What's Your Type?


by: Jason Watson in: Article 1 year ago

Typography is something so necessary, something so ubiquitous that it is an inescapable part of a literate society. Most of us give little thought to the weights and the kerning, the leading and the serifs that adorn the printed and (perhaps even more so) digital page. Whether the void left from the press to be filled in with ink or the bits on the die traced with magnets and light, the word is not far from any of us.

In every nook and cranny of life one is accosted by the creations of the foundry, glyphs and characters emblazoned upon every conceivable surface, plane and item, all the way from schooner to skin.

The thing about words is that they often say a lot regardless of what they actually say. The layout and the typeface, the weight and the emphasis- all these things speak in subtle ways that we pick up on whether we are aware of them or not.

After all, one could certainly write an entire doctoral dissertation in Comic Sans. It would no doubt have all the same words, phrases, sections, arguments, etc. But could we honestly believe it said the same thing? Does your perception of its content reside solely in the argument without any input from the presentation?

In this world- and especially in the modern world- the way we present things is not some nice if ultimately unnecessary accoutrement; rather, it is as much a part of the fabric of the information itself.

(While not related specifically to type, elsewhere I have looked at the idea of how layout and presentation can effect a Bible translation.)

With a message as powerful and life-transforming as the Gospel, those of us who have the privilege and responsibility of presenting this message (in whatever form that presentation may take) should be constantly asking if the approaches and means we use are hindering or helping.

Note: This can obviously be applied beyond typography. It should also be noted that I take it for granted that, as the Gospel of John says, no one can come to the Father unless the Father draws them to himself. Without trying to resolve centuries of speculation on the relation of providence to free will (maybe in my next post! j/k) I will simply fall in with St. Paul who says that in whatever area of life we are in we should make the Gospel attractive. (Titus 2)

But back to the matter at hand. There are certainly no hard and fast rules about what fonts to use in what situation, but some general practical principles can accommodate at least 85% of applications.

Hey There, You Have A Great Body

Type is meant first and foremost to be read. If you are literate you are almost unconsciously compelled to want to read something when you see it. Most of the time this reading takes place without us even knowing it is happening.

However, reading can become very tedious if the typeface makes the words difficult to read. If the words or lines are too close together, if the shapes of the type don't have a consistent style or any number of other reasons, you can immediately close off the lines of communication.

I once started reading a biography on Erasmus. (a 16th century theologian and humanist) The content was exceptional, but the text was almost unreadable. None of the letters beginning sentences were capitalized, there were inconsistent gaps between paragraphs and other seemingly little things like that. I never realized how crucial capitalization was until I tried reading this. Even though the text was fascinating, I ended up having to give up in frustration.

This is only one example, but body text- especially prose- kind of has to be, for lack of a better description, kind of boring. It's not because you don't want it to be interesting, but something like prose requires processing a lot of information in a small space. If this text is difficult to read, it makes informational intake harder to accomplish and only leads to reader frustration.

When doing body text, select a font that is, above all, easy to read. A serif font is actually one of the easiest to read as the serifs give distinction between words and help in keeping one's place. Sans serifs can work as well, although ones that are more mono-spaced can actually detract since they cause the body of text to blend together.

Fonts like Helvetica and Times are good for body text because they are eminently readable. I know, I know, they get overused, but they also really work for this type of thing. If the goal of your particular application is the readability of large swaths of type, you could do a lot worse.

Titles That Aren't Titular

When you have something like a sermon series branding, a postcard for an event or something similar, there is a lot of leeway in the types of fonts to use for the title. Much will depend on the artwork, type of event, audience, etc. Even then there is a huge latitude that might make a section for titles in this post seem a fool's errand.

Happy to play the fool, (whether unwittingly or not!) I think there are a few ways of going about titles that need to be kept in mind. Firstly, in most cases whatever title font you decide upon is probably not going to be standing alone. There will more than likely be other collateral that exists with it. As such, some thought needs to be given to how the title (whether it is a font or not) will interact with anything else that goes along with it.

I've made many postcards for events in my time, and usually there is a lot of info that needs to be crammed onto it. (That's another discussion in and of itself!) Since we usually run our postcards through a non-profit mail stamper thing-y, (technical phrase, I know…)  most of one side has to be just an address, stamp and place for a label. There are also the postal regulations about where artwork can be, what opacity, blah, blah, blah.

Because of this, most of the information resides on the same side as the artwork, which can be a huge challenge since I have to make the title font play really well with the rest of the info. In many cases it's not too bad- the style of the artwork often 'picks' the font. But sometimes I have to make some serious modifications which take time.

You shouldn't feel creatively hindered in the way you make your titles look, but simply be aware of how everything will (and should) work together.

Plays Nice With Others

There are many situations where you want to differentiate the text you use from titles and other such things. While it might not seem consistent, in some scenarios this supposed lack of consistency is actually its saving grace.

I once worked with a logo that used something like Cholla Unicase as its font. With the logo it worked really well. However, when it came to using it for body text it quickly became very hard to read. That doesn't take away from it as a font, but some fonts are meant for prose and some are meant for titles.

If you have a logo that uses a font that is hard to read in body format, it is crucial to find something that goes with it that is easy to read. If you are the designer making the logo, you probably owe it to the client to do this for them. Put it in a style guide and make sure they know which one to use where.

It is important to realize that people who are not versed in design will more than likely use bad fonts. Understand this and head it off as much as you can!

Anathema Fonts

There are a lot of fonts that get a bad rap. In most cases it is not simply from overuse (after all, something like Helvetica can still work despite its ubiquity) but rather from overuse in contexts it doesn't belong.

Comic Sans is probably one of the most egregious offenders. Adminstrative assistants and children's ministry leaders looking for that 'fun' to inject in their print materials have beat this font into a bloody pulp.

Originally it was developed to mimic the comic book bubble text, but people started using it injudiciously for everything. It is simply unsalvageable. Don't ever use it.

Papyrus seems to be the church font of choice, presumably because it has that biblical look. First of all, no, it doesn't. If you look at any Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek biblical text, none of them look anything like Papyrus. Secondly, it's not as if papyrus was the only medium for writing- it didn't last very long and was expensive. Animal hides were cheaper and longer-lasting. So once some plucky designer creates a font called Cute Little Butchered Dried-Out Cow Skin, then you'll have a biblical font you can use with impunity.

Of course, you'll also have to dispense with those pesky vowels or run all your letters together without punctuation, but hey, it'll look biblical.

And yes, the movie Avatar used (a variant of) Papyrus. Fair enough. Once you can spend as much money on the next thing your church does as was spent on Avatar, then you are allowed to use Papyrus.

Bleeding Cowboy (or any grunge font)

This was a (mercifully) short-lived fad. No, it doesn't make it look like you have some kind of edgy thing going on at your church. Yes, it does make you look like you are trying to play catch-up with a long-gone and mis-guided blip in pop culture. No, you still shouldn't use it.

If you want to distress a font, please do it in Photoshop when it fits within a design. Make a layer mask, find some kind of distressed brush and do your worst. Do not use it as your logo. Ever.

Notable Contenders:

Bradley Hand
Impact (unless you making the kitteh pictures)
Lucida (any of them)
Arial (no, it is not even close to Helvetica)


Type is going to be a major component of many designs you will make. With that in mind ensure that the fonts you use say what you want your content to say, rather than something else.

Your Turn- what fonts do you despise? What strategies do you have for utilizing typography in design?


Add a Comment
Jeff Simbro   Jeff Simbro 1 year ago Reply
Ha, these are awesome points. I see so many churches using bleeding cowboy still haha.
Jason Watson   Level 1Jason Watson 1 year ago
Thanks Jeff!
Samuel Fyfe   Level 1Samuel Fyfe 1 year ago Reply
Angelic War...*barf*
Jason Watson   Level 1Jason Watson 1 year ago
Samuel- ha! Nice one. I had to search for that one, but I wholeheartedly share your sentiments. (metaphorically, fortunately, rather than gastro-intestinally!)

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