what's in a font

Tips for Using Fonts Effectively in Your Designs

Imagine you were in a predicament and needed help. You couldn’t speak, but wanted to express the urgency of your situation. You were given the opportunity to create a sign in the hopes to attract someone passing by. Which of the following fonts would you choose: a) Courier New or b) Impact?


Let’s face it, fonts are crucial to design and the message you want to deliver. Many people don’t take this into consideration and choose fonts haphazardly, and then wonder why their ad failed.

So let’s take a look at the general different fonts (as there are thousands under each category) and how they can help you design an effective message.

The Four Classifications of Fonts

Fonts all fall into one of four classifications:

  • Serif (like Times New Roman)
  • San Serif (like Arial or Helvetica)
  • Script (Edwardian, handwritten, etc.)
  • Decorative (Like Grunge, psychedelic or graffiti)

Depending on the image and message you want to project, will determine which font you should use.

Things to Consider

Order of Priority

RJ Reynolds

Priority in messaging is important! People should know what to read first. For example, choose the order in which you want your message read. So the headline, which is the most important, should be large and heavy. Remember what David Ogilvy said, “If I have 9 days to work on an ad, I spend 8 days on the headline, 1 day on the ad.” Why? It’s the most important part!

Subheadlines are the next in size and weight, not to outdo your headline. And finally, your body copy, which should be of a standard size with good leading (the distance between the lines, the height).

Ease of Reading

While you can be creative with headline design (within reason; you can be too creative for your own good), your body copy should be very easy to read. Read what Neal Martineau says below.

Use Fonts Sparingly

Some people go crazy with fonts. They believe that more is better and looks great! The opposite is true. You want to use no more than three (3) font faces, preferably two (2). These can be the same font in different weights or italics.

So, for example, I may use Open Sans Bold for the headline in a size 48 font, Open Sans Italics sized 24 for a subheadline, and Open Sans Regular or Light in a size 14 or 16 for my body copy.

Moreover, if I choose to use two different font families, make sure they are complimentary: serifs with serifs and san serifs with san serifs.

Serif Fonts

Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, Bodoni, Quantas and others, depict authority. Serif fonts are very popular for attorneys, government officials and financial institutions. They are used when one wants to project seriousness.

Brioso Pro

Brioso Pro

Quantas Light

Quantas Light

However, serif fonts are hard on the eyes, not very friendly; hence they can have a negative effect if not used properly.

A good example is when Neal Delano Martineau, a three-time winner of the Ogilvy Award for Advertising Excellence, tried to teach me the use of fonts and colors.

Neal Delano Martineau

Neal Martineau

This was in the latter 1990s. He said:

“Eddie, pick up that cruise brochure and open it up. You will notice they use san serif fonts with good spacing, colors and leading, because it’s inviting and pulls you in. It makes you want to read it all. Now turn to the back page. Notice that the page they don’t want you to read, but can legally say they made the information available, the part which says you have to give up a healthy kidney and your first born if you wish to cancel your cruise 45 days before sailing, is in Times New Roman (serif font), in black lettering, small print, with a very tight layout. It’s unpleasing and few read it. Learn the lesson.” Neal Delano Martineau

So, I repeat Mr. Martineau… learn the lesson! Fonts are part of the design and can either pull your audience in or push them away.

Starr Ministry PosterSan Serif Fonts

Today, modern, minimalist and contemporary is all the rage. It’s clean, simple, easy on the eyes. San Serif fonts have always been easy on the eyes, which is why it’s a great font classification for all uses.

Open Sans Light

Open sans light

Within the san-serif family, you have display fonts which are used for headlines and whimsical fonts to deliver a softer and/or feminine message (not that soft is necessarily feminine). You see this font category used in almost all layouts today. In website user interfaces, advertising, logos, memes, etc.

Adobe Gothic Std B

Adobe Gothic Std B

There are many; some of the popular ones are Open Sans, Helvetica, Tahoma, Lato and Arial. They come in different weights; which is good, since you don’t want to use many fonts in the same layout.

The STARR poster to the right is a good example. I used one font, two weights. It’s clean, it breathes and pulls you in. Click on the image to see it more closely.

Script Fonts

Script fonts are fun. They are either elegant, like Edwardian Script, or fun, like Prayer Angels (see below). These are great for event flyers, invitations and callouts.

Praying Angel

Praying Angel

Decorative Fonts

Decorative fonts are fabulous for really honing ones message. These are great for holiday-themed ads and posters, like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, July 4th, Memorial and Labor Day events, etc.

28 Days Later

28 Days Later

All the aforementioned needs to be considered when choosing a font for a logo as well. What image do you wish to project? What font would best support that image? What color would say what I want to say (blue for integrity and loyalty, white for innocence and purity, black for authority, green for health or money, red for passion, brown for commitment, etc.)? What weight would best support what you wish to communicate (no pun intended)?

The font is a crucial part of any design. It compliments or contradicts the message you are trying to deliver. It can be used for balance and to make use of negative space. Therefore, understanding a little about typography will help you create better designs.

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