|There was once no choice|
An infinite number of typefaces are available today. Hundreds of them are released every week and if you are a young designer like me it can be overwhelming to know where to start in choosing a typeface. Do you pick what’s cheapest? Do you choose based on foundries, variations? This is a critique of a handful of contemporary typefaces. It is meant to help novice designers compare contemporary typefaces based on qualities rather then just how the typeface looks. Every designer has intuition and preferences that tell them what typeface to apply in their projects, but if you can take a critical perspective on foundries, type anatomy, type history, etc. it will elevate and strengthen your design.
In the past there weren’t many foundries and when they released a typeface there would be detailed reports available in specimen books. Today anyone can create a typeface and upload it online with no accompanying information, leaving it up to your discretion as a designer to find its proper usage. Think of these critiques as templates, a system of analysis, to apply to typefaces in order to discern their quality and worthiness of being chosen for your projects.
This is for people who are interested in the process of choosing the right typeface for the job. The main challenge young designers face is being able to weigh the limitless choices available with how to use them in the best way possible. This article aims to clear up some common misconceptions, help in making decisions, and develop a way of thinking for navigating the complex world of typefaces.
The typefaces in this article were chosen for their diversity: some are display faces, some are free, some cost $500, some created by established designers, some created by singular type designers. The reason I did this was to showcase typefaces strengths and weaknesses based on these fundamental differences.
DIN Next Slab by Monotype
Begas Neue by Font Fabric
Hoefler Text by Hoefler & Co. ________________________________________
Dins rich history and legacy as a carefully crafted type family makes it a solid typeface to add to your collection. The German Institute for Standardization for Industrial Uses created Din. Due to the designs legibility and uncomplicated design it has become popular for signage. Many adaptations and expansions of Din have been released since its inception.
Din Slab was released by Monotype Imaging Holdings and designed by distinguished type designers Aleira Kobayashi, Sandra Winter and Tom Grace. Monotype is one of the oldest and most successful foundries currently in existence. They have developed many of the most widely used typeface designs: Times New Roman, Gill Sans, Arial, etc. This level of expertise shows in the design and resources available for Din Next Slab and also its price. As a consumer, you can trust the usability of this typeface on any platform imaginable.
Monotypes typefaces are sophisticated, but you are also paying for the brand, specimen resources, and its development by professional type designers. Din Slab is $49 per font and $499 for the family. The pricing for this typeface is understandable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is worth it. Most designers would never spend this much on a single typeface, making Din Slab a luxury product and Monotype guilty of utilizing luxury-branding strategies.
The structural foundation of Din Slab is built on a sturdy, industrial look. The addition of slab serifs is what sets it apart from its sans serif predecessor. These serifs add a subtle playfulness and approachability to a famously cold, utilitarian type family. You can use that to your advantage as a designer and really have some fun pairing Din Slab with Din. For example, using Din Slab as an eye-catching display typeface in a headline with Din as the body type guides the eye beautifully down the page.
The ability to create seamless pairing options is what excites me most about Din Slab because all designers know how tedious is to compose compatible pairings in type based projects. Din Slab is successful as an addition to Dins extensive font family is this regard. Din Slab (specifically Regular, Medium and Bold) looks lovely in headlines because it is bold, flows well, and is inviting. Unfortunately Din Slab is not very legible as body copy or when used in small sizes—this is the nature of slab serifs. _______________________________________________
Bebas is considered the Helvetica of free typefaces. This is kind of bullshit. Helvetica was a masterfully designed typeface that revolutionized typography and graphic design. Bebas is a limiting, hipster rip-off of Helvetica. Ryoichi Tsunekawain designed Bebas and it became available in December 2013 for general use. Bebas Neue (which contains 4 variations—Thin, Light, Book, Reg). Even as a free typeface, Bebas has been successful because it works well in commercial work. This is why people call it the ‘Helvetica of free typefaces’ and also due to the sans serif letterforms similarity to Helvetica. The types’ uniformity, narrowness, low crossbars, and it being all caps gives it a hip, bold feel.
Being all caps limits Bebas, making it only suitable for headlines and short sections of secondary type. Narrow typefaces are difficult to read in paragraphs at small sizes (think of Surgeon General warnings). Although Bebas does not work in body copy, it is a straightforward no frills design and can be easily paired with any classic serif. Free typefaces usually are questionable in their design and are not as flexible, but since they are free there is not much harm in trying them in your designs. I would recommend using Helvetica Condensed in place of Bebas. Helvetica has mixed caps, obliques, and more weights making it a more usable typeface. Bebas is narrower in comparison to Helvetica, and is bit more playful than Helvetica Condensed. ________________________________
All typography nerds understand the lure and magic of blackletter instills. Tim Ahrens has done a magnificent job in developing a more welcoming form of blackletter. Old English/Blackletter is a style of typography known for its harsh, traditional connotations—think of Motorhead’s logo, Hitler’s declaration of Fraktur as ‘the peoples font,’ and the genesis of printed type, the Gutenberg bible.
Ahrens has combined qualities of Roman type with Old English. JAF Herb features mostly Old English letter formations with rounded strokes, blunt corners, and terminals that lead the eye forward. Blackletter, even when it has been humanized, is still nearly impossible to read in body copy. JAF Herb is an amazingly bold display face that would look hip and cool in any poster, t-shirt, or logo. You have to be careful with kerning since Herbs letterforms are bold and have expressive terminals. __________________________________________
Hoefler Text was created at the dawn of the digital age at a time when classic typefaces were being digitized into trash. Hoefler Text became a beacon for the success of digital type design. Since its inception the Hoefler Text family has been expanded to an impressive 27 styles. The breadth of Hoefler Text makes it possible to achieve a range of sensibilities without leaving the confines of one type family.
The mark of a great designer is not what one font they choose, but what typeface system (variations and pairings) they apply throughout their work. Many times it is a smart design choice to choose a more ‘traditional’ typeface that allows you to use whatever variations (headlines, body, captions) may occur. Hoefler Texts legibility and variability makes it a safe choice for any book, website, or magazine. It would fail as an eye-catching, loud headline in posters and advertisements, but you could possibly pair it with a typeface of that nature. Hoefler Text is a dependable workhorse you can count on. It isn’t flashy or cutting edge, but it is perfect for projects that call for a tasteful, finessed typography. _______________________________________________
This article is an exercise in analyzing and comparing typefaces in the marketplace. Knowing fundamental history, type anatomy, foundries, and designers is crucial to making smart design choices. It’s important as a designer to support type designers by buying typefaces despite the plethora of free typefaces available. Spending money on type facilitates carefully designed typefaces to continue to be made. Also as a designer, chances are that maybe one day you would like to sell your own typeface! Typography is our most basic tool and we need to employ it with the utmost care.
©Jessie Carvalho and the CCA Arts Review