Typography sets the stage for how your brand is perceived. How should your audience feel when they first encounter your brand? Excited? Comforted? Intrigued? Choosing typefaces can be a daunting task; there's a vast selection of fonts out there and the fonts you choose need to coordinate with each other and blend cohesively with the rest of your branding. Think of typography selection as an exercise in subtlety. There’s a balance—mixing too many type styles can leave consumers overwhelmed yet overusing a single typeface can be boring or kitschy depending on the chosen style.
Understanding Font Categories
Typographical hierarchy is imperative for comprehension. Incorporating typefaces that offer varied weights and widths allows flexibility as your brand develops. Pairing differing, yet coordinating typefaces assists in the hierarchy of information by distinguishing between headlines, subheads, body copy, and captions.
Understanding typeface categories should be the first step in choosing fonts for your brand. Serif and sans-serif are the two main categories. Each category has pros and cons, tells a different story, and can be modified by varied weights, widths, and sizes to help create a necessary sense of hierarchy.
Serif fonts originated in the Roman Imperial time as blackletter-esque carvings but have transformed over time into more legible typefaces with smaller decorative "serifs" at the ends of strokes. These serifs propel the reader forward helping the flow of body copy in print pieces like newspapers, magazines, and books. Most serif typefaces don't translate well into small pixels, so they're not commonly used as web fonts for paragraph text. Serif typefaces can express history, tradition, trust, and authority—on par with their age and origin. They can be broken down further into old style, transitional, modern, and slab-serif.
Baker's Chocolate is one of the oldest food brands still in existence. They've always used a serif font for their logo. Emphasizing their history and longevity, the transition their logo has experienced through the years has been minimal, altering their serif font selection without losing the traditional feeling of their brand presence.
Sans-serif (sans meaning without) typefaces include fonts that are airy and minimal. Their clean nature makes them a smart choice for large headlines, environmental graphics, small type on labels and packaging, and paragraph text on the web. Because of their legibility at large scale, sans-serifs are great for quick-reading scenarios like traffic signs, billboards, and areas with multilingual needs or varied reading levels.
Helvetica is one of the most well-known sans-serif typefaces. It’s clean and extremely easy to read, allowing a broad range of ages and reading levels to comprehend with minimal effort. Nestle’s logo is derived from Helvetica, slightly modified to add personality. American Apparel, Target, Harley Davidson, Oral-B, BMW, JCPenney, and Jeep are other notable brands who use the Helvetica font family.
Handwritten typefaces include calligraphy, scripts, and brush fonts and can range from formal to casual. They are used minimally to reduce issues with readability. Formal scripts are elegant and can feel high-class, think of luxury brands like Lindt Chocolatiers. Handwritten fonts feel casual, welcoming, and informal like Kellogg's and Coca-Cola.
Display fonts can be serif, sans-serif, or script but make up a category of their own because of their eccentric style. They're suited for logos, short headings, or callouts because they're more variable and decorative than body copy. These fonts can also evoke the feeling of a specific era, destination, or a reference to pop culture.
How to Pair Typefaces like a Pro
Pairing typefaces is an art. It's also trial and error. There are basic rules to follow, but all fonts should be tested in realistic scenarios to ensure they coordinate with each other and the overall look of your brand. There are online generators like Fontjoy that offer font pairings that you can click through to easily decide on a style that suits your aesthetic. Once you find a style you like, you can fine-tune by researching typefaces that have similar characteristics—be sure to consider all the tips below as you decide.
Things to consider when pairing fonts:
- Brand Elements: Consider your brand promise, persona, tone of voice, and visual elements when selecting font styles. You’ll want to choose something that is a true reflection of your brand personality.
- Audience: Who is your audience? What impression do you want to present to your audience? Does a themed display font make sense for your brand?
- Competition: What are your competitors doing? You don’t want to be too similar, especially with logos and headline type. Weight and horizontal spacing can make all the difference.
- Practicality: Some fonts are popular for a reason. Helvetica is a familiar typeface that many brands use. It's clean, legible, and versatile. Don't choose it just because it's an easy choice, but don't discount it just because it's popular. Make sure your brand still has personality.
- Quantity: For a brand standard, you should keep your typeface selection to 2-3 fonts maximum. Specialty fonts can be added for particular campaigns when you need content to act like a “violator” of the brand standard.
- Font Proportions: Consider the future. Try to choose typefaces with a variety of weights and widths to offer flexibility—this helps if you're feeling constricted with the previous 2-3 font suggestion. Light, book, medium, semibold, bold, heavy, black, extended, condensed, compressed are all weights that should be considered when choosing a typeface for your brand. Some typefaces have more variety than you'd know what to do with—don't feel like you need to use them all, they just allow room to grow.
- Variety: Limit decorative or themed fonts—you need a more basic font to support without competing for the limelight. Coca-Cola is a handwritten cursive font and their slogans and web presence use various weights of the same clean, modern sans-serif.
- Font Size: In addition to weights, font size can play a crucial role in typographical hierarchy. This is another area where you may need to see sizes in context to ensure proper hierarchy and readability.
- Web Fonts: There are limitations to the fonts that can be used online, so don't expect that fonts selected for packaging and print will have an exact match on your website. Webfonts are designed with screen viewing in mind. Legibility and readability are key to keeping your audience engaged when reading online, particularly with mobile devices. To keep your brand image consistent, decorative display type like logos will need to be placed images instead of live type. But keep placed "type as art" to a minimum because you lose any SEO advantage when the content is not live type.
- Copyright: Ensure you have the proper licensing for your fonts. Some fonts are free for personal use but require payment for commercial use. Using a font without appropriate permissions can incur legal action and fines. Do your homework upfront to prevent issues down the road.
Brand Fonts: Making the Right Choice
Choosing visual brand elements can be an exciting, yet overwhelming process. Think about how you want your brand to be perceived. Use that goal and the key points outlined above to select fonts that will represent your brand to the fullest. Be thoughtful about your choices and have fun.