A Non-Designer’s Guide to Using Fonts

A Non-Designer’s Guide to Using Fonts

To most non-designers, the words “font”, “typeface”, and “typography” are interchangeable. But, from a graphic design perspective, there’s a difference. Although there is a lot of controversy over the terminology, here’s a simple way of looking at it. A typeface is a family of fonts. A font is a specific typestyle within that family. Typography is the art or procedure of arranging type for viewing.

As an example, let’s look at a classic. Helvetica is a typeface, and Helvetica Light, Helvetica Oblique, and Helvetica Bold are fonts. You can own the entire font family (typeface), or you can own individual fonts within that family.

Now that it’s all clear, disregard it. It’s not really important. People usually just call them all “fonts”, anyway. However, which typestyle you use on a given project is very important. Below are some tips to choosing and using the perfect font for your project.


When choosing a typestyle, first make sure it’s legible. This sounds obvious, but many people get caught up in the lure of a great looking font and forget about readability. When I was in high school, I painted signs by hand for local businesses, organizations and school functions. In the days before the internet, finding typestyles to use consisted of breaking out my father’s Speedball textbook on typestyles.

It contained page after page of full alphabets and numerals in a multitude of typestyles, which varied from simple block letters to elaborate decorative type. One of my first and most important design lessons came from my father, as well. I was trying to decide which typestyle to use for a project, and he said, “First make sure it’s readable, then you can get creative.” I’ve never forgotten this simple, but essential tip. If your typestyle is hard to read, your message has already failed.

Styles of Type

There are too many typefaces to even begin naming, but most can be categorized into four main groups: Serif, Sans-serif, Script, and Decorative.

Serif– This group features small lines (or “feet”) attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol. Serif typestyles are often considered more formal and traditional.

Sans-serif– These feature no extra strokes on the letters. San-serif typestyles are considered more modern and less formal.

Script– Scripted typestyles resemble handwriting, so it’s often used in formal invitations. These are rarely used for smaller body copy because of their limited readability.

Decorative– These are informal typestyles that are often viewed as unique or themed. They’re attention grabbing and are best suited for specific stylized uses.

Avoid Font Trends, unless…

Have you ever noticed that many major businesses and organizations use simple, classic fonts in their logos? Classic typestyles are easy to read and rarely go out of style, so they’ll withstand the test of time. Unless you’re using a trendy typeface for a specific reason, like a retro-themed poster or a child-themed party invitation, it’s best to stick with classic styles. This is especially true when designing a company logo. Classic styles don’t have to be boring, though. There are many variations of classic fonts out there. Don’t get me wrong. I love collecting typefaces as much as any other font-addicted designer, and trendy fonts definitely have their place in projects. Just make sure they fit your specific need, especially if they’re going to be around for the long haul.

Match Your Font to Your Company Image

Each typeface has a mood and personality. When choosing a typestyle, make sure the personality fits the project. Much of this choice is common sense. Classical type families such as Helvetica, Franklin Gothic, Times Roman and their modern variations work great for medical, political and legal professions. If you’re working on a project for a toy store, restaurant, bar or sports establishment, you can have a little more flexibility in your font choice. When looking up typestyles for a specific project, first determine what “personality” the business has, and then choose an appropriate typestyle.


Even non-designers will notice if your text is off-center or out of alignment. Think of your typeface as any other graphic element. Not everything in a design project has to be aligned to a grid, but for most projects, alignment is key to making a project visually pleasing. If you want your text to be centered on the page, take the time make sure it’s centered perfectly. Make sure your text isn’t too close to other elements on the page, or too near the page borders. Be certain that everything feels balanced.

Avoid Distortion

Typeface designers take a lot of time and care to make sure the fonts they create are perfectly balanced, so avoid distorting or stretching fonts if at all possible. For example, if you need the font to be wider, search for an extended version of the font rather than stretching and misshaping the font.

Limit Your Choices

Combining typestyles is an art form in itself. Fonts can clash just like colors and patterns do. A good general rule is to avoid mixing too many decorative fonts in one project. If you’re using a decorative font on your project and you need a secondary font for additional text, find a simple, clean font to use so it doesn’t distract or clash.

Go Pro 

If you have an important graphic design project ahead of you, it’s always best to hire a professional designer. Graphic designers have an abundance of knowledge about fonts, colors, layout and visual appeal, and an arsenal of tools to make your project shine. They know which typestyle personality to use for any given purpose. They also know which typestyles work well together and which ones don’t. But, if hiring a designer is out of the question, these basic rules will help you get moving in the right direction.

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