Display fonts are all fonts intended for (relatively speaking) larger type sizes and usually shorter pieces of information. Display fonts are often supposed to be eye-catching—but not necessarily.
In contrast to the subtle differences of text fonts, the potentially expressive character of display fonts can strongly influence the tonality of your designs and invoke specific associations. The bigger the relative text size and the shorter the text, the more freedom we gain in choosing a font. Because of the size and the shortness of the text, the readers have enough time and enough details to decipher almost any text. As a result, it’s almost impossible to classify display fonts, since so many different styles can and do exist.
In the category of Latin display fonts we don’t have to be as conservative as with text fonts. There are endless possibilities and we can go to all the extremes. Here are a few typical examples:
- from extra thin to extra bold
- narrow, extra wide, and monospaced
- missing or highly exaggerated elements or constrasts
- constructed or distressed letterforms
- 3D letterforms
- multiple colors
- inline fonts and other decorations within the letterform
- a mix of uppercase and lowercase letterforms
- invoking a different script with letters still being legible as Latin
- simulating a certain display, e.g. an old dot matrix printer or a bitmap font
In addition, we can easily invoke historical associations. We can go well into the past with Roman square capitals, uncial or blackletter fonts. Or we can invoke the Wild West or art styles like Art Nouveau, Art Deco or Bauhaus.
You are also barely limited in your layout choices. You can vary sizes, rotate the text and so on. But as a general rule: the more difficult it gets to read the text, the shorter the text should be. Trying to decipher a text on a poster or postcard might be fun, but having to do it for every headline in a book or magazine it might be rather frustrating.
Mind the clichés
As easy as it is to invoke specific associations with display fonts, as easy it is to overdo it. The tea packaging in Papyrus, the movie poster in Trajan Pro, the product for kids in Comic Sans. Whenever you can, try to find more interesting alternatives to commonly used display fonts. Luckily, there are many choices. And since display fonts are usually just used for headlines, bullet points or other short pieces information, there is rarely a need for bigger families. A display font in a single style is often enough, especially when mixed with a text font family. More about mixing fonts in our final lesson How to mix fonts.
Special category: script fonts
Script fonts are usually treated as a category of its own, but despite their historic connection to everyday handwriting, today’s digital script fonts are mostly used for display use. The options are again endless, since they can be based on all the writing styles in use over the last several millennia as well as all the possible writing tools (e.g. pens, brushes, markers).
- Formal scripts are often used for invitations, certificates and so on
- Informal scripts are used for lists, e.g. for a to-do list app or the ingredients in a cook book
- Handwriting fonts might be used to simulate letters, quotes and other personal texts
- Brush fonts might be used to give products are more hand-made appearance
Professional script fonts often come with lots of alternative characters and ligatures, which can even be applied automatically through OpenType features. This gives the text the appearance of actual handwriting or lettering, since the letters can always connect organically and the same letter might look slightly different when repeated, as it would in handwriting. It is usually recommended to prefer such script fonts over the ones which just have a basic character set.
What not to do:
Connected script fonts should always use the default tracking of “zero”.
Otherwise the letters don’t connect properly anymore.
- Swash capitals are usually only meant for the beginning of words and should not be applied to all-caps typesetting.
- Flourishes should be applied selectively and where appropriate.
Special category: signage fonts
Signage fonts basically follow the same principles we discussed so far for display fonts. But there usually is a stronger focus on legibility. If we talk about uses such as road signage, legibility often even becomes the only concern. In this case, the design of the characters should work similar to text fonts read in very small sizes. The fonts need to have conservative, robust and low-contrast letterforms so they can be read from as far away as possible.
But the signage for a hotel, office building or library might offer more stylistic choices and a unique look with branding qualities might be a goal as well. It’s the designer’s job to weigh the options. And keep in mind that there might be legal requirements or at least recommendations in regards to the legibility and accessibility of the signs you create.
Related Font Lists: