There are approximately 73 billion typefaces out there in the wild the last time I counted. 99.5% of them are either copies of classic fonts, totally useless in regards to real typography, or copies of classic fonts rendered totally useless for real typography because of poor construction of the font files like missing characters and incorrect kerning tables.
Where does that leave the budding young graphic designer looking for the right starting set of best fonts on which to base a career? Well, lets look at painting for a moment and find an analogy.
When you go to the art supply store, you can find a bewildering array of oil or acrylic paints to choose from. What exactly is Cadmium Red Light (Hue) and Phthalocyanine green? If you are an experienced painter, you know what those are. But if you are a new painter and have a good book or instructor, you were instructed to avoid those tubes and go for a classic “starter set”. You have a wise instructor. Put down the Dioxazine Purple, and pick up the 6 tube starter set like you were instructed.
Many painters use a limited palette. A limited palette is a set of colors from which many new colors can be mixed. For instance, my favorite watercolor artist Ray Campbell Smith only uses about 6 colors on many works. The core set of colors that make up the 6 color set is even smaller – only 3. Those three colors, a type of red, a type of blue, and a type of yellow, are combined to give a huge variety of hues. Adding the minimal use of a darker color (like a Payne’s Gray) further extends the hues created with the 3 primary colors, and same goes for the other one or two colors that might be used in limited circumstances. Where am I going with this?
To draw from this analogy, you only really need a very small sub-set of the most popular fonts to create a huge variety of work. Some people collect fonts and use them all over the place. Some designers have worked with a half-dozen fonts their entire careers and are quite well-off. They put the time they could have used looking for “that special font” into a solid grid-based layout, thought about content and white space, and became better designers for it.
So what are the top 10 fonts a graphic designer should have? This list by no means is definitive. However, if you find 20 other articles on the web suggesting an approach similar to this, you will find by and large the same typefaces showing up over and over. In fact, if you search for the top fonts of all time, or top favorite fonts, you will probably see about 20 fonts, out of the 73 billion available, showing up over and over. Not that you can’t grab something off the wall once in a while, but by and large the problem of good typography has been solved over and over, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel or look too hard in strange places for great fonts for regular daily work.
Here is my list of top 10 fonts for graphic designers, in no alphabetical order:
Top 10 Fonts for Graphic Designers
- Akzidenz Grotesk
- Gill Sans
- Helvetica / Helvetica Neue
- Trade Gothic
This list reflects what I actually use on routine basis. I actually use a few more, but I wanted to keep this list to 10. I would gather that other limited-font-user designers like me have 5 or 6 overlapping choices here, or use similar substitutes. For instance, Trade Gothic (which I love) is different but comes close to functioning the same way Avenir does. I own more faces (weights) of Trade Gothic, so I usually end up going with that when the need arises and the other sans serif fonts aren’t quite right. However, if I did own more faces of Avenir, I’d probably use it over Trade Gothic in most cases.
As a freelance graphic designer you might not have lot’s of cash to buy all the great fonts and faces you see and like, but the reality is you only need a thorough set of basics to get you quite far indeed. Remember, some of the greats only ever used a half-dozen fonts with any frequency!
If you focus on using a core set of fonts, like a core set of primary colors, you will be able to create an endless variety of styles, moods, layouts, etc., and not feel in the least bit slighted or hindered in your effort. Focus your work on getting a great layout, white space, grid, visual rhythm, and content, and you’ll be creating graphic design masterpieces in no time at all.