Q&A: Jamie Neely talks about choosing fonts

In our webinar Choosing Your Path to the Perfect Font, our Director of Product Design Jamie Neely walked us through the strategies designers use to pick fonts. Afterwards, he took your questions about the role of free fonts, fonts for small screen use, and techniques for pairing.

Can you recap the places where you go looking to find fonts?

Okay, so I talked about mainly MyFonts, FontShop, TypeCache, and Typographica. But there are some others online that are also worth thinking about.

ILoveTypography is excellent. Designer News is great. I also regularly check back at the foundry sites. Something that doesn’t get enough of a mention is email and email newsletters, which are awesome because the new typefaces comes to you. Over the last year I’ve noticed MyFonts, FontShop and Fonts.com have significantly improved their email designs.

Offline is more varied, and a little more interesting. You could subscribe to something like Baseline Magazine, which is quite detailed and in-depth, and Eye Magazine. You could check out publishers like Slanted, who produced the Yearbook of Type that I mentioned. They have 20 or 30 other type-specific books that you should totally check out, especially before they’re out of print. Other books I mentioned earlier are Type Matters, The Type Navigator, The Type Taster and The Anatomy of Type [these appear in our US and UK Amazon lists on the webinar video page]. For higher-level perspectives on type, try Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type, Jason Santa Maria’s On Web Typography, or dive deeper with Sophie Beier’s Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility and Size Specific Adjustments to Type Design Tim Arruns from Just Another Foundry.

Where do you stand on free fonts? Are they okay to use or is it a deadly sin?

Free fonts are interesting. Speaking personally, I’ve grown up with the web so I appreciate open source and the idea that you can get started and learn something with low cost and effort. So free can be okay as an on-ramp for designers who want to get to grips with typography, as well as for type designers who need to learn, need to put something out there and get some feedback.

But there are number of other things at play that we don’t talk about when evaluating free fonts. For example, price should only be one of the considerations. Whether the essence of the typeface is right and its suitability for your project should take precedent over its cost.

We should also be more mindful of the natural limitations that come with free typefaces. It’s hard for type designers to invest a lot of time in a typeface that they’re not being paid for. So what we often see on free-font sites are typefaces that only come in one weight. I suppose with a single-weight typeface you’re going to find out quickly whether it’s going to work for your use or not. But I prefer to adopt typefaces that let me grow into them at a later time, and give me bit more design flexibility. With free fonts, it’s just not always that clear where they’re going to go in the future.

The other things I think we should remember is that we never really own our typefaces, whether they’re free of paid for, because fonts are software. We’re just temporarily borrowing the rights to use that software in certain types of visual materials in specific ways. Whenever I think about Adrian Frutiger’s answer to the question “Are there ever too many typefaces? ”, and he simply said “Are there ever too many wines?”, I think to myself, there are never any free wines. So I'll be watching the free-fonts marketplace with much interest to see where it goes.

What font did you use for your slides?

Cardamon. This one probably falls into the New strategy category for me. I wanted to use it because it’s relatively new, I wanted to use it before you guys do, and I wanted you to see it so that you can use it and rub that in other designers’ faces! [giggles] When you read about why this font was created and its intended uses, it’s probably not meant for a slide deck or a presentation. But I really like it, so my heart kind of overruled my head on that one. That just happens sometimes.

Any methods on how to audition a font for a client before they decide to purchase?

If you’re working online, Typecast is a pretty good solution. It has are around 100,000 web fonts from all of the major web font providers, and it’s free. So you can prototype to your heart’s content, publish a sharable (but not indexed) URL, and give that to your client to review. It also has a few different templates, so you can set up and compare type side-by-side, swap fonts out quickly, etc.

If you have a MyFonts account, you can try a web font free for 30 days and it will put a banner across the top of your webpage. That is a really great way to trial fonts on a larger-scale design. If you have a Fonts.com, you can download and trial a desktop font for free for 5 minutes, and when your time is up, the font is automatically removed from your system.

What would you recommend for text used in small displays?

As far back as the metal type era, typefaces came in variations to suit different uses. For example Times New Roman, or Times in the 1930s, had a version called Times 10, which was specifically for uses beneath 10pts. Today you still get that differentiation in families of well-known fonts. For example, at Monotype we created a set of typefaces called eText, which include Neue Helvetica®, Sabon®, Malabar, PMN Caecilia, and a bunch of others [which you can buy on Fonts.com and MyFonts].

They excel in the 12px–30px range, while still retaining their character and emotional qualities. I also recommend the Reading Edge series by Font Bureau for text at small sizes. A few years back at Typecast we also published a list of faces that are good for UI as part of a Type On Screen series of font recommendations we published, which you might be interested in.

Any tips or tricks for combining sans serif with serif fonts? Or just pairing fonts generally?

There are three main ways to experiment with pairing: by opposite style, by era, and by designer. The typeface’s backstory and metadata is your friend here.

Pairing by opposite style

When pairing Helvetica, for example, I would stay away from other geometric/humanist sans serifs. Typefaces from surrounding classifications somehow never quite fit. So I would avoid similarity, and aim for differentiation. Pair a sans serif with a serif. Pair a script with something humanist. Pair something thin with something thick. And so on.

Pairing by era

Typefaces designed within the same historical period or movement are often created to meet similar market needs and work within similar technological constraints. Likewise, because type designers are influenced by new designs they see around them, homogeneity in what they produce is more likely. This is probably most true of slower typographic periods (e.g. 15th-18th century) when production and printing techniques provided fewer opportunities for experimentation than we enjoy today. So I think typefaces from the same era are almost always more comfortable together than when set with a brand new typeface that has been produced for an entirely different reading or production environment.

Pairing by designer

You could argue that a type designer’s body of work over time will be much like that of a fine painter—each new piece is connected in style and personality to that of its creator. On the whole, I do think different families from the same type designer often share similar genesis, ideas and proportions. In fact, some designers or foundries use this to their advantage and quite smartly develop systems of both sans and serif families that are designed to work together. It just makes more business sense to supply all the fonts for a type system rather than just the font used in the body text. Foundries are also really good at answering ‘What pairs well with X?’, so don’t be afraid to email them, or hit them up on Twitter. You can get some really good answers that way.

How do you feel when you see Helvetica used in today’s industry? Is it overused?

When a font is as popular as Helvetica®, it’s easy to describe it as overused. For me, the bigger concern is how Helvetica® has been used. Helvetica® can be a great titling typeface, but it’s easily outpaced by other font families when used for bodies of small text because there it can take on a ‘mushy’ texture. That austere, European feel can still be achieved in titles and long-running text by swapping it out for close relatives like Neue Haas Grotesk or Neue Haas Unica. These modern typefaces have been designed to perform under many more conditions without compromising the cool, Swiss aesthetic intended by their designers.

What’s your advice for handling clients wanting the font files when the final art is submitted?

In almost all cases, passing font files to someone else is against the standard EULA that you accept when purchasing a font. So, to avoid any licensing issues you should recommend that your client buy a license directly. To help direct clients to the right place, Fonts.com provides an email share link on every font page, and MyFonts provides a share link to any shopping cart.