Eight Guidelines for Choosing Type, Part I

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One of the great things about making your own books is the sense of creative freedom that comes from putting those pages and covers together from scratch. You choose the photos, you write the text, and you put together the layouts. If you’re creating a book with Blurb BookSmart® or our PDF to Book workflow, you also have typographic freedom: you can use pretty much any font installed on your computer. But when it comes time to actually pick a font, many of us freeze up.

Relax. Working with type can be just as much fun as putting together the rest of your book, and making smart choices about type can really pay off by elevating the professionalism of your design. Here are a few simple principles to guide you along the way.

1. There is no right answer, but…

Different people have different tastes. And with thousands of fonts out there to choose from, if you asked ten type experts to choose the perfect fonts your book, you would get ten different answers. So rule #1 is that there are no rules. You know your book and your audience better than anyone. Trust your own eyes, and don’t be afraid to be bold!

That said, some fonts are going to be more effective than others, because they’re designed for different purposes. You could spend all week learning about the different ways professionals classify type, but all you really need is a little common sense. If you’re using a lot of text and you want your words to be read, a harsh, grungy font is going to make that difficult. And if you’re making a wedding photo book, you want the text to be as graceful and romantic as the event — so a clean, readable font like Helvetica may look too sterile and drab. Think about what your text is meant to do, and you can narrow down the list of possible fonts pretty quickly.

font tip 1 Eight Guidelines for Choosing Type, Part I

2. Choose fonts that convey the essence of your message

Put away that big list of fonts for a minute and look at your book instead. What kind of book is it? What message do you want to convey? Grab a piece of scrap paper and write down the way your book makes you feel: is it edgy or serious? High art or a book of family snapshots? Poetry or a business book? Make a list of adjectives, one or two words each. Don’t worry about the specific subject of your book, go deeper and find words that describe the feel of the book.

Now when you go back to that list of fonts, try to match the profile you just wrote down. Which fonts make you feel the same way? You may not feel anything at all when looking at type, but that’s okay too. Try going to a website like myfonts.com, which tags fonts with keywords, and search for the words on your list. You’ll find a lot of ideas (and a few surprises) that way.

font tip 2 Eight Guidelines for Choosing Type, Part I

3. Legibility is not the same as readability

You may hear people say that your fonts should be legible, or that they should be readable. These are good tips, but be aware that they refer to two different concepts.

A legible font is one where the letters are clear and clean, making words easy to make out. Helvetica is a great example of this, which is why it’s so ubiquitous. Legibility is important for what’s called display type — short blocks of large text like headlines, signs, and logos. It’s also important for very small type, like photo captions, where a complicated font might become too muddy or thin to read.

Readability refers to how easy it is to follow a longer block of text, like a paragraph. Sometimes the very things that make a font legible, like lines of even thickness, make that font hard to read in a full page of text. A good exercise is to paste a couple of paragraphs into Microsoft Word or another word processing program and print out some sample pages, using a different font each time. Put them side-by-side and you’ll see that some are easy to read while others make your eyes swim!

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4. Keep it simple

If you have a lot of fonts on your computer, it’s tempting to use them all. Using a lot of fonts may seem like a fun way to spice things up, but most designers agree that using too many fonts makes a page look cluttered or chaotic, not fun.

Instead, try picking two really nice fonts that support the overall feel of your book: one for your display elements (book title, chapter or section heads) and the other for your main text. You’ll find that this gives your book a consistent, comfortable feel.

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If that seems too limiting, you can introduce variety without sacrificing unity by using font families rather than individual fonts. For example, you may have seen this font around the Blurb website. It’s called Interstate, but it actually comes in dozens of varieties, from very thick letters to extra-thin, and in wide, regular, and condensed versions. By mixing in different members of the same font family, you can get the continuity of one font and the spice of multiple fonts at the same time.

We’ll talk more about combining fonts in Part II of this post. We’ll also look at ways to find the right font for the right space, and how to get the most impact from your fonts once you’ve chosen them. In the meantime, try dropping different fonts into your book and see for yourself how they can change the feel of the page. Be bold, experiment, and have fun!

Read more: Eight Guidelines for Choosing Type, Part II

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12 Comments

  1. I’m exactly at the point you describe by way of introduction – book’s nearly finished, ready to launch, but a couple of reviewers have commented on the font and having to struggle with it. Great info Forrest, thanks from Stockholm!

    By Gary
      October 29, 2010 – 11:30 pm   Permalink
  2. Thanks for sharing such helpful info. Since my books are photography, I don’t have much in the way of text-just title/cover and introduction. I let the photos do the “talking”. However, I have ideas for my next books.

      January 13, 2011 – 9:49 pm   Permalink
  3. Creating a memory photo book about our visit to Europe. We have mostly decided to keep things consistent, simple, and modern with century gothic in varying sizes…. tip: too many colors looks “kitchy”

    By Erica
      January 14, 2011 – 2:51 pm   Permalink
  4. Thank you for your information.

    I am coming very close to the ending of my story. In process of editing chapers/subchapters and trying to downsize the paper, as I first typed an 8 12 by 11 12 paper before I discovered your website. And now I have decreased the size as I edit my chapters.

    I have been tossing around the idea to put in Drop letter at the begining of paragraph. My question: My book so far has about 200 pages. 50 Chapters. Will it be to cluttered if I use Drop letters at begining of paragraphs?

    Question 2: I am strategically placing some graphs in my book. Will it be allright if I use a different font to present graphs? Is it possible to use too many graphs?

    Sandy

      January 14, 2011 – 11:37 pm   Permalink
  5. The idea of using font families to achieve variety and unity was an eye-opener. It takes some of the decision work out of font selection. Thanks for writing this.

      January 15, 2011 – 8:26 am   Permalink
  6. Hi Sandra,
    Customer Support is the best place to get your question answered. You’ll find the email contact on our site. You can also use our live chat option. Sounds like you have a great book in progress and we’d love to help you get it finished.
    best,
    Eileen

      January 18, 2011 – 11:07 am   Permalink
  7. An excellent set of guidelines, which should be the foundation of any printed work.

    Like Victor, I produced a photo book, which in my case was originally meant to be just a way of printing myself a portfolio. However, I ended up adding text, and choosing the right font was important to me. I wanted a sans serif, but something a bit more stylish than something like Helvetica (which I don’t have anyway), Arial or Franklin. Goudy Sans was my final choice, with bold and italic forms for different elements. For photo captions, I wanted a serif font to set them apart from the main text, and went with Palatino Linotype.

    I’m no font sniffer by any stretch of the imagination, and don’t really understand the esteem in which some fonts are held – like Helvetica – so my choice might be decided upon how a single character is reproduced in a given font (I like the Goudy Sans ampersand for example, although that wasn’t my prime reason for using it).

    Write on…

      March 21, 2012 – 3:09 am   Permalink
  8. What I dislike is having to change the font on every single page – why can’t Blurb offer an option to change all type in the whole book at once? Unless they have added this feature and I have missed it?

    By Jody Weems
      March 21, 2012 – 6:21 am   Permalink
  9. Hey Jody,

    Thank you for the feedback. It is inconvenient. But we’re aware of the issue and I’ll be sure to bug the font folks again.

    best

    Kent

    By Kent
      March 21, 2012 – 12:26 pm   Permalink
  10. Hey Duncan,

    Font sniffer or not, clearly you put a lot of thought into your choice. As you discovered, it’s more about what works, than what’s popular.

    best

    Kent

    By Kent
      March 21, 2012 – 12:29 pm   Permalink
  11. I am having trouble pulling up your Eight Guidelines For Choosing Type. Is this still available and how do I access it? (Sorry, not familiar wth blogging.)

    By Margaret
      April 23, 2012 – 2:31 pm   Permalink
  12. Hey Margaret,

    Wow, thanks for pointing this out! Not sure were this post went to, but we’ll get it back for you.

    best

    kent

    By Kent
      April 23, 2012 – 2:53 pm   Permalink

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