On Selecting Typefaces for Different Passage Lengths

by Matt Ward

on June 7, 2010

in Resources

Selecting the right typeface for a particular design project can sometimes seem like a Herculean task. There are thousands upon thousands of different fonts and typefaces to choose from – some free, others requiring payment. The introduction of various means of using non-web-safe fonts on the Internet has only made this choice even more extensive. Recently, I have been digging through pages and pages of different typefaces, trying to decide on the perfect choice for a design I am currently working on.

While this article certainly cannot address all of the different considerations that go into choosing the right typeface, and though I would not consider myself a master typographer, I would like to offer one means of categorization that I believe can be beneficial for understanding the use of typography as it relates to the relative length of your copy.

Not All Typefaces are Created Equal

Part of the original inspiration for this particular article stemmed from some recent designs that I have been working on where clients requested particular fonts to be used. The problem (from my perspective), was these fonts (or at least the variations that are being chosen) were not actually ideal for the particular purposes for they were being requested.

This is because not all fonts are created equal. This is true on a number of levels. Some fonts only have a limited number of characters, and some are simply better designed than others. Those are important distinctions that should be considered, but what I would like to suggest is that fonts can all fall into one of three different basic groups, based on the maximum length of passage for which they should be used. These are as follows:

  • Short Copy Fonts
  • Medium Copy Fonts
  • Long Copy Fonts

Ultimately, I think that these three categories cover all basic uses of typography. For instance, some more interesting and complex fonts are more suited to short bursts of text, while other more classically designed fonts work better for long passages of text. Let’s look at each of these three different groupings in a little more detail.

Short Copy

There are a ton of really unique and interesting fonts out there, from grungy and eroded to highly complex calligraphic fonts, and literally everything in between. These fonts are really great for short snippets of text, like titles, headlines or some slogans, but they just don’t work as well for medium to long passages, like call outs or body copy.

Generally speaking, this has to do with the fact that many of these fancier fonts have some form of extra ornamentation, such as swirls, grunge effects or designs within the letterforms themselves. In other cases, the shape of the glyphs may be highly abstracted. Regardless, these extra elements often mean that the letters don’t scale down nicely. More importantly, they also tend to have a generally negative impact on readability across longer passages.

Though perhaps somewhat overused in the past few years, the Bleeding Cowboys font (available from daFont), is a prime example, in that it has both excess swirls and an extremely eroded effect. This kind of typeface works the best for big bold headings like this:

short copy set in Bleeding Cowboys

This headline has a sort of rough, edgy appearance around which and entire design could be easily created. This probably explains why Bleeding Cowboys remains one of the most popular fonts on daFont, and why we continue to see it being used in all sorts of designs (in another article, I have even suggested that it is in danger of finding itself thrust into the same category as the dreaded Papyrus).

As great this typeface might look as a heading though, things get a little messier when we get into slightly longer passages, like this:

medium copy set in Bleeding Cowboys

The text is readable, but only with a bit of effort. It’s not something you could just glance at and give a quick scan. It might work for some kinds of promotional posters, where the emphasis of the design has been shifted to focus more on visual appeal rather than readability. It would not, however, be appropriate for medium passage in a magazine or brochure.

Of course, these kinds of fonts don’t work at all for long, body copy, since they render the text almost completely unreadable. How would you like to read a book or article set entirely in Bleeding Cowboys?

long copy set in Bleeding Cowboys

You might be able to get through a few paragraphs, but anything beyond that would certainly become a real strain.

Medium Copy Fonts

The medium copy group of fonts are generally far less ornate that those in those Short Copy grouping. Most have beautifully rendered glyphs, but there is just something about them that prevents them from being universally usable (from a readability standpoint).

To my way of thinking, this group would include any typeface that is crafted in small caps, contains slab fonts, or makes use of some extreme proportions, such as height, width or character weight. Now, since we already use the excessively popular Bleeding Cowboys, we’ll use another extremely popular font to exemplify this category too: Museo. So here we go with our simple headline:

short copy set in Museo

There’s nothing wrong here. Quite the opposite actually, as it works very nicely. Now, let’s look at our medium copy sample:

medium copy set in Museo

Again, this works well. It’s is easy to scan and read, and the typeface’s lovely and recognizable slabs make it an excellent choice (if, perhaps, somewhat overused) for medium length copy like this. That being said, however, I don’t think that Museo functions as well for longer passages:

long copy set in Museo

Just like with the medium copy sample set in the Bleeding Cowboys, you can probably get through this passage without too much difficulty, but the overall readability is just not as smooth as we would probably like for body copy. Interestingly, I think that this is a result of the typeface’s slabs – the very same feature that made it such a lovely choice for small and/or medium copy. In this instance, the slabs seem to work less as a visual accent for creating added interest, and more as a distraction that seems to cause a slight disruption in readability.

Now, if you’re a huge fan of the Museo font, don’t misunderstand me here. It’s a wonderful piece of design work, all on it’s own, and I have the utmost respect for the incredibly talented Jos Buivenga. I just don’t think that, based on it’s unique properties, it just is not properly suited for long copy.

Long Copy Fonts

Lastly, of course, we come to long copy fonts. By this point, I’m sure you can guess at how fonts in this grouping can be used, so let’s just jump straight in, and look at the short copy, medium copy and long copy passages, all set in the ever-popular Helvetica:

short, medium and long copy set in Helvetica

As expected, the font works well in all three instances. That, of course, means that there is not a lot to talk about in terms of why a font doesn’t work for a particular length of copy. Instead, I would like to make a few suggestions that I have found helpful in selecting a typeface for longer body copy.

  • Stick with serif or sans serif. Really, any font that is to be used for long copy should fall into one of these two very general categories. Anything else, like script fonts, is just going to reduce overall readability.
  • Also, as already mentioned, avoid slab fonts, which are not generally suited to body copy. The same is also true of any font that makes use of unusual looking serifs (such as the Tuscan).
  • Pay attention to weight and avoid using any fonts that appear or are labeled as bold, black, light, condensed, wide etc., since these tend to effect readability over longer passages.
  • At the same time, however, try to use fonts that allow do have natural variants such as bold and italics, which you may occasionally require for the purpose of emphasis. It is sometimes possible to fake these (especially when designing for print), but it’s always better to use a natural variant.
  • Examine the letter o. Although it may seem logical that this letter should be a perfect circle, this is actually an extreme rarity. Moreover, I find that fonts that do approach this perfectly circular o, like AvantGarde, just tend to appear a little too wide when used as body copy.
  • Don’t forget about non-letter characters. Numbers and punctuation are an important part of typography, so pay attention to those too. I would put special emphasis on both the ampersand and the quotation marks. I’ve actually decided not to use an entire typeface simply because I didn’t like its quotation marks.
  • Lastly, though it won’t likely be an issue with professionally designed typefaces, also pay attention to the ascenders and descenders on your letterforms. You don’t want these to be too long or two short.

Of course, there are probably a thousand and one other things that you could look at when choosing a typeface. These are just some of the concepts that have served me well.

Conclusion

For all you master typographers out there, a lot of what I’ve talked about in this article may just seem pretty simplistic. Maybe you even think I’m entirely off base. Even for some of you who don’t consider yourselves wizards with type, this breakdown may seem like little more than common sense.

This may very well be true, but in my experience, common sense is not quite so common as many of us might believe. I have seen a number of instances where this kind of thinking about what fonts or typefaces are appropriate for what length of passage could very well have saved and/or improved a design. Sometimes, it’s also just helpful to have a framework through which to focus our approach, helping us make an intelligent and informed decision quickly and efficiently.

Regardless, I hope that you have found this article helpful, informative or interesting, and I look forward to reading your comments on the subject.

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About Matt Ward