How to choose the perfect typeface, by Frere-Jones' Nina Stössinger

Photo: Marc Eckardt

Type design Nina Stössinger details the three steps you should follow to find the best font.

At the recent Adobe Max conference in San Diego, Nina Stössinger gave a packed talk called More Than Just a Pretty Face: Choosing a Type That Works for You – which focussed on the processing of finding the right typeface for your needs from the thousands available on the web or through services like Adobe TypeKit. I caught up with her afterwards to try to discuss the core struggle with typography between being easy to read and having character that adds 'flavour' to text.

Nina knows about type both as a user and a creator – she started her career as a graphic designer in Germany, before studying type design in Zurich and the Netherlands, founding her own type design studio Typologic and then moving to the US to work for Frere-Jones Type as a senior type designer - where she's contributed to typefaces such as the small-size-focussed Retina.

That any typeface can be described as perfect, is a bold claim. But Nina's definition of perfect - at least for this talk - exists within strict parameters in a space you'd probably describe as 'Swiss'. Legibility, readability and the practicalities of how you want to use a typeface – whether at small sizes or with long copy – are all.

She's not discounting the need for a typeface to have a personality, but instead her advice focusses on what to do when you've decided what "flavour" of typeface you want. From there, she says, it's about providing a comfortable, easy read.

So how is this achieved? Here are her key tips for finding the right typeface.

1) Write down your requirements

Before you start looking at font foundry websites and other font services, Nina says you should work out a set of technical requirements for what you need the typeface to do. Does it need to be legible at small sizes, or when seen at speed from a passing car, or in low-light conditions? Nina showed an example of a delicate, beautifully formed font that had been used on a restaurant menu - and whose thin strokes made it very difficult to read by candlelight and dim ambient light.

"Fomulate a job description for the font," she says. "You don't just want to hire anyone."

"You [take on a font] based on what it can do for you - and if it's also pretty, so much the better," she jokes.

She breaks the list of criteria you should look at into three main areas. The first she calls Aesthetics and Logistics. Look at the spacing around characters, and the kerning between them - specifically between the letters AV, AT and To as a first check.

The second is Content. Does it work in the languages you need? Does it have any other special characters you need. Also does the design of the numbers fit with the text? Do they look too bold - as can often be the case.

The third set of requirements is Setting and Media. Will it be used at print or screen? And at what sizes or in what colours - both of the type itself and, if relevant, the paper it will be printed on?

2) Work with people you trust

There are so many sources of typefaces on the web that you can spend an enormous amount of time scouring through them to find fonts that work for you. Nina says that you should build a list of foundries that you trust to consistently produce fonts that fit your requirements. This is perhaps unsurprising, coming from a type designer who works at a foundry that produces a small number of typefaces that are exquisitely polished and extensively tested (and priced to match).

This isn't just about paying for quality though, there can be other requirements that you can identify foundries (or even individual designers) whose typefaces often fit with. For example, many of Dalton Maag's fonts have extensive characters from non-English languages, including Arabic and Asian character sets - so is a great place to start if you need to produce work that will be used with translated copy outside of the UK or US and you want to maintain consistent-feeling typography (which you almost certainly do).

3) Filter pragmatically

For each font you're drawn to aesthetically, run through your list of requirements to see how it matches up. You know the likely sizes it will be used at - so how does it scale to them? How does it work knowing the contrast between type and paper? How does it work in print and on-screen, if that's how it's to be used?

Form vs function for fonts

In conversation afterwards, I ask her about balancing personality with readability.

"Of course there are moments [when choosing for typeface] where you want to consciously trade-in some amount of perfect functionality in order to give it a special flavour," she says. "I think comes down to this basic question of how invisible do you want the typography to be – because sometimes you want moments when the typography says, 'I'm here' and sometimes want people to just read."

However, what people notice about typography depends on what they're used to. As someone who does most of their reading online these days, I find small caps to be jarring – as they're not used there – whereas someone who reads print more regularly doesn't notice them. And there's probably a whole bunch of teenagers out there who only associate serif faces with school textbooks - as the short, snappy world of social media is near-exclusively set in sans.

Ease vs retention

I also asked her opinion on the whole concept of readability - as research over the past few years has challenged the idea that text being easier to read is inherently better. Some research has shown that while easy-to-read text is more pleasant to read, harder typefaces mean you retain information better - perhaps because you read more slowly or because it makes your brain focus more on what you're reading.

Nina points out that, while this is interesting, there's a lot less conclusive research that has been performed typography than you might expect.

"I think there's a lot to be done still in research," she says. "There is an inherent problem - type and typography are incredibly complex and there's just a lot of variables that play together at any given point. Say you create a study where you compare a serif typeface with a sans typeface. You're already going to be comparing more than just the presence of serifs - because the presence of serifs usually also implies some degree of contrast. It implies a different paradigm of spacing, of the rhythm that this whole thing is going to have.

"So, if you find a difference, which one of those parameters will be the one that caused it? So it's very hard to kind of narrow these things down."

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