Archetypefaces: how to choose the right font, without choosing the same fonts over and over

Archetypefaces: how to choose the right font, without choosing the same fonts over and over

At the age of fourteen I was given an art class assignment: design a typeface. I failed miserably (2/10). That began a lifetime struggle with understanding what typefaces were, how they worked, and how readers responded to them. Like everyone else with similar interests in those days, I bought the Letraset book and pored over the weird and wonderful typefaces like Odin and Galadriel. Like almost everyone else who has retained their typographic passion, over the years my interest in the wonderfully weird has faded. It is the hard-wearing, hard-working ‘bread and butter’ typefaces which we see thousands of times a day as body text which set their design stamp on our visual world.

However, over the last five years, I’ve run into a problem. It seems that there is no accepted theory of how to choose a typeface. There are some very useful classification systems, but just because a typeface is a uniform slab-serif geometric (such as Rockwell), this doesn’t mean that it will make readers respond in the same way as other uniform slab-serif geometrics, or differently from a transitional humanist serif, a didone or a Swiss sans serif. In other words, being able to categorise a font is useful for librarians, but not for designers.

Let me say at this point that you do not need to be a designer to be reading this. Every one of us faces font choices every day—something which could not be imagined even thirty years ago. The most universally derided font in the world is Comic Sans. However, every time that you see a document printed out or emailed in Comic Sans, it means that someone has made a deliberate (but entirely misguided) choice to use it rather than whatever their computer helpfully offered them.Hand-2

A few studies have been done into reader responses to a handful of typefaces. A newspaper article set in Baskerville, for example, comes across as more credible than one set in Georgia, Helvetica or Trebuchet. On the other hand, Arial and Times Roman appear to have no appreciable difference from each other in how readers respond, despite the fact that they look totally different.

In this article, I want to offer a method and a system, and I want to discuss 21 ‘archetypefaces’. These are archetypal in the sense that if you read about fonts at all, you will see these names coming up again and again, and they each represent a distinct kind of face and feel. Many familiar typefaces are not in the list: no Caslon, no Goudy, no Avant Garde Gothic, no Palatino, and so on. But those missing typefaces are each similar to one (but no more than one) of the archetypes I’m discussing.

I also want to suggest three essential tools for choosing fonts. I will look at these first.

The tools

The three tools I want to suggest are:

  1. A laser printer
  2. TypeDNA
  3. FontBook, the ultimate font catalogue, available as an iPad or iPhone app

You need a laser printer because print is still king. In fact, print is becoming more the king as the world digitalises. Things which are printed in black and white are becoming more powerful and more credible, whereas internet and email text is becoming more transitory and less credible. It is trivially easy to email ten thousand people, or to post something on Facebook, or edit an entry in Wikipedia. Something which is published in a printed newspaper, sent as a letter through the post, or in a book in a bookshop carries vastly more authority. To understand and choose typefaces, you have, at some point, to print them out and see how they appear on the page.

TypeDNA is a piece of software which scans all the fonts on your computer and tells you what is similar to what, and what goes with what. It works pretty well, as long as you are sensible and avoid its offers of ornate or display fonts for day-to-day work. It works on Mac or PC, and there’s a trial version. Google it.

FontBook lets you look quickly at pretty much every font there is, by category, period, use case, and so on. If you don’t have an iPad, you can do this on the web, but FontBook is quicker and generally more useful. Often, if you can understand what kind of font you are looking for, FontBook will help you find something that looks like that.

The archetypefaces

Full set-Jan 13 2016-67My archetypefaces are Garamond, Jenson, Walbaum, Bodoni, Baskerville, Clarendon, Friz Quadrata, Rockwell, Bembo, Cambria and  Caecilia (serifs), with Franklin Gothic, Futura, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, DIN Mittelschrift, Eurostile, Frutiger, Optima and Avenir (sans-serifs).

The notion: Intrinsic + Implicit + Association

So, my notion is that how we respond to typefaces is based on three factors: Intrinsic, Implicit, and Associative.

Intrinsic factors are design universals. They are based on the shapes of the letters. We can argue about whether the Golden Section really is an intrinsic rule, or merely a Renaissance aesthetic read-back to the classical period, but we can certainly agree that factors such as negative space, leading lines, and all the other principles of composition play a role.

Implicit factors are the methods of production implied by the letter forms. A script font implies that it was written with a pen. Of course, everyone knows that it wasn’t, especially if it appears in sixty foot neon letters. Nonetheless, it carries implications. A narrow font with strong serifs may imply that it was carved in stone. Trajan, a font which appears ubiquitously on movie posters, was drawn from Trajan’s column. The implicit production value suggests permanence, authority and cost.

Associative factors are where we’ve seen that font before, or something like it. Why is Comic Sans so universally derided? For what it is, it isn’t bad: as the name implies, it’s derived from comic book writing. Intrinsically the letter forms are uninteresting, but the shapes imply that it is swiftly written with a marker pen, made to be consumed in small chunks of text next to an illustration. There are many marker fonts and comic fonts out there which are not intrinsically better, and which imply the same production. The problem is association. We have seen Comic Sans used inappropriately for everything. Office bosses use it to soften a message which can’t or shouldn’t be softened: “To all staff, John Wiggins will be leaving us today, following a disciplinary hearing.” People have received hospital letters in Comic Sans telling them they need a serious operation (one reason why the NHS is now so serious about using Frutiger, or, when not available, Arial). We’ve seen it used to advertise products which have no comic heritage, to invite us to black-tie parties, and as a ‘friendly’ font in hundreds of emails from people we’ve never met. Association with excessively bad font choices has ruined Comic Sans.

Fonts which call attention to themselves (always a bad choice for body text) attract associations much more quickly, which is one reason why Times New Roman and Arial are tolerable, whereas Comic Sans (or, for the only slightly more discerning, Papyrus) is derided. Actually, Times New Roman, which once had the associations of the most respected newspaper in the world, is generally regarded as low credibility. Why? Because, like Comic Sans, we’ve seen thousands of letters and other documents which should never have been set in a newspaper font, and whose content we disbelieved, or regarded as not entirely honest.

If you want to weight these factors, I would say that it’s 1 x intrinsic, plus 2 x implicit, plus 10 x association. Associations, of course, are different for different people, and they can change quickly with time. They are also a good reason to go slightly off the beaten path. If you’ve decided that Bembo is exactly the font you need, you might consider ITC Leawood. It does all the things Bembo does and more, but it isn’t Bembo, and so the chances that it will be suddenly associated with something you don’t want after someone else’s major marketing campaign are less.

In depth: intrinsics

Metal type at the Plantain Museum in Antwerp

Metal type at the Plantain Museum in Antwerp

The original type designers, from Gutenberg onwards, were not particularly concerned with intrinsic properties of design. As much as possible, they were trying to reproduce the look and feel of handwritten manuscripts. However, they were extremely responsive to the reading public—if noone bought they books, they went out of business—so the black letter manuscript forms gradually evolved towards greater legibility. This, too, was not just a public service. A more legible font can be set smaller and still read easily, which means less pages to set and less paper costs. Moveable type was an enormous innovation and made the widespread distribution of books (and hence literacy) dramatically cheaper and easier. Still, if you’ve ever actually tried to set metal type, you’ll know that each page takes a lot of skill and time. The page, once set, could not be stored, so a reprint required doing the whole thing over again.

Up to the end of the 19th century, type evolved according to universal design principles (better balance of positive and negative space, widening of the ‘m’ and ‘w’ to make them more legible, greater distinction of forms, and so on). At the beginning of the 20th century designers, especially from the Bauhaus, constructed entirely new forms based on their modernist design aesthetic. Until then, letters tended to be Classical, in the sense that they used the proportions of Greek and Roman stone cut letters, Uncial, in that they used the forms of mediaeval manuscripts, or Humanist, in the sense that they used proportions reflecting Leonardo’s drawings of the human proportions, and also the mathematical Golden Section. The 20th century brought us Geometrics, which used forms drawn with a ruler and compass. These intrinsically have a different set of properties from classical, uncial or humanist letter types.


Futura, a geometric

Intrinsics are not very useful when distinguishing between different kinds of good letter types, because in all of them, the intrinsics are essentially right, otherwise they would never have survived to the present day as body text. Where the intrinsics are poor, letters have often been used for display typefaces. Stencil, Broadway, Mistral, and every other weird and wonderful typeface has intrinsic qualities which make it hard to read—except when set large. There is a place for this, which we’ll look at in the third section.

In depth: implicits

Implicitly, things which look like they are written with a pen appear more personal. Things which look like they are carved in stone are more imposing. Things which look like they have come out of an early computer printer look more futuristic. Those are essentially the three technologies or methods of production which most people have some awareness of. Real connoisseurs of print production methods may be able to separate in their minds flexo, thermal, moveable type, hot metal type and digital, but, for the most part, it’s pen, stone or computer, with ‘printed’ being the neutral mean.

What does this mean, practically? All fonts either have uniform strokes or some deviation from uniform, and all fonts either have some kind of serif, or they don’t.

Cambria JensonAlthough it’s possible to have a non-uniform font which is not more pen-like, in practice you never see this in body text fonts. Most serif fonts have some pen-like variation in stroke. Cambria, a recent serif font, has quite strong variation, as would be made by a very flexible pen, such as a quill pen. Jenson, a much older font, still has variation, but is more uniform. Slight variation in weight gives a font a sense of humanness and personality. Strong variation gives a distinctively old fashioned feel, mainly because handwriting now is almost uniform, even when done with a fountain pen.

RockwellGarmaondOptimaFuturaSerifs—the little terminations at the end of strokes—appear in almost all Western stone carving, although runes, also designed to be carved in stone, were unserifed. As a rule, handwriting is unserifed. The more pronounced the serif, the stronger the association with stone carving, as in Cambria above. You can have fonts with heavy serifs like slabs, such as Rockwell, lighter serifs, such as Garamond, flares which imply serifs but aren’t, such as Optima, and no serif at all, such as Gill Sans. Fonts like Jenson, and Garamond give the strongest implication of stone carving, because they don’t have the strong pen-strokes of Cambria, and their serifs are true terminations. Glyphic fonts, such as Friz Quadrata, are designed to resemble stone-cut letters even more closely. The function of the terminations in stone carving was to stop the stone crumbling. Slab-serifs like Rockwell are ‘more stone than stone’—they give an almost cast-in-concrete feel. At the other end of the spectrum, sans-serifs such as Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Frutiger, Franklin Gothic and Avenir are implicitly more human, in the sense that they reflect handwriting by not having any serifs at all.

OptimaPut the two together, and Optima is implicitly personal, because it has some variation in weight—like a pen—and no serifs. Univers is more personal than Helvetica, because, if you compare carefully, you will see slight changes of weight. Slight changes in the letter forms make for huge changes in the personality of the font when placed in body text on a page.

So, implicitly

  • heavy serifs suggest super-definiteness and authority
  • serifs suggest permanence, authority, prestige
  • sans-serifs suggest personal, human
  • strong variation in stroke-width implies calligraphy—prestigious, expensive, old but also human
  • weak variation in stroke-width implies handwriting—personal
  • no variation in stroke-width implies computer or machine production

In depth: association

Association is about what products, services, organisations, publications and contexts we associate with a font.

  • If you want to impress English-speaking committed Christians aged between 40 and 60, you could do a lot worse than set your text in Linotype Palatino. Why? Because the New International Version of the Bible, the most widely sold version (except among atheists, who prefer the King James Version) was originally set in Linotype Palatino. Under 30s will most likely have encountered one of the more recent reprints, but if 40s-60s is your target, and you want a Biblical level of authority, Palatino it is.
  • ClarendonWant to achieve the same thing, but for educated English speakers in the UK? Clarendon is your friend. Clarendon is the font in which the Oxford dictionaries have traditionally been set. It has a strong educational feel about it, which may come across as a little stuffy, but noone in the UK could doubt its authority. Go to the USA, where Webster’s dictionary was set in a ‘Scotch’ modern roman, not unlike Times New Roman, and Clarendon does not have this impact.
  • What do you think the ultimate heavy-metal font is, for loud music played by guitar bands? You might be thinking of something spiky, but the most photographed font in loud rock music, and the one you will see at most gigs, is the script letters used on the front of Marshall amplifiers. You can’t actually buy this font, and there appear to be no imitations available—perhaps there’s a reason for that.

There are—broadly speaking—two kinds of visual association which we make. We could call these ‘above the level of awareness‘ and ‘below the level of awareness‘. Above the level awareness tells us that Art Deco style fonts are reminiscent of the 1920s, brush style fonts are reminiscent of signwriting, stencil type fonts are reminiscent of the army. These types of fonts, which generally have poor legibility for the same reasons that make them distinctive, can be very useful for posters, as headers in ad hoc publications, and to instantly call up a particular sense. However, because they are above the level of awareness (we know we’re looking at an unusual font) they also lead us to question their credibility. An invitation to a 20’s style dance in Braggadocio might lead us to check just how 1920’s it really is: we would look for clues in other illustrations, perhaps cue words like ‘Charleston’, ‘Swing’, ‘Jazz’. The reason is that we’ve all seen that particular kind of font ‘misused’ by someone who just wanted to create a 20’s feeling to get your attention, before selling you tickets to the Freshers’ disco.

Below-the-level-of-awareness associations are much more powerful, especially when they are combined with colours, shapes and photography which all softly imply the same message.

Soft implications

Caecilia JensonThe most important soft implication is x-height, which is the proportionate height of the letter ‘x’ compared to the ascenders (‘h’,’l’,’f’,’t’,’b’,’d’,’k’) and the descenders (‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’, ‘q’).  High x-height gives greater readability within the same point size, but this has only been discovered during the past fifty years. What this means is that the greater the x-height, the more modern the font appears. If you are looking for ‘modern’, look first for high x-heights, such as Cambria, Caecilia and Avenir. If you want to look more classic, consider a smaller x-height, such as Walbaum, Jenson or Bodoni, and most versions of Garamond.

BaskervilleMost books are printed with serif fonts, often of the Baskerville kind, with the leading set to 130% of the font size (in most print it is 120%). If you want people to settle down to read extended text, the associations of Baskerville and its ilk (especially with slightly more leading) are very helpful. This is the underlying reason why the famous study found Baskerville to be ‘more credible’ than Georgia, Helvetica or Trebuchet: we’ve seen lots of books printed with it.

Frutiger Din FuturaWant to give people instructions? Especially short instructions? DIN Mittelschrift, a version of which is now available as FF DIN, was the font on all the German motorways for decades. Frutiger was originally designed as the font for an airport. If you’re wondering where you saw it last, it is the official font of the NHS, used both in the NHS logo and also (supposedly) in all hospital and health centre signage. Railway stations in the UK are signed in Gill Sans, which was the official font of British Rail and remains the main font for Network Rail. It was based on an earlier font designed for London’s underground.

Helvetica UniversHelvetica is one of the most widely used fonts in the world, prized for its neutrality (after all, it is Swiss). It has perhaps thrived especially because it is subtly better drawn than Arial. While Arial was licensed on Windows computers, Helvetica came standard with design-focused Postscript printers, and with the Apple Macintosh, which, for years, was mainly used in creative industries. Result: you have seen a lot of good typography done in Helvetica, and a lot of very bad typography done in Arial. For something which isn’t Helvetica, but just very slightly more elegant and personal, you could look at Frutiger, but it would also be worth looking at Univers—it has slightly tapered strokes which imply a slightly more hand drawn, and therefore personal, origin.

It’s not possible to give a complete list of even the most common associations, nor is it necessary. If you are typesetting for a particular audience, just go out and look at the kinds of things they buy, use and experience. Want to reach teenagers between 13 and 17? Absolutely do not look through your font collection for a ‘teenage’ font. Whatever you think is teenage is probably identified with a previous era—eras lasting only five years in teen world. Go and buy some teenage magazines, wander round teenage sections of toy shops, look at some teenage websites, and look at the fonts on hit album covers. There’s no point asking a teenager to tell you what a ‘teen’ font is. You are looking for things below awareness, which, by definition, they aren’t if someone can point them out. Things above the level—display fonts, usually—are ‘old’ before they are even issued.

While you can search for a lot of this material on the internet, you can’t do a search for ‘what fonts are teenagers using’ (without getting a load of opinions from people fondly remembering their teenage years in the 80s and 90s), or ‘what font is good for selling pies at a football ground’. This is probably a good thing, because by it being a little more difficult, it slows the inevitable erosion of good typefaces used inappropriately by people trying to create a false impression. You need to go through at four steps—first, search for ‘top ten albums sold to teenagers in 2015’, then look up each album, and then use Fontedge (in TypeDNA) or ‘WhatTheFont’ (search for those exact words) to tell you what the font is. You can now do a search for ‘alternatives to…’.

All there is

type anatomyUltimately, there are only seven things which distinguish typefaces from each other:

  1. Letter shape — uncial, classical, humanist, geometric, square or ‘other’, in different forms and proportions
  2. Negative space — counters, being the ‘eye’ in the ‘e’, the ‘a’, the ‘o’, the ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘g’, and the negative space outside the letters.
  3. Stroke weight — from light to heavy and from uniform to strongly differentiated, possibly with some tapering, and possibly heavy at the bottom of the ‘e’ and some other letters.
  4. Proportions — letter width : descender height : x-height : ascender height
  5. Terminals — from slab serifs through different kinds of regular serifs to flared serifs to no serifs (ie, sans-serif)
  6. Ornaments — little additions, such as on the ‘e’ in Jenson, on the capital ‘Q’ in many fonts, lowercase ‘g’ (often)
  7. Flow and page colour — the look of the font across several lines of text

Garmaond BemboIf you know what is familiar for your target readers, you can analyse the letter-type you have found using these seven characteristics. What would happen if you changed one aspect? For example, you could be creating a magazine to rival one set in Avant-Garde Gothic. What would happen if you put a serif on that? The answer is you would get something like Lubalin Graph, similar to Rockwell (one of our archetypes). You would have an entirely distinctive look and feel, but it would also seem very familiar and appropriate.

Equally, imagine that you are updating a publication which has relied for years on Garamond, and is now feeling a little tired. You have a couple of choices here. You could move from the Garamond you are using (there are many variants) to ITC Garamond, which has a higher x-height and feels more modern (though many designers would disdain you, as ITC Garamond is widely considered to be an inferior version), or you could retain the same overall look but move to Bembo, which has a greater x-height, bigger counters, but the same stroke weight, approach to letter shapes (but with a better ‘a’) and general feel.

TypeDNA will help you to pair fonts, but, as a sanity check, it’s always worth looking through the set of characteristics. Two fonts which are more or less the same but one has a serif and the other doesn’t will probably work, if you set one of them in a heavy weight and the other in a book weight. Put them together in the same weight and it will look like a mistake: too similar, like putting 10 point text next to 11 point.

Finally, don’t be afraid to delve into FontBook to find exactly the font you need, rather than relying on the fonts that came with your computer or software (almost certainly overused, except for Franklin Gothic which always looks good) or on the free fonts from the web. If you are going to spend £5,000 on print over the next three years, it’s worth spending £500 (no, I mean, really) on getting exactly the right font, as opposed to one that is sort of right. If you’re spending £500,000 on print, you would be daft not to get exactly the right font. Even if your investment is your time, it’s still worth working out: what is that my readers are most familiar with in this context? Change one thing on that.

How to evaluate a typeface

How to evaluate a typeface

Everybody loves getting something for free. Even on a high-budget project, there’s still the invisible lure of a free font. I’ve known designers who have spent weeks searching the web for that special typeface, the one that will make the rebrand, the new visual identity or that one-off job really sing.

There was a time when free fonts were almost universally awful. They were designed by hobbyists who had no notion of balanced sets, didn’t complete all the glyphs, and didn’t even think about kerning.

This is no longer the case. These days, many up and coming designers are choosing to release free weights or entire sets as marketing for their other work. In an increasingly crowded market, many are also self-publishing their fonts, bypassing the main type houses, and pitching them at just a few dollars. With some of the first digital typefaces coming out of industrial copyright next year, expect to see a slew of fonts appearing on the web, some of them very high quality. Additionally, subscription services such as TypeKit now make fonts available at no additional charge—providing you keep up with your subscription.

The big risk

The problem is, once you (or your designer) have chosen a font because it looks nice and appropriate, how do you know if it’s any good? The samples on the web-page won’t tell you that. Even printing out a page of text may not identify all the issues. Then there’s the question of legality. The website you found it on might say it’s free, but is it really? There are essentially eight areas that you need to check.

  1. Copyright ownership
  2. Rights
  3. Glyph set
  4. Weights
  5. Kerning
  6. Compatibility
  7. Embedding
  8. Price Structure

Copyright ownership

Who owns the font that you have just downloaded? There are two kinds of checks to make.

First, embedded in the font there should be a copyright notice. Any application you use (like FontExplorer) to preview fonts should be able to display this. Is this copyright the same as the one in the license file? Does it match the website where you got it from. If at all possible, find the copyright owner’s website, rather than relying on a free font site. If you can’t find the font owner’s site, Google the font name and check that no one is claiming copyright on that font.

Second, run a check through WhatTheFont to see if this typeface is too like a commercially available typeface.

The bottom line on copyright ownership is that everything which is created has a copyright, even if it’s not declared. If you can’t find the copyright owner, then, essentially, you can’t use the font. Even if someone is claiming that they own the copyright and are distributing the font for free, if it is too similar to a commercial font, you are taking a risk, unless you’re able to check that the copyright has expired—as is the case with classic fonts such as Garamond, Bodoni and so on.


Many ‘free’ fonts are released as free only for non-commercial purposes. A free font website may not bother to inform you of that. There should be a license file attached with the font download, or a statement placed within the copyright notice. My view on this is that if a font is only available free for private use, just delete it from your system after you’ve downloaded it and discovered this. Many designers who impose such restrictions are later impossible to track down, meaning that you cannot legally use the font in a commercial project. Having any font on your system that you don’t have complete rights to use is a risk—you may intend to only use it for a wedding invitation, but, later on, when doing a commercial project, how likely is it that you will remember that it was ‘private use only’? There are a lot of fonts out there, better to just discard the ones to which full rights aren’t offered.

The other thing about ‘private use only’ fonts is that many designers (erroneously) believe that if they have used copyrighted material in creating their font, it’s legal to release it for free for private use only. It isn’t. A rule of thumb in the design world is ‘if you change three things, it’s no longer copyright’. A lot of designers work to this, but, unfortunately, this is not a proper reflection of copyright. The situation with fonts is complex, and it’s different from the UK to the USA and elsewhere. However, if you’ve used someone’s digital code at all in your font, you are breaching their copyright, unless the license specifies ‘free to modify’. Bizarrely, it’s legal to print off their font, scan it back in, and make your font from that, though you must not use their trademark in naming it.

Basically, ‘private use only’ should set alarm bells ringing. Best to leave alone.

More usefully, some fonts are released ‘free to distribute, free to modify’. These fonts are gold if you are doing brand work. We once did a major rebrand where 400 separate sites needed to be sent the fonts. At typically $99 for a set of four weights, that would have been $39,600—with no guarantee they would ever have installed them. The designer had found a superb font which was not only free to distribute, but also free to modify. This allowed us to embed some special glyphs for that brand.

Some of the higher end free fonts, such as Museo, are free to use, but not to distribute. The owner quite reasonably wants people to download them from his website. Make sure you respect that.

Glyph Set

Glyphs are the individual characters. You don’t get this much with the new crop of designer-created fonts, but in the early days of free fonts on the web, many of the glyphs would be missing.

The easiest thing to do when looking at a font is to paste the following into the preview pane on the website where the font is:


This is all the standard glyphs which you would expect for English language typesetting. If you have particular needs, such as the Old English Eth, Yog, Thorn and Wyn, paste those in as well. Check that nothing is missing. If it is, and the license says ‘free to modify’, you could potentially insert the correct glyph in a font-editor like FontLab, but that is going to be a lot of work, even if you have the skills to do it. If the font is only ‘free to distribute’ then you are stuck. Abandon it and go on to the next font.

Be careful with Capitals only fonts. Some of them, such as commercial font Trajan, are magnificent. However, unless you can pair them with something that also has an uncial or lower-case form, they will be useless.

Some fonts, especially ‘authentic’ typewriter fonts, won’t have glyphs that never existed when the machines were in use. Again, this may be fine for an invitation, but the moment you want to describe a price in Euros, put on a copyright symbol or use square brackets, you are stuck.

Check carefully that the punctuation works. I was typesetting a novel in Baskerville — I think the Baskerville that Microsoft distributes — when I discovered that the ’em’ dash (‘—’) was too thin. I was able to reset the whole thing in ITC Baskerville (not a free font) which had better punctuation. However, ITC Baskerville has a higher x-height, and so needed more leading, which meant redoing the layout. If I’d bothered to check before I started, I could have avoided that. It just goes to show that even commercial fonts contain blunders.


Helvetica NeueWhat weights are available? For some fonts, such as Helvetica Neue (which is in no sense a free font), there are as many as 51 weights available, ranging from Helvetica Neue 23 Ultra Light Extended to Helvetica Neue 107 Extra Black Condensed, all with their italic or oblique versions.

It’s very unlikely that you will ever need anything like that number of weights (though, obviously, at some point, someone did), but you would normally expect to be able to get a Book, Regular or Roman weight, a Bold or Demi weight, and either an italic or an oblique for each of those. An oblique font is the regular font slanted by a particular angle, usually about 12º. An italic font is a specially drawn italic version, often with close ‘a’s and open ‘g’s.

A font that I like a lot is Candida—again, not in any sense a free font, though free versions are available (but see above). Candida was designed in 1936 by J Erbar, and released by Bauer, which still owns the trademark (which makes me question whether the ‘free’ downloads are legitimate). Candida was issued by Adobe in 1989 and 2002, and, as I recall, came bundled with one of the many versions of Illustrator or Photoshop. Unfortunately, it only has Regular, Italic, and Bold. There is no Bold Italic. I am contemplating creating my own bold italic to go with it (though, naturally, I won’t be able to use the trademark name Candida). In the mean time, if I use Candida, I need to recognise that there will be no bold italic.

This is all fine, but many free fonts exist only in regular and bold. This is almost certainly too little to be useful.

Be careful also of free fonts which are released as free in just one or two or a few weights. The super-family Museo (see above) is one of these. You see Museo everywhere these days. Part of the reason for that is that the designer has chosen to release a very useful set of weights. I actually went ahead and bought the entire set, but most people will do fine with just what is there for free. Other designers are not quite so generous, and you may discover that the font which looks great in the Roman version costs about $250 to buy the other weights you need. At that point, recognise it is not a free font.

Kerning and flow

Kern Test using Museo 300

Kern Test using Museo 300

Hardest to evaluate but absolutely critical is kerning. Kerning (of course you know this) is the adjusted space of difficult pairs of letters, such as ‘AY’ and ‘wa’. In the font definition, every glyph (i.e., a letter) has side-bearings, which set the standard space between it and the next letter. For AY, this would leave a disturbing gap, because of the shapes of the letters. The kerning tables, which are part of the font definition, specify exactly how much the spacing should be changed for it to look right. Kerning was traditionally the hardest part of font design, though there are now commercial services which will kern a font for the designer. There are 516 common kerning pairs, excluding the number pairs from 11 to 100. If you’ve ever wondered why commercial fonts are so expensive, the setting of each of those pairs, individually, may explain it a bit.

In preparing this article, I was astonished to discover that there is no test sheet of kerned text available to download on the web. There are some good sites which allow you to check individual pairs, but if you want to check everything, you’re stuck. Until now. Late last night I downloaded all the words in a large English lexicon (about 354,986 words, since you ask), the 516 common kerning pairs, and constructed a text which uses all of the pairs, which you can paste into a document and use to preview the font. You’re welcome. Note that if you do this in Word, you need to turn kerning ‘on’ in the font menu, otherwise you’re not actually doing anything. Much better to do it in QuarkXPress or InDesign.

Here it is:

Wd. PEASANT FEW, wiggle DOTE LOOK tipping Aorta CRISP Tomato Major DROP; bouquet Ayatollah Jade DOOR Identical BIFF. yelping Looking AQUATIC hurting hyphen foot fishpond muddy or, COOL parking OBVERSE working PAIN YOUTH Meat Bloke BACK, KIDNAP Vane rough STOP. armchair badge Aubade Xanthaline FLAW. grounded anno Acid COIN HAJ. axon Fund aquatic jaffa Kurdish aged CARELESS Tipper Upper always RUM BRIEFCASE Ionic SUPER DRY; dental WOLF: maccaw Iterate Avail whoosh COY: WAIL homes annoying flip, HARDMOUTH vb. Yds helium if, Nave bookcase lawgiver BARGE striving beet hoof cover cliff. common elbow BAY avg. MYALGIC BREZHNEV; OYSTER Pair QUACK mohar Rd Tchad circumvascular L’ABRE convex hoplite blvd. event savvy None Wimp free, Uakari Helium unsung flitting QUEEN flaw human crowd falls, definite selfish cargo Evaluate aeon hydro DARE dapper OFFGOING CLAW; supper hvy ZONE Create Nil haj, ACIDPROOF BOAT AORIST implausible dreamt Fright BARBWIRE Pool epistle happiness ODD. played glib, DOFF; CARVE clipping rave TOO. GLIB, BALTIC Yea shake disable DRAW: SLURRY helium PHONE wx. Oh! McCoy FAULT kerning Very dump mutter ANODE HOB. Spoof BRITISH SLAVS BELT, Hyacinth devchar dvaita PORT Koala Fair EELCAKE Sudden yard MUGGING Xenon HEADRUSH raj. sleight music Tsar CHOOSY Numinous Room Icy asking, stuff Bye THUMBPRINT angling project BELT Aegean OFF. Obscure ACTION final zany mopped BLU. Iqis FOOT Jeans Uganda Aqua MU, hollow Rt. flute stomp randomness mashed ADDING RAJ, Vulcan farrier hwan BLING CAN. BUTTERY Europe lumbered Wriggle File go. to, feline Triple hutch Again curling LAWGIVER BIDING Job fully Tundra KONONI maiden mat. TORC COOK yawl GRUFF accept Using SO, dare Dare HOT. MAGE Xurel WAYS glade burring hob. GEOLOGY Ypres tidy Umber my, PLOSIVE NOVCIC apothgm wood WORMGEAR IMPORTENT stool IF, SHOE mango adverse blade. spun Lycanthrope Add variable SMALL digging Twill weapon wig. LUMBER AGGRANDISE TARE VOW Vow Form burrow DEAL WOOL MILLWORK Pear stone PUN stuck Newt dishcloth actual BARTRAM daft gem chugger HOOF backdate Yvain hoofed Bbl. DROOL mulch Ft. trebled humdrum BIN, DOOM Tart middle staying brunch Vroom IGNOBLE DROP far. A’ HANDWORKED filling kangeroo wanted Bilateral AGORA flat. CLAP,  HAPPEN COHOLDER OBVIOUS glad. inch mean BIOMASS souwester juvenile marque CHIPPY Wm. Yield wolves crate slight Lumpy ion xenon mice GUTTER Mold Care cray hammy AWESOME THAT: Bk. MY. Wye Gull flaw. algae Recipe Jumping magnet Key jumper draw, reckon MUDDY ewe tuck Union heavy WOLF, boudoir BUS, outdrops asks, JAFFA GOOD artery sad, Feed flow AVUNCULAR DROSS. OXEN buyer MOUND DUMPLING OVER FUSS what, alphabet mooring Md enumerate cycle bedcap Tyre Awesome Number maple BANJO bored MICE clamping VANE INERRANCY BOQ AVG Keep BY, qqv. WALKING quote Oleander quelquechose bower vowel HOC. fried FAIR Rushing BADLANDS youth Fyrd TOOL BAD, Wunderkind OVERWHELMS moot Ok ADVENTURE backgame oilwell Butter YCLEPT Teller Yuan CHEKHOV: five jeans Huddle OUTCOME woodwork FLUORINE CLIP: fastest COWCATCHER DV, VALVE HOBBY DOING boxes Viper abnormal Xy cold affluent Xosa manganese try. jovial DALLY HILT; M vegan axal whip. neural STUCK YAWN worry BV. trance arrow goblet BECKONS SCARY Ado birthday Attain Apricot ATTRACTING VAST Break unworkable MISSING crabby Simply downed MOOD unplugged Hoop Oat Wt. width Chekhov, filmgoers

As with font designers, please refer people back to this article, or at least credit this text to martinturner.org.uk or brandmotor.co.uk rather than simply distributing it to all your mates.

If you are setting type for print, then print out the page—don’t rely on the screen. Once you’ve checked this the right way up, it can help to turn the page upside down. You are looking for unexpected gaps or clumped characters.1

As well as allowing you to spot unsightly gaps between letters, this is also a good test of general font consistency. We always tell people not to include words in capitals, because of legibility, but sometimes with abbreviations such as NATO or SMART, you have to. This text will help you to spot problems of fonts which are just too heavy in long text, require more leading (inter-line spacing), or just don’t flow right.2

If the kerning is wrong, abandon the font. If you are desperate to use it and it is free to modify, and you intend to distribute it to 400 dealers, you could consider getting it professionally kerned by a kerning service. Otherwise, just don’t.

The same goes for fonts which just don’t look right. If they don’t look right with this text, they probably won’t look right with your text either.

Some fonts do require more leading. Fonts with a high x-height, such as most ITC fonts (never free), are more legible at smaller point sizes, but they do need more leading in extended body text. You should be able to spot this using the test text above. Likewise, some fonts simply occupy more space on the page. ITC Bookman does. Bookman was one of the original 35 fonts supplied with Postscript printers. It comes across as friendly and honest, but it does take up more space. Again, that’s a factor you need to be aware of, though it shouldn’t mean abandoning an otherwise good font.


Is the font Mac and PC compatible, is there a web font, is there a version for mobile devices? You can convert any font for web use, though you can only do this legally if the license is ‘free to modify’. PC compatibility is a bit more tricky. If you are using Open Type fonts (which is the current ‘good’ standard), the PC compatible .ttf versions have to have a signature embedded for the Open Type features to work on Windows. This is an enormously annoying process, and it’s quite possible that a Mac based designer (and most of them are) won’t even know this, let alone get round to doing it. The font will still work, but special Open Type features such as swashes, discretionary ligatures and alternate forms won’t. If you’re on a PC, or specifying a font which will be deployed to Windows PCs, and the Open Type features are going to be important to you, check this!


Can the font be embedded in a PDF file? You’d think ‘of course’. You’d often be wrong. Font files contain a tag to allow or prevent embedding. Designers releasing ‘for private use only’ often disallow embedding to ‘enforce’ their copyright decision. If it’s ‘free to modify’, and you know how to do it, then you can switch this off in a font editing application. However, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone who switched this on is going to make it ‘free to modify’. A few years ago, a well-known political party standardised on a font for its leaflets which, for some bizarre reason, had embedding turned off. This was fine in the days that artwork was printed off on a laser printer and then scanned for Risograph, but as soon as people wanted to send things to commercial printers, it all went haywire. The font was later abandoned.

Embedding is something you only discover when you do send it to someone else, as your system will simply substitute in the font when viewing a PDF if it’s one of your installed fonts. It’s vital to check if you can embed and then view on a computer without the font (easiest way is to make the PDF and then turn the font off) before going any further. If you can’t embed, abandon the font.

Price Structure

Most high quality free fonts which pass the tests above are free for a reason. From time to time there will be a font which was designed for commercial sales and never taken up by a foundry, and the designer has just got fed up and decides to make it free altruistically. There are also fonts developed and distributed for altruistic purposes, such as SIL licensed fonts and the Linux fonts. In many cases, though, the designer is expecting to get a return in some other way. This could be by making some weights free and others paid-for, it could be by requiring you to credit the designer (you may do this, but when people start using them in Word documents, they almost certainly won’t), or by requiring you to promote their site in some way, for example by tweeting it out.

Whatever the price structure is, this is the ‘real’ cost of using the font. With Museo, mentioned above, when we did theBarn‘s brand, we made the main fonts available to everyone, but I purchased the complete set of weights, which gave more flexibility in design. This is fine, as long as you factor the cost in. If it’s just a question of tweeting, then tweet gracefully: someone has made a lot of hard work available.

If the font is available as part of a subscription, for example TypeKit, you need to consider whether other people who will be using it will have the same subscription, and what you will do if it is arbitrarily withdrawn from the subscription service, or if you decide not to continue.

Final considerations


Not all fonts that pass these tests should be used. There are fonts which appear wonderful after you’ve spent half a day searching for fonts but which, on sober reconsideration, should never be allowed anywhere near a piece of typography.

Equally, there are fonts that don’t go with anything else that you have, or can source as a free font. TypeDNA offers a marvellous application for working out what goes with what, but even TypeDNA is only offering suggestions based on the best of what you have installed. If the amazing font you want to use for headlines only goes with a font which is $300 and you need to deploy to 82 sites, then your amazing headline font is, in reality, not free to you at all.

Fonts come from every kind of source. I am constantly battling with applications which install their own fonts, even on the demo versions. As well as cluttering up my typeface lists, they also sneak in unevaluated, like the Baskerville typeface I mentioned earlier. If you are serious about the fonts you want to use, it’s worth keeping a checklist, like the one pictured, for every font you have properly evaluated. It can help you keep the pirate fonts out (both the ones that you found on bad sites, and the ones that applications installed without your knowledge), and will also remind you why, in the end, you didn’t use that font last time you considered it. That, on it’s own, can save you an awful lot of time and bother.

Free stuff

For those using QuarkXPress 2015, I attach a font evaluation file. Font Evaluator.qxp. To use this, change the Normal character style sheet (not the paragraph style sheet) to the font you want to evaluate, and then change the name of the font on the front page. Everything else will change automatically. The Evaluator will output glyphs, a variety of sizes, kern check, kern check inverted page and kern check blurred.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. If you are using QuarkXPress, you can also view the page as blurred text, by applying a dropped shadow, switching off ‘inherit opacity’ in the measurements palette, and turning the opacity of the text to 0%. Looking at fonts or logos in blurred form is similar to the ‘corner of the eye’ out of which we perceive many things. It can help spot problems that would otherwise be missed.
  2. Thomas Phinney has an excellent article on Know if a Font Sucks. Phinney knows a thing or two about fonts. However, this will be too technical for most people. Essentially, if it looks right in the sample text, it is right. If it looks wrong, it’s wrong, and just abandon it. If you’re trying to design a font and can’t work out why it looks wrong, Phinney’s article (and his own website) is a good place to start.

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