Beyond Helvetica – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fonts* But Were Too Afraid to Ask

Fonts, particularly for Web and digital design have typically been a simple affair. We choose among the fonts most likely to be on most user’s devices (with fallbacks to “similar” fonts to ensure coverage of as many devices as possible). The rise of Web fonts, and services like TypeKit opened up a far wider palette of possibilities. But how much do you really know about the fonts you’re choosing?

Wayne Thompson knows about fonts, and typography. He’s designed numerous typefaces, and custom type for leading global brands. In this session he’ll bring you up to speed with what you need to know about fonts as a user of them. About various font formats, hoe they actually work on screen, and how to use this knowledge to improve the legibility of your type. Not only fascinating in its own right, the quality of your work will improve though the application of Wayne’s ideas.

Wayne designs fonts for a living. He’s a self-professed font nerd!

A brief history of all communication: Cunieform → Gutenberg → Digital revolution!

Who makes fonts? Anyone can make a font! It is mostly big companies and small foundries, few in-between.

How is it done? In a literal sense, software like FontLab.

What do you need to consider? Not just pretty letter forms, but fonts need to be functional. Legible, robust, well-spaced.

  • People named Clint really appreciate fonts that kern properly.
  • Character sets are quite large – not just the obvious characters but diacritics, alternate alphabets and so on.
  • There may be two sets of numerals: standard (numbers need to line up in columns!) and non-lining numerals (sometimes known as ‘lowercase’ numerals).

How much does it cost to make a font? It can be very very expensive. Wayne saw one quote for an internationalised font that came in at nearly $1.5m AUD. So it explains to an extent why fonts are so expensive to buy off the shelf.

Why do a custom font at all? Larger clients will do it to ensure they have no IP violations, or it costs so much to license thousands of seats it becomes viable to get a custom font done.

Why free fonts are bad for you:

  • Many don’t have ligatures like ffl, ffi, etc. Most of our current software will handle ligatures and attempt to insert them; and you can end up with missing characters – literally gaps in the rendered text.
  • Spacing is often bad – you won’t be able to do nice kerning without a lot of manual work.
  • They’re usually not actually free for commercial use! They’ll be ok for personal use but not client work.

So with all that in mind, how do you choose fonts? It’s easy to think of this aesthetically but it needs to be based on functionality. Legibility has a lot to do with the subconscious skills we have developed after years of reading.

How this translates to the screen? Things like – how well do the shapes get displayed in pixels? Was the font designed for the screen?

Avoid Arial! It is an inferior copy of Helvetica which itself wasn’t designed for screens… and you also end up looking exactly ike everyone else.

Legibility aids built into good typefaces – stroked zeros, different spurs on p and q, bridge in k to open it up, opening up the apertures in e and s, plus many more. A lot of thought goes into reading type at small sizes.

So that was a quick tour through some minutiae of fonts!


Great comment during Q&A – “You can’t be a designer without being a good writer.”