts to grab attention and set the proper tone for the content (I discovered one of my recent favorites, Stag, on a Rolling Stone cover, for example).

In terms of sheer creativity, aesthetics and effectiveness of evoking the subject matter, 'Eating Animals' is one of my favorite book jackets in recent memory.

In terms of sheer creativity, aesthetics and effectiveness of evoking the subject matter, ‘Eating Animals’ is one of my favorite book jackets in recent memory.

How to choose

There are a lot of criteria and considerations in choosing the best fonts (Cliffs Notes: legibility, tone and style, compatibility). Another topic is choosing the best body copy fonts, (with main considerations being rendering, legibility and flexibility). For my How To Identify That Font post, I discussed a number of favorite designer tools and techniques for doing just that (MyFonts What the Font?!, FontShop and Identifont, Veer’s Font Finder, and Typophile’s Type ID board, to name a few).

So to this point we’ve covered why type matters, where to find inspiration, and some main criteria and considerations around choosing. Even so, choosing the perfect font never seems to be an easy task.

Fonts can be forever, but don’t take forever to choose one

One of the toughest parts of any design project for me is deciding which fonts to use. Basically, the decision comes down to either a) experimenting with a ton of options for hours on end, which I know would be a lot of fun and probably result in something that’s absolutely perfect, or b) making a call. I personally only allow myself enough time for educated guesses. If it’s totally wrong in design, I’ll try another combo. Ultimately when designing for clients, time is money, and going with your gut is key.

While there are plenty of ways to keep a list of one’s favorite fonts (I keep a Google doc with a link to the font and a small screenshot), every designer has a mental catalog of old and new favorites. A designer’s eye, tastes and preferences—whether it’s for themselves or their clients—can be the best tool for deciding on typefaces. Looking at a long list of fonts for a recent project, I chose the one that is my “newest favorite” for headlines. It was right for this project, I just loved to look at it, and I am hoping that the client feels the same.

In choosing the right fonts, you ultimately have to follow your instincts. After all, that’s what the good clients are paying you for: your informed opinions and expertise. What fonts get you passionate? Which fonts not only best represent current trends and the zeitgeist, but best express your brand, personality, and convey the tone and mood you’re going for?

Knowing why typography matters and how to stay inspired helps designers make these tough choices a bit easier. Right now some of my favorite fonts include Proxima Nova, Museo and Aktiv Grotesque. It’s impossible to take the time to experiment with everything, which is why I often fall back on the list in my head of recent favorites. If I really love a font, I commit its name to memory.

Where do you find inspiration and choose the right typeface for your projects? Sound off in the comments, we’d love to hear from you.

 

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