Choosing a typeface

When choosing a typeface for any particular job, I like to roll them out in a display of some sort. Books offer plenty of opportunity for typographic exploration, but let’s face it, the idea with a book (generally) is not to bedazzle or snap attention, but communicate the words clearly. So I work with a very small number of trusted faces – Garamond, Italian Oldstyle, Centaur, Caslon, Palatino, and two or three other fairly conservative and traditional choices. Clients like it because they almost always want a book that “looks like a real book.” I shy away from faces that are boringly ubiquitous – yes, I’m talking about you, Times New Roman. Everyone is aware of Helvetica now, thanks to Helvetica: The Movie; it is a utilitarian face with rabid detractors and equally ferocious cheerleaders. So it goes, in our ever-diverging binary world. Myself, I can take it or leave it.

I’m designing a book now featuring a lace collection. The owner of the collection is Dutch, so I felt it was time to do justice to the work with a decent European san serif face. The book is dominated by powerful black and white photos, so any san serif could not be too dainty, light or delicate.

I quickly lay out some san serifs, this time in 8 pt, more or less randomly from our Mac’s vast font of fonts. This is what it looks like:

Which to use? Which to use?

Clicking on the image will give you a close-up of various san serif faces. I scanned this sheet immediately after selecting three faces to be ousted, but prior to sending them off the island, so to speak. Three more iterations of this page left me with Gill, the dark horse Charlotte, Lucida, Optima and and old standard, Univers. Seeing those five against each other, I quickly brought it down to Gill and Optima, the chose Gill Sans.

Really, all of the five finalists are contenders and would have done a fine job. Ultimately, type faces are about personal taste and I dare say, mood; today I like Gill Sans. And I hate agonizing over a type face – I try to make the decision as quickly as possible, from the resources I have at hand and with as little sound and fury as possible.

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