Text fonts usually have a rather conservative design. They need to use a familiar design to make the letters as legible as possible and to provide the reading comfort required for longer texts. Just like unfamiliar orthography, unfamiliar letterforms or problems like poor spacing can throw us off while we read. It can slow down reading or might make us not wanting to continue reading at all.
The typical style of text fonts we use today goes back to the early days of printing with moveable type. Over the course of several centuries the style changed slowly. The steps of this development are usually categorized as:
Sans-serif fonts have caught up as well. Their design got more and more refined during the 20th century and we became familiar with reading longer texts set in them—even though their design was still considered “grotesque” in the 19th century—hence the name Grotesque for the early sans-serif designs. But interestingly, even with serif and sans-serif on par in regard to legibility and reading comfort, we still like to pick one or the other based on the content of the text. Traditional font applications like novels and newspapers mostly use serif fonts, while for uses like text books or technical manuals sans-serif fonts are often preferred.
Checklist: What are the qualities we should look for in a text font?
Familiar letterforms with average proportions
Text fonts can have lots of interesting subtle differences, but their overall design should be conservative. The letter skeletons should use a design we are most familiar with when reading body copy. The proportions should be average as well. For example: the x-height should neither be very small nor very large.
The horizontal letter width should be average as well and proportional to the letterform. Condensed fonts can be useful when there is little space, e.g. in tables. But an average width can be read much more comfortably. Wider fonts do not improve the legibility any further. They just need much more space.
Monospaced fonts, where each letter fills the same horizontal space, have been used for longer texts as well, especially in the 20th century. But this was more a result of the technical limitations of typewriters. You might still want to use typewriter fonts to give the appearance of a letter or manuscript, but those fonts are clearly lacking in regards to their reading comfort.
Clearly distinguishable letterforms
No two letters should look similar, even under difficult reading conditions. A double-story a usually works better than a single-story a, since the latter can be mistaken for an o. A lowercase l can have a hook to not be mistaken for a capital I. And so on. Rather closed counters can also decrease the legibility.
Average stroke widths and even color
Thin lines (so-called “hairlines”) can give letters an elegant appeal, but this is not suitable for copy texts, since those details might be hard to see in smaller (relative) type sizes. However, very bold strokes also do not help, since the counters and other white space areas could be filled too much. Text fonts should have an average stroke with a low contrast, i.e. no large differences between thin and thick strokes.
Consistent strokes and proper kerning and spacing creates a rhythmic pattern of stems and white space, which improves the reading comfort and also gives the entire page an even distribution of black and white elements. In the field of typography, this is called “color”.
How to find text fonts?
While the scalable fonts of today are often not designed with a specific type size in mind, there are type families which contain specific styles for text and display use. We will discuss this in more detail in the lesson The font family.
When no font styles in a family are clearly marked as text fonts, you have to decide for yourself and the checklist above tells you what to look out for. Here are a few examples which match our checklist.
Note: Do not rule fonts in our out just based on their stylistic category (like old-style, modern and so on) and don’t just go by popular names such as Garamond or Bodoni, even when people make specific recommendations based on those names. There are many digitizations of these old letterpress fonts and they can be of varying quality and based on text or display sizes.
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