Update: February 26, 2019: After nine years of the digital-only edition, the Big Book of Font Combinations is available in glorious, full-sized print editions: paperback and hardcover. Learn more!
Update: April 5, 2016: I recently compiled a list of the 19 most popular fonts according to usage by graphic designers from all over the web. I could have had 100, but I got it down to under 50, and from there whittled it down to just the 19 best fonts. Why 19? Because at exactly 20, the “long tail” shot right out and the differences in tallies became negligible. Take a look at those top fonts if you want and come right back because now we are going to have a little typography fun.
So you want to get a handle on the main types of fonts used by graphic designers and typographers every day. We have a list of the 17 of most used kinds of typefaces in general order of their usage and popularity. The most elementary and different kinds of fonts are here listed for you, so look no further!
We’ll look at all our examples using the same format: the name of the font, a basic description, and an example so you can see each one in action. Here we go!
Serif fonts are typefaces composed of lines with their ends embellished with small marks or strokes making them easy to read. Serifs originated in the Latin Alphabet. An example of classic serif fonts are Times Roman, New Century Gothic, and Palatino.
An Inspiring Collection of Fonts
FontShop sold a typeface collection called “100 Best Fonts” for a limited time in Germany a little while back. The website for this special promotion generously listed the names of all 100 best typefaces for graphic design with background information in German. When the typeface collection was no longer available, the promotional site itself retained a life of its own, serving as a go-to reference for graphic designers looking for inspiration. The PDF on the promotional website is a beautiful piece of design work, a nice visual resource, and just plain fun to look at even if you don’t read German. (NOTE: You can click the typeface names for more info)
How could this great list be improved? I was interested into what categories and classifications these classic fonts were placed, what foundries they were from, and what interesting insights might avail themselves if I could see all the data in one place. I also wanted one place to see examples of all these great typefaces, so I put those together too. Enjoy, and leave a comment!
If you do a google search for “what fonts go with…”, you’ll see Futura, Century Gothic, Bebas, and a few other suggestions pop up in the auto-suggest tool. We just did a post on fonts that look great with Futura, and now we are continuing on to Century Gothic.
Century Gothic is similar in some fundamental ways to Futura, but has some very unique differences that clearly set it apart. For instance, notice how the terminals of the letter “C” (and other letters) differ from each other in this illustration (which I reconstructed from an uncredited source on Pinterest):
The perpendicular cut of Futura seems to make it feel more “serious”, where Century Gothic feels a bit less formal. If you compare Century Gothic and Futura in a variety of settings, you’ll see that to a large degree they can be used interchangeably. So, let’s see what fonts work with Century Gothic, pulling from a list of classic typefaces we keep handy, and see what kind of look and feel we can get going.
It’s back to the future with Futura and the well time-travelled question of what other typefaces go with it! As with any typeface with a lot of personality like Futura, you have to choose what to pair it with carefully. No matter what typeface you are trying to match, you have to repeat that golden rule to yourself. So let’s get right to it. I’ll toss out some suggestions and a few words about each font. As usual, we are going to stick with the most popular classic typefaces and not venture off into the world of random free fonts.
We like to recognize featured artists from time to time not only as a plug for them, but a benefit for graphic designers everywhere. There’s never too much competition and it’s always awesome to spread the great work of talented artists! Cheers!
By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately, and well. That is one of the ends for which they exist.
– Robert Bringhurst
“Typography is a rather modest field, but perhaps it is the most significant ingredient for visual communication. Anyone can set type, but to utilize it creatively is quite a different thing.
“What is original and dynamic today, will be yesterday’s design tomorrow. New and innovative typography does not necessarily replace existing forms of typographic expression, but supplements them and thereby enriches the world of typography. Learn to appreciate all forms of typography, determining for yourself what is appropriate for specific projects.”
—James Craig, Designing with Type
“If there is an essential truism in typesetting, it is that a page contains no voids, only spaces between printed elements. The essence of typesetting is regulating the size of those spaces to control the balance and rhythm between black and white. This is the key to a graphically harmonious page—one with good type color—as well as to text that is pleasing and easy to read.”
—James Felici, The Complete Manual of Typography
“Beautiful type comes from attention to myriad tiny details. It’s built up a fraction of an em at a time, through hundreds of decisions whose geometry belies their gravity. It requires, as a colleague once wrote, a heart hardened against accusations of being too fussy.”
— James Felici, The Complete Manual of Typography
“In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn. Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency. It’s other traditional goal is durability: not immunity to change, but a clear superiority to fashion. Typography at its best is a visual form of language linking timelessness and time.”
—Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style
“When I put my pen to a blank sheet, black isn’t added but rather the white sheet is deprived of light. […] Thus I also grasped that the empty spaces are the most important aspect of a typeface.”
— Adrien Frutiger
Legibility is another area where the designer can be misled by what seems like an obvious dictate in type selection and design. There can be no question about the readability of the message, but legibilty and readability are not quite the same — a dull and uninteresting presentation in a highly legible typeface will not be widely read. There have been many studies of comparative legibility, and each study seems to surface with slightly different conclusions. For the designer, the best solution is to use his material in such a way that it arouses interest and invites reading.
—Allen Hurlburt, Layout: The Design of the Printed Page
“Designing text is the process of selecting a typeface, deciding which words or phrases should be emphasized, and determining how the type should be arranged on a page. The final design will be influenced by the copy you work with, the intended audience, your understanding of the principles of typography, and consideration of how we read. This holds true whether your goal is to make the experience of reading as comfortable as possible or to challenge accepted typographic conventions.”
—James Craig, Designing with Type
“One of the things I have observed, looking back historically, is how elegant a seventeenth-century book looks. One of the reasons it looks so elegant is because of the restrictions: there was only one typeface available, there weren’t that many fonts, and virtually all you could do was play with sizes, italics, and so forth.”
“The objective of Typographic design is to organize all of the elements of communication into a harmonious and unified whole, either by achieving a quiet uniformity of similar elements or by the visually exciting use of contrasting ones. What determines the result is the way in which the diverse elements are organized in relation to each other, the contributions each makes to form, texture, and weight, and the effect of their relation with the space in which they exist.”
-Carl Dair, Design with Type
“Letterforms that honor and elucidate what humans see and say deserve to be honored in their turn. Well-chosen words deserve well-chosen letters; these in their turn deserve to be set with affection, intelligence, knowledge and skill. Typography is a link, and it ought, as a matter of honor, courtesy and pure delight, to be as strong as the others in the chain.”
—Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style