Monday, January 2, 2012

Typography 101

I am a graphic designer, by education. I studied for eight years, but got hired in a related field directly out of college. Ten years later, I still work for that office. Still, most of my years as a student were focused on typography, and I still enjoy playing with it. Good type can make or break a book cover, and as all writers should be aware, a cover can sink your book.

So, I thought I would share with you some of my knowledge about typefaces. I cannot break them all down for you...there are millions upon millions. BUT, I think I can show you enough that you can feel them out on your own.

Great use of type!
Charlotte's Web is a beloved children's classic. Although I hate spiders, I always loved the tiny typographer. I'd like you to take a look at the title. Clearly, it's hand drawn, but it's done with precision. It's a "serif" font...the letters have "flags" on them, and they are drawn consistently from one letter to the next. The "C," "a," "r," "s," and apostrophe all have pretty round balls. The letters with ascenders (h, l, t, b, W, and b) are all treated the same. The bottoms of the letters are all the same.  Now, if you take a look at the credits at the bottom.

It is a common mistake to use too many type faces on a project. (Take a look at some household products and count the different types of lettering you see. Some bottles are kind of scary.)

Mr. Williams has drawn the letters on the bottom to closely resemble the title, so that it appears that he has used the same font family on the cover. They are also period and location appropriate to the story. Typefaces have personalities, as I will demonstrate below, and since the story is fairly well known, I will use "Charlotte's Web."

There are two things that should concern anyone using a typeface: legibility and readability. No, they aren't the same thing, no matter what the dictionary says.

Legibility regards a letter's ability to be recognized and understood.  You may have heard, or even commented on your doctor's illegible handwriting.

Readability regards the the ease or difficulty to read. Legibility affects the readability of text, but being legible is not necessarily readable.

How many agents/publishers have you queried that have specified they want submissions in Times New Roman or Courier? It is because they're readable.

How about Arial? It's highly legible and with good reason. It was drawn to mimic Helvetica, which was created by the Swiss in 1957 for road signage. Fifty years later, it's STILL (arguably) the cleanest, most legible typeface on planet Earth. was intended to be read by people glancing at it, sometimes while passing at highway speeds. In large blocks, the vertical strokes of Arial/Helvetica start to stand out and attract attention, which makes it less readable than TNR or Courier for body text.

So...legible affects readability, but does not equal readability. Got it? Okay, back to "Charlotte's Web."

Note about the images below...they are all 72pt type, and none of them are bold.

Serif fonts.
Serif fonts have strokes with flags. If you're interested, those flags became part of letters in the Roman empire, when they were painting letters on vertical surfaces. Gravity would cause the paint to run down...the serifs would stop the paint from dripping outside of the letter. Later, the element was incorporated into the letters by printers.

The first line is Times New Roman, which is highly legible and readable, which makes it great for body text.  The second is New Century Schoolbook, which is slightly larger and slightly wider. Also highly legible and readable, BUT...if it reminds you of Dick and Jane, its because it was used for the text. (At least in the copy that I have.) And how about Cooper Black, the last of the serif typefaces? Remind you of tires? There's a good reason for that.

Although all three of the typefaces above are the one drawn by the cover artist...none of them are appropriate substitutes. TNR is classic, but lacks charm. NC Schoolbook is passable. It was created for beginning readers and is contemporary with the story, but again, it lacks charm. Cooper has a kind of charm, but it is just way too heavy handed. 

San Serif fonts, then, are fonts without serifs, but they are certainly not all the same, as you can see below.

San-Serif typefaces
The first two fonts, Arial and Futura, are classic san-serif typefaces. They are very clean, but they are also very modern. Arial, as I mentioned before, emulates Helvetica. As such, it's not much good for anything but getting the content of your message across. Futura, with its perfectly round O has a bit more personality. But Charlotte was a spider...she wouldn't create a round O. Futura (1927) would be well-paired with Depression-era historical fiction with urban settings, like "The Great Gatsby." Sansumi is a favorite of mine. I like it's ultra-lightness, and it's soft curves provide a nice alternative to Helvetica Neue Ultralight, but Charlotte wouldn't care for it.

Some agents request either 12pt TNR or  Courier for queries and manuscripts. The first typeface above is Courier. It is acceptable because it is what it looks like...a typewriter font, and until recently, writers used typewriters to submit. The publishing industry is rather traditional, I've been told. The THIRD in the list above is Not Courier Sans...seriously, that's it's name. It's Courier, without most of its serifs. Choosing Courier for a cover type should only be done if the storyline involves typewriters...or people who use them, like reporters, in a pre-dot-matrix storyline. Not Courier Sans strikes me as a computer font, so I wouldn't touch it for Fantasy or Historical Fiction. Black Boys on Mopeds...don't look at me, I didn't name could be Middle Grade, Chick-Lit, or Serial Killer thriller. You'll notice that the apostrophe is missing. This font doesn't have an apostrophe. To use this, you'd have to borrow a suitable apostrophe from another typeface, which is something to consider, since you have to purchase most free typefaces if you intend to use them for commercial purposes. Just something to think about.

Now, some of you may know that there's an entire subcategory of typefaces for titling. Why not start there?

It's not a bad place to start, but you have the same considerations with titling fonts as any others. Does it fit your subject? Will it appeal to your audience? Does it remind you of anything when you look at it. The first title font is called Trajan Pro. It's a beautiful typeface, but its very contemporary. It doesn't say space opera. The second, Caeldera, has swashes and varying x-heights, and yet remains serious. To me, this has Irish, Scottish, Scandanavian paranormal fantasy written all over it. Lightfoot is incredibly charming with that underlined O. It has a richness that says Mystery to me, but I'm having a hard time explaining why. I think the tiny details would annoy Charlotte, who is writing her words by spinning silk, after all.

Handwriting fonts, maybe? The thing with handwriting, is...whose handwriting? Covers should be story specific, which means that handwriting would have to be important to the story. Then you'd have to match the handwriting font to the character in the story. If your protagonist is a 17-year-old male, a bubbly or curlicue font wouldn't be appropriate. If your character is a young female, but the story is a science fiction or thriller, then a bubbly or curlicue font wouldn't work either. Handwriting is ALL personality. Use them cautiously.
These four fonts are clearly special. The more special a font is, the more limited the usage. I've  downloaded fonts to use one letter. The four above are clearly inappropriate for Charlotte's Web. Zamphino feels like handwriting. It's very open, very pretty. It would work well with literary fiction, romance, 20th century historical fiction, and in general, a female audience. Hawaii Killer has both distressed and retro qualities to it, which could work with literary fiction. I would try it with with surfing or motorcycle gang themes in Southern California. Bleeding Cowbows is edgy, but definitely western. Could work with romance, or a thriller set in Texas, New Mexico, or on a ranch. Henry Morgan Hand has an old, elegant feel. It immediately reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel. It would work with anything 19th century.

Because even the most insignificant details of a typeface can change its character, you really have to try them before you know you have the right one. I've gone through hundreds for projects, used my favorite typefaces, and ended up disappointed when they weren't right.


  1. What a great introduction to one of my favorite subjects: typography! Unfortunately, it's a subject that doesn't grab a lot of people.

    Still, I love reading about the tiny variations between typefaces and the impact they have on the overall impression of a printed work.

    Great job, Wendy!

  2. Great post! I dabble in book cover design and the typeface drives me bananas! I find one that I think will work, only to see the title or author name in that font and hate it. I've spent hours on the internet looking for fonts that will work. You're absolutely right that you need to try them out before committing, because some of them just look wrong when they're coupled with the cover image.

  3. Hi Wendy! Happy New Year. There's a lot of good information in this post. I like playing around fonts in my graphics, but I'm no professional. It does make a big difference in the feel of a graphic. My most recent blog post is about kinetic typography.

  4. I have presented you with a blog award today!