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Type Tips

How to find a suitable text font?

August 04, 2017 by
Peter Glaab
Peter Glaab

Searching for the right font for a text-intensive design project can feel like trying to solve a riddle. This is because the requirements for a suitable font are actually much more complex than it seems at first glance – and the almost endless number of available fonts doesn’t make the decision any easier, either. But don’t worry: with the right questions and a few criteria, your search will be a success. The focus of this article is fonts for typesetting.

Text fonts differ from display fonts (that is, typefaces used as display fonts or typographic design elements) only in the nuances, and sometimes you have to look really closely to see the difference. Depending on the project, one of the most important requirements can be the character set – for example, whether or not the typeface supports different writing systems like Cyrillic or Greek. A text font should always work in context, i.e. its character should match the theme and content of the text.

I. Legibility

Legibility (or the comprehensibility of text information) is the Holy Grail of typography. When it comes to font selection, the legibility of the typeface is what matters. This includes the unique recognizability of each letter and the distinctness of characters with similar forms.

Letters from six different Adrian Frutiger fonts, superimposed: despite differences in shape, the basic form of the letters is identical.
Letters from six different Adrian Frutiger fonts, superimposed: despite differences in shape, the basic form of the letters is identical.

“It is not the simplest, but the most definite letter forms that are the best to read.” (Hans Peter Willberg)
“It is not the simplest, but the most definite letter forms that are the best to read.” (Hans Peter Willberg)

The comparison between the Futura and the FF Yoga in terms of readability reveals major differences. Here are two types of fonts with fundamentally different principles of form.

Futura is a geometrically structured typeface with greatly simplified letter forms. Circles and lines drawn with the ruler instead of the pencil, however, contradict the recognizability and distinctiveness of the letters.

FF Yoga, on the other hand, is among the fonts with a dynamic design principle. It has lively letters with open forms (lowercase e, c, a, s) and a friendly appearance. Dynamic fonts are particularly suitable for long sections of text, where reading comfort is the most important criterion.

Another form principle can be found in the so-called static fonts. These include the classics like Didot and Bodoni, as well as their san-serif descendants like Akzident Grotesk or Atrament. These features have elongated oval curves, self-contained lowercase letters (e, c, a, s) and a strict appearance. If readability is the main focus, static fonts are definitely not your first choice.

Geometric, dynamic and static form principle in comparison – Futura, FF Yoga and Bodoni.
Geometric, dynamic and static form principle in comparison – Futura, FF Yoga and Bodoni.

II. Intended use

Whether a font is suitable or unsuitable depends on its intended use. Many fonts have been designed for a specific use or a specific medium. The following (incomplete) overview provides a summary of potential uses. If you would like to learn more about the subject, the book Shaping Text by Jan Middendorp is a great source of information.

Informational reading

In magazines, newspapers, textbooks and encyclopedias, images and text compete for attention. Clear hierarchies are needed so that the reader understands where to find what information. A font suitable for these texts, which are usually divided into manageable sections, should include several styles (e.g. thin, bold, condensed, etc.). This enables adequate potential for differentiation and design in the layout. Since the text columns are generally narrow in this context, the economy of space is often a critical criterion.

Two different font families are in use here. The sans serif Realist sets the accents that help the reader’s orientation. The body text uses the Antiqua font FF Yoga, which provides for reading comfort and takes a step back from the text content.
Two different font families are in use here. The sans serif Realist sets the accents that help the reader’s orientation. The body text uses the Antiqua font FF Yoga, which provides for reading comfort and takes a step back from the text content.

Linear reading

While reading a novel, the reader wants to dive deep into the story. Comfortable reading without interference is the top priority. In this case, dynamic Antiqua fonts are a great option, since they do not impose themselves on the reader. They should have old-style figures, since they flow harmoniously with the text, dancing under, on and over the baseline. In addition to the standard ligatures “fi” and “fl”, high-quality text fonts often have additional ligatures that improve the quality of the typesetting in detail. Small caps, for example, are practical for the design of the title, the emphasis of proper names, or the formatting of the initials that mark the beginning of a chapter.

The Antiqua Novel is a contemporary interpretation of historical book fonts. It provides not only finely crafted italics, but also small caps as well as various figures and ligatures (in addition to six weight options).
The Antiqua Novel is a contemporary interpretation of historical book fonts. It provides not only finely crafted italics, but also small caps as well as various figures and ligatures (in addition to six weight options).

Information design

You could paraphrase the broad field of information design in two words: orientation and understanding. These include charts, infographics, maps, control systems in buildings and public spaces, and of course interface design. The individual applications are very different, and the requirements for a font can be equally specific. Information design is a field for specialists. In some cases, such as traffic signs, we need to use a font that is easy and fast to read. For charts and tables, a font needs to save as much space as possible and work well even in small point sizes. In interface design, the challenge for typography lies in the legibility on small screens. This requires open letter shapes, a high x-height, and stable weights. The rendering quality is also an important indication of a good readability. 


Serif fonts like FF Milo Slab are also ideal for apps, thanks to high-resolution displays on smartphones and tablets.
Serif fonts like FF Milo Slab are also ideal for apps, thanks to high-resolution displays on smartphones and tablets.

Corporate design

In brand communication, font as a medium serves not only to convey information, but also to identity. With a carefully selected font, a company communicates a specific tone – frequently in various languages and across various communication channels. Due to the abundance of requirements, for example, well-developed font systems with many styles and glyphs can be ideal for international companies. PMN Caecilia and PMN Caecilia Sans are interesting examples of this. This so-called font clan, which consists of the same skeleton, includes an Antiqua (suitable for long texts, but also headlines) and a Grotesque (for shorter sections of text, emphasis, image captions and headlines). 


If a family is not versatile enough, choosing a font clan can be useful.
If a family is not versatile enough, choosing a font clan can be useful.

III. Look and feel

A language affects us, regardless of whether or not we understand it. The same is true of letter forms. Display fonts clearly emphasize their charisma, while text fonts are more muted and quiet. These more sober representatives are far from neutral, however. Each typeface creates a visual sound that characterizes a text. The content of a text should always match the appearance of a font, and should be a further prerequisite for the selection of the typeface.

Collective font subconsciousness

Typography affects us not only through its distinctive appearance, but also through its purpose. It can be loaded with content and associations that gradually became more and more imprinted in our “font subconsciousness”. In this way, a font generates expectations in us, regardless of the words behind them. Designers must take the expectations of the target group into account when choosing a font.

Each of the five sans serif fonts has its own charisma.
Each of the five sans serif fonts has its own charisma.

In newspaper design, sturdy serif fonts have established themselves as the standard for text. In its redesign in 1986, the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw introduced Frutiger as its sole font family. It disturbed many readers, however, because a sans-serif typeface for text in the newspaper format was simply too unusual. Twelve years later – after the newspaper lost many readers – the specialized font Swift replaced Frutiger in the text columns.

IV. General Tips

Test fonts under realistic conditions

It is extremely difficult to evaluate a font via an online sample, where the individual words and details are the focus. Ideally, you have a printed document or know screen projects in which the font has already been used. You should also test the font under realistic conditions. This means that layout should be tested with real text in the output medium. The difference between the screen display of a font and the print reproduction on paper is immense. When it comes to screen typography, remember that the font differs greatly in layouts in a browser or an app. “typecast” is a practical tool to help you test fonts in the browser.

Do research and be inspired

There are excellent examples available for most design tasks. Seeking inspiration on forums like fontsinuse or in the FontShop font lists is a worthwhile idea.

A look under the hood

Current text fonts often have several hundred glyphs, and numerous OpenType functionalities that help drive typographic quality and productivity. The font samples from the manufacturers usually provide a good overview of the character set and integrated OpenType functionalities.

What font format should I choose?

When you find the right font, there are still some questions about the font format and the license model. Sometimes the clever choice can save a lot of money. For example, basic packages consisting of regular and bold styles and the corresponding italics are offered as attractive packages. There are usually discounts available for the combined licensing of desktop and web fonts as opposed to separate licensing.

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