There are thousands upon millions of fonts in use today. The internet has plenty of sites that offer custom creations for any project (Read all the way to the end for links to our favorites). How to know what to use, when? Here are the main categories fonts fall under, and a bit of the psychology behind those choices. This is by no means comprehensive, but more of an overview to help answer general questions.
What Types of Fonts Exist?
To better understand your options, you should first understand the way typefaces are categorized.
Serifs are the little “feet” or short lines coming off the edges of letterforms. They’re viewed as traditional and formal. Want to look classy? Use a serif font. It communicates elegance, sophistication and class. Serifs are best suited for print, ideally as body copy (paragraphs of text).
Sans serifs are letterforms without serifs. They’re often viewed as informal and playful. They’ve long been thought to be the best match for digital, such as web display, because of the resolution of our screens. As screen resolution improves, however, serifs will likely increase in use on the web.
Script would be the flowing, sometimes calligraphic letterforms that resemble cursive handwriting. Script is usually reserved for headlines of formal events such as weddings. It’s not ideal for body copy as it can be difficult to read.
The final category is just about anything that doesn’t fit the above. These are informal fonts viewed as original or creative. Like script, it’s best used for headlines and best avoided for body copy. These are the fonts that scream, “Look at me!” Think snow-capped letterforms that announce, “I’m for winter!” Most (not all, but most) situations would be better suited with attention-getting images or calls to action. A font stealing all of the attention for itself is considered an amateur move. Use sparingly and with great caution.
Wait, Font or Typeface?
typeface + style + size = font
The unique design of the alphabet identified by name is the typeface. Arial, Times New Roman, Myriad Pro, and Garamond are all typefaces. When a typeface is set at 12 point bold italic Helvetica Neue, for example, we now have a font. So Helvetica Neue 12 point and Helvetica Neue Bold 24 point are two different fonts, but the same typeface.
How to Choose?
A great rule to start with is DON’T PICK FAVORITES. Instead, choose the best font for the situation. What qualities or characteristics would you like to communicate? Choose a font that subtly reflects. Remember Body Copy vs Headlines vs Call to Action. Vary each with attention-getting headlines, easy-to-read paragraphs of text, and eye-catching calls to action.
It’s also important to consider context and audience. Where and how the design is viewed should be a big factor in your choice. For example, highway signage in an all-caps sans serif is bold and easy for drivers to read. Think about your audience and how they will be viewing the piece. Are they of a certain age or demographic? Will your choice be well-received by them? Is it suitable? Is it readable?
Where to Find Free Fonts
There are some great resources out there that offer free font downloads. Check the license first, because not all of them are available free for commercial use. And beware of kerning/tracking issues that can plague free fonts. To install, just double click on your download and then install the typeface. Once installed, it will be available as a selection just like any other font on your system.
Font Squirrel: These guys provide a handy list of their favorites. This is a great selection of high-quality fonts that may be filtered by type, style, classification, or tags. Every single one is available free for commercial use.
DaFont: Anyone can submit a font to this site, so be careful. Many of them are free only for personal use. There are over 25,000 free, public domain, and demo fonts of varying quality available.
Google Fonts: Here’s an incredible assortment of open source fonts, available and optimized for web use but also for print. Simply click the + symbol to add to your cart, then instead of embedding just click to direct download and install the file.
Font Choice isn’t Everything
The less time you spend worrying about fonts, the more time you can spend on other design details. Color is a huge part of the aesthetic. If printing, paper will also be a consideration. Be consistent with your branding but don’t be afraid to try new things.
Above all, just let your message be readable.