Before you can think about the design of your visual identity, you should determine what your brand and its unique personality are about.
“I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”
—Albert Einstein, Quote Investigator
The same applies to identity design. When you don’t know what it is you communicate, finding the right typeface can be overwhelming. Establishing a strategic foundation for your brand early on will simplify your decision making later. If you wonder what this strategic foundation is all about, you can read my post on 10 advantages your business will gain from a brand strategy.
Now, let’s dive into typefaces. Are you wondering why I use the term typeface instead of font? A typeface refers to an entire font family, while a font is only a certain style, for example, Helvetica Regular. In branding, you need multiple styles to allow for flexibility—in a variety of uses, and for your brand’s future growth. Therefore, you should look for a typeface, not a font.
To explain how different typefaces express different personalities, I’ve broken them up into the following attributes:
- Serif vs sans-serif
- High contrast vs low contrast
- Vertical stress vs diagonal stress
- Low x-height vs high x-height
- Condensed vs extended
- Rounded letterforms vs angular letterforms
Let’s have a closer look.
Serif vs sans-serif
While there are more sub-/classifications for typefaces, I only focus on serif vs sans-Serif, here.
Serif typefaces originate from the 18th century when stonemasons would carve letters into rocks. They can be recognised by their decorative flourishes at the end of their letters and symbols, called serifs. Due to their history, serif typefaces are perceived as elegant, trustworthy and established. Law firms, wineries or newspapers could use serif typefaces to get across reliable and sophisticated. Yet, there has been a trend to a more playful application of serif typefaces in recent years. Some well-known serif typefaces are Baskerville, Times New Roman and Garamond. Open-source alternatives include Playfair Display and Lora.
Sans-serif typefaces emerged around 1800. However, they only gained popularity in the 1920–30s through the Bauhaus movement. Unlike serif typefaces, sans-serifs are perceived as modern, approachable and clean. Sans-serif typefaces are utilised to communicate the everyday and approachable. They are typically used in a number of industries, from sport to tech companies. Futura, Univers and Helvetica are popular sans-serif typefaces. If you are looking for open-source, consider Roboto, Open Sans or Source Sans Pro.
Pro Tip: For font pairing, don’t choose two typefaces of the same classification. Pairing a sans-serif with a serif is a much better choice as they aren’t competing with each other.
High contrast vs low contrast
The contrast of a typeface describes the variation of the stroke width within a character. High contrast typefaces convey classiness, while low contrast typefaces communicate robustness and trust. You might find high contrast typefaces used for luxury fashion labels or hotels to convey exclusivity and high prices. Bodoni is a classic example of a high contrast typeface. Check out Prata as a free alternative to Bodoni.
Pro Tip: Never use high contrast typefaces for body text. Their delicate strokes will start to fade, which makes them illegible at small sizes.
Vertical stress vs diagonal stress
The stress of the axis refers to the angle at which the contrast occurs in letterforms. To determine the stress of the axis, look at the letter O. Typefaces with a diagonal stress originate from the calligraphy in old-style roman typography. They come across as warmer and more human than their geometric and symmetrical counterparts. Garamond is a good example of diagonal stress, while Bodoni shows vertical stress.
Pro Tipp: For font pairing, choose two typefaces with similar stress to make them feel related.
Low x-height vs high x-height
The x-height refers to the height of a lowercase x. A low x-height can come across as delicate and luxury, while a larger x-height looks more sturdy. Mr Eaves has a low h-height, while Helvetica has an especially high x-height.
But be careful with x-heights in the body text. Fonts with very small x-height are difficult to read in small sizes. Their counters (opening in a letterform, such as c) start to close up, which makes a c read as an o. Additionally, heir apertures (spaces enclosed in letterforms, such as o) start to fill in. On the other hand, very high x-height typefaces also read poorly. When we read, our eyes recognise the shapes of the words, rather than each letter. With high x-heights typefaces, the eye can’t recognise these shapes easily, which reduces legibility.
Pro Tip: For font pairing, choose two typefaces with a similar x-height to make them feel related.
Condensed vs extended
Condensed font styles have historically been used, and are still being used, for newspaper headlines to fit more words in a line. Given that history, we perceive them as precise and reliable. They also convey tension and dynamics. Condensed font styles may be used by athletic brands. Wide or extended font styles, in contrast, are perceived as spacious and make a design breathe. They are used to communicate positivity and lightness.
Pro Tip: Some typefaces or superfamilies come with narrow and extended weights. Combine these to create tension.
Rounded letterforms vs angular letterforms
People prefer round shapes. This is rooted in our evolution. Round shapes suggest safety, stability and femininity.
“A study conducted in 1968 by psychologists Albert Kastl and Irvin Child indicated that people associate positive qualities like ‘sprightly’, ‘sparkling’, ‘dreamy’, and ‘soaring’ with curved, light, and possibly sans-serif typefaces.”
Round typefaces are an excellent choice for brands that suggest safety, like infant nutrition, or car brands. Angular typefaces, on the other hand, can imply a threat. For example, you could refer to the adrenaline rush if they are used in the identity of an adventure park.
I hope this post gave you a good overview of what goes into the decision of choosing a brand typeface. If you have further questions, feel free to reach and ask.