I sat frozen in my seat, staring at my unopened email. It was from HR. Whoa, I know what you’re thinking – I was about to get canned. Wrong… so wrong. But I had opened these emails before and I knew all too well what to expect. Finally, with a winced face and hesitant hands, I clicked. Yep, exactly what I had predicted: An announcement for our next corporate event – in 24pt Comic Sans with alternating lines of neon pink & blinding yellow. Who does she think she is, Lisa Frank?
Obviously, I’m very passionate about fonts – and colors – but let’s just focus on fonts for today. Technically, they’re called typefaces, but I'll save that designerese for my free font guide (at the bottom of this page).
Learning to Recognize Good Fonts
While redesigning my logo, my dad took one look and said, "Your logo is just Times New Roman, what's so special about that?" I almost choked. Times New Roman?! He obviously can't tell the difference between a modern serif font and one from 1932. When you study the characters, spacing, height and weight of a font, you'll start to see the beauty in various typefaces (or the awkwardness of others).
While you may not be a font geek like me, you can still learn to distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly. While this is completely subjective, you’ll never view fonts the same again. You're welcome.
Some on my "ugly" list may have been the most popular font of their time, such as Cooper, Courier, Impact and Times New Roman. Since their creation, there have been a ton of beautiful fonts created that can do the job better. Some of these I just find tacky – like Curls and Herculanum. And then there are my favorites: Comic Sans and Papyrus. And by favorites, I mean, they actually make me want to hurl. No, HR Director, using Comic Sans does not imply that your corporate event is going to be "fun." Sorry, Indian restaurant, Papyrus doesn't make your cuisine look more authentically ethnic... it makes it look cheaply designed and a copycat of every other Indian restaurant.
A few other things to look for are the natural letter spacing, so you don't have to adjust the spacing between too many letters (which I explain in my font guide); awkward characters like the ones in my other chart; and the height, thickness and curves of the letters. Zaphino has such tall ascenders and descenders (see the h and p), as well as strange pointy ends. On the other hand, Anna Clara flows smoothly, and doesn't have ridiculously tall letters.
Gotham is a no-fail font for its consistent letterforms and a huge variety of thicknesses. Faith & Glory and Horse Wallop are newer fonts, and their hand-drawn quality is oh-so-in right now. Drone Ranger is a great alternative to other bold fonts, without being too crazy.
To create a good hierarchy within your text and to make for a balanced image, I suggest using no more than three fonts per project – be it your website, branding, or any promo graphics. You don't want your design to look cluttered (and consequentially unprofessional). Also make sure that the two or three fonts you choose complement one another. To create a cohesive look, try to pair fonts of different styles and weights. Try a sans serif with a thick script, or a thin serif with a bold sans serif. You can use two serif fonts, as long as one is maybe tall and bold, and one is short and thin. Playing around with the font size and spacing can also create hierarchy and balance between fonts. (And if you're still confused as to what a serif is, make sure to download my font guide!)
Where to Find Fonts
There are tons of great free fonts wandering the interwebs, just waiting to make a splash on your next campaign ad. But before you spend hours creating the perfect graphic, make sure you check the copyright & licensing info for your free font. Some are for personal use only (though you can often purchase licensing), some require attribution, and others prohibit specific usages such as logo designs or graphics that will be sold for profit.
When creating your branding, I highly advise that you steer clear free fonts, at least for your main fonts & logo. They can often be extremely overused, bringing down the value of your brand, and leaving you without a distinct/unique look. I can’t tell you how many websites, banners and print graphics I’ve seen with the same free fonts (I’m talking to you, Black Jack).
When not to use free fonts:
- Your logo
- Your branding
- Social media graphics
- Branded promo graphics
- Print pieces
When to use free fonts:
- Your sister’s baby shower invites
- A printable quote for your office
- 1-off projects (with correct attribution/usage)
- Placeholder text for testing fonts
Favorite Sites for Free Fonts
Purchased fonts can polish your brand with a distinguished, high-end look, helping you to stand out and be memorable. But don’t be scared by the price just yet… some fonts are completely affordable (like $12) and others can be bought in package deals (sometimes just $30 for 20 fonts)!
You’ll need to read the fine print before purchasing, though, since some paid fonts can still have regulations over usage. I once bought a font for my logo only to read that it prohibited logo usage. Cue sad face.
Purchased fonts often have some great benefits (though not guaranteed):
- A larger variety of weights – thin, medium, bold, heavy, etc
- A variety of styles (grunge, outline, etc)
- Character ligatures – you know, when two overlapping letters work better as one connected glyph than two separate letters. Ex: ff or fi
- Extra characters and symbols – some fonts have alternative letter styles and extra glyphs
- Small caps option
- Multi-language support and accent characters
Favorite Sites to Purchase Fonts
Font & Design Bundle Sites
So there you have it... your ultimate font guide! BUT, if you want to dive deeper and learn some designerese — tracking, kerning, leading, sans serif vs slab serif, OTF vs TTF — make sure to download our free guide!
Get the Ultimate Font Guide!
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