“I’m looking for a typeface to use for a brochure about my company’s line of automated sheet metal cutters – you know, something masculine.” “I need a happy font for a party invitation.”“I love Zapfino – but I’m concerned that it is too feminine for this project.”
It seems that we are continually trying to assign personalities, emotions or other human traits to typeface designs. Perhaps it is a way to make sense out of the seemingly unending array of typeface designs – or maybe we assume that “personality style” is part of every typeface designer’s standard design brief for developing new typefaces.
The problem is that 99 percent of all typefaces do not have personalities – or any other human qualities. Sure, the typeface “Party,” as a result of its name and distinctive design traits, is used to set lots of invitations and festive announcements. But considering the design as just another “party” face can prevent if from being used in other applications. Party is as appropriate for an advertisement for women’s shoes as it is for a brochure for educational toys.
Suitable vs. SentimentalA certain amount of typeface categorization is a good and helpful thing. Assuming typographic sentiment, however, is not. While it makes sense to classify typefaces into stylistic categories like serif and sans, or old style and didone, it does not to assume that certain typefaces are, for example, “feminine” or “happy.”
Although some typefaces, like Chiller or ITC Willow, were clearly designed with a particular sort of use in mind, most were not. Bible Script would be equally at home in an advertisement for men’s toiletry products as it would be delivering a spiritual message. And ITC Musclehead is as suitable for a poster for a gamer’s convention as it is for the logo for a brand of strength-training products.
Quantifiable CategoriesMost typeface design categories are defined by specific traits. “Humanistic sans serif” designs are typefaces without serifs whose proportions are based on Roman inscriptional capitals and Renaissance minuscule letters. “glyphic” typefaces are distinguished by triangular-shaped serifs or flared stroke endings.
Having typefaces organized by stylistic category can be very useful when solving design problems. If you think a clean geometric sans serif would be a good choice for a brochure, but want to use a design other than Gotham, a quick search through a listing of other geometric sans will reveal alternatives like Avenir or Harmonia Sans.
Stylistic categories for typeface designs can also help graphic designers avoid the dull and commonplace. Want a Didone but not Bodoni? Try Marconi from the same design category.
Looking for a humanistic sans but don’t want to use Myriad or Frutiger? Slate or Legacy Sans might be the perfect alternative.
The most valuable typeface categories are based on specific and quantifiable design traits. They are about organization. Emotional labels for typeface designs are based on assumptions. They are about sentiment.
If you really do need a typeface that says “scary” or one that will complement a futuristic poster design, start with the search engines and keywords provided by the font distributors. Then run the resulting typefaces through your own filters by asking: Are the choices fresh? Will they set your design apart? Are they appropriate for your message? Are there better alternatives? After this analysis, choose the typeface that is best for your project. And remember: bold is not necessarily for boys.
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