I often find myself suppressing the urge to use the word font when talking about typefaces. A typeface is a design for type — Times Roman is a typeface, as is Helvetica Neue, the typeface used here I believe. Properly speaking a font is all the Times Roman or Helevetica Neue characters needed for say 14 point setting. See Font for a clearer definition.

Here’s a sensible set of advice about text design from The Design Team. Under the heading The Type Snob they do actually include the advice to give up on that trivial vocabulary distinction. Well, I’ll try. 

It may not be immediately obvious to the outsider, but the first step the book designer needs to take is to decide what typeface (oops, font) will be used for the text. The text comprises the majority of the words in the book, so it’s appropriately basic. If you get wedded to a display face, you’ll probably struggle to get to a matching text font. Leave the fancy stuff for later. So how does the designer decide the text will be set in Times Roman or in Helvetica Neue? (In the case of this blog the decision comes as part and parcel with the layout template provided by WordPress.)

In the olden, hot-metal days the requirement that the printer you were going to use actually had the typeface you wanted was clearly fundamental. In a hot metal world you might find that Caslon was available at printer X only in 10, 12, and 18 point sizes for Roman and Italic, 10 and 12 for Bold, 10, 14, and 18pt for Bold Italic. If the book was going to have lots of footnotes, you’d need maybe an 8 point size — so either you changed printer or more likely changed typeface. This constraint continued into film setting days. Nowadays this is no longer an issue as the fonts travel in the computer files along with the text.

So back then there was much consulting of printers’ type books. The bigger printers would have many typefaces, so choice was not lacking. Certain faces were considered appropriate for certain subject matters — we might use Modern for science because the printer had an unrivaled array of mathematical sorts. Garamond, Bembo and such old style faces were considered appropriate for literary topics. We often inclined to Ehrhardt as it could squeeze a lot of text onto a page. Unless there’s a compelling reason you should avoid setting the text of a book in any sans serif face — the presence of a small serif improves readability, and sans should be reserved for headings (if you have to), signage and adverts. A further problem with most sans faces is the confusion potential between Cap “eye”, the number 1 and lower case “ell”. Under all circumstances fancy fonts like Comic Sans should be shunned.

The aim of good typography is that it should be invisible, operating at a subconscious level. You don’t want the reader stopping and exclaiming “What a beautiful W” or, worse, the opposite. The only communication which should be going on is between author and reader. Designers are not part of the conversation: they should aim to be just the air through which the sound waves travel..