Are so many fonts necessary?

Rodrigue Planck's picture

Generally I am appalled at the poor use of type. Lousy design/designers tend to hide behind the latest typographical whimsy and they date so quickly. I was around in the pre-Mac/Pc days and some designers rarely used "different" fonts. The reasons were multiple, but some of the best designers would use a particular font family or two and learn its strengths and weaknesses and exploit its quirks, and begin to bond with the fonts, the rules could be broken and the excellent design was evident, while thinking about the fonts became 2nd nature. Obviously, over time the work becomes dated, but far slower than "Fashion of the times" mentality of today.

The relationship with a typesetter/typographer was still strong, and designers relied on good input from the type shop, "we think that this would look better… we will send a sample, let us know."

I have been toying with the idea of 2 fonts for 1 year (actually two font famililes) for my personal work. Picking the right fonts is daunting, you do not want to be tied with 2 dullards or 2 whackos either. It is kind of like finding a wife or husband, which one is right for me? I think I found them too. Fonts I can afford, but are not like everybody else, URW Antiqua and URW Grotesk (both from the TypeWorks Library) are my front runners, but I also love Antique Olive family and Caslon buch (Berthold), Formata is nice but I have a hard time paring it up. I know for a fact that Univers and Bauer Bodoni work great together, but I would have directly stolen it from a great designer that I did work for, and I would feel totaly unoriginal, no brain waves, you know what I mean?

Rodrigue Planck

Nick Shinn's picture

I think it was Adrian Frutiger who answered, "Are so many wines necessary?"

.'s picture

Bravo, Nick!

Si_Daniels's picture

> I have been toying with the idea of 2 fonts for 1 year (actually two font famililes) for my personal work.

Go for it. But run a blog, posting examples, during the year to describe how you get on. It will be educational, and may go some way to answer the question posed by the subject line. Maybe pick two colors and two paper sizes too.

Jack B. Nimblest Jr.'s picture

"I have been toying with the idea of 2 fonts for 1 year (actually two font famililes) for my personal work."

Yeah well, what do you design?

Charles Leonard's picture

… some of the best designers would use a particular font family or two and learn its strengths and weaknesses and exploit its quirks, and begin to bond with the fonts, the rules could be broken and the excellent design was evident, while thinking about the fonts became 2nd nature.
I believe that you've laid out an excellent typographic rationale. The ends sought by typographic rules are not fulfilled by slavish obidience to the rules, only through the consideration of the ends the rules seek to achieve.
And to add another quote: Charles DeGaulle said "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese? "
Bon chance.

Christian Robertson's picture

Sorry for my directness, but this is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. Go ahead and restrict yourself to two families per year. You might try restricting yourself to two shirts per year as well. Even better, maybe everyone should wear one of two shirts. Formal dinner? Maybe the buttoned down oxford would be nice. Surfing? Maybe the polo? Shoot, that doesn't quite work. It would be nice to have a wetsuit ... Oh well, the polo it is.

Anyone who thinks that lettering's range of expressiveness can be encapsulated in two alphabets doesn't understand lettering.

twardoch's picture

Actually, I think *so* many fonts are not necessarily needed. The problem is that there aren't too many good fonts — so if people design many typefaces, there are chances that every now and then a new *good* one is created. But altogether, master Frutiger’s point is valid: Are so many wines necessary? You can think of less exquisite goods — how about clothing? Are so many dresses necessary? I could imagine a party where each woman is wearing either dress model A or dress model B or dress model C, period. But I guess the women wouldn’t like this vision :)

Christian Robertson's picture

Ha! That's funny Adam. That is such a developer point of view. As a matter of fact, most of my developer friends do wear one of two shirt models all the time. I guess it works for some folks.

.'s picture

Christian, I have to disagree with you. I think that this could be a very interesting project. If Rodrigue removes "typeface selection" from his design equation, he is left to make his work with a wider open playing field for all of the other factors.

I am reminded of two Northern California residents:

Steve Jobs wears the same outfit all of the time: Black mock turtleneck shirt and jeans. And you have to admit that his creative talents as CEO of Apple and Pixar have led both of those companies to great heights.

Rudy vanderLans worked for years in Ready,Set,Go!, a basic page layout program. I remember reading a statement from Rudy which I will paraphrase: The program wasn't able to rotate text or do a lot of other things, so I was left to make the design interesting within those limits. (Apologies to Rudy for completely slaughtering his words.)

And I agree with Adam that it's not the quantity of typefaces which is at issue, it is their quality. I am guilty of much bad work, some mediocre work, and some good work. But I have yet to produce anything truly Great with a capital G. 100 years ago, it was such a massive undertaking to bring a new typeface design to market that only the strong made it. (Objectively.) Now, it's extremely easy to self-publish type, but the number of Great designs released has not increased proportionately.

So, to get around to the question: no, so many fonts aren't "necessary", but the increase in numbers still results in the good and Great stuff percolating to the top.

dezcom's picture

Another way to look at it is to say: Is new graphic design necessary? There are so many designs out there that surely we need only to repurpose them for many uses.

The real question is, are new typefaces wanted by users? The answer must be yes. Otherwise none would ever be bought or stolen.


twardoch's picture


of course what I said "I could imagine a party where each woman is wearing either dress model A or dress model B or dress model C, period", I was kidding. The human nature knows two trends: unification and individualization. They co-exist in a ying-yang
way. If I were Desmond Morris, I'd say humans are just herding animals. We like to develop "individualized groups" -- one army usually has uniforms of some sort but they should be different from the opponent's uniforms. One corporation likes to use the same corporate typeface (color, graphic element) in all their communication and that typeface (color, graphic element) should be different from the competitor's.

That's just one point, pretty obvious. The other point is specific to typeface design: I do believe there is still room for improvement in typeface design, even in the Latin writing system, although I kind of doubt that a whole lot of invention can happen in the formal language of the typeface. But the form is only one of the elements of a font. The extensiveness -- or perhaps should I say, completeness -- of character sets is another one, the quality and consistency of spacing is yet another.

I recently spoke with a friend who does book layout in Poland, mostly scientific publications and fiction. His studio designed and typeset around 1,000 books so far, and he's still unhappy with the small set of workhorse typefaces he's working with. He can produce large lists of errors that are included in the leading foundries' "Pro" OpenType fonts. (If you ever design a "workhorse"-type OpenType font suitable for typesetting Central European languages and would like to have some critique from the utilitarian point of view, let me know and I'll get you in touch.)

To me, a good font has three components that can compete: the stylistic component, the linguistic component and the technical component. Many designers like to compete in "form" because they see typefaces as means ofartistic expression. Many of them compete only in the area of glyph design, which is even a subset of the stylistic component. Things like letterspacing, linguistic quality and technical quality are often considered secondary -- although things changed a lot in the last years. My personal campaign "make your ogoneks right" is of course only an exemplification of this thinking.


Christian Robertson's picture

Could it be agued that more painings aren't necessary? More songs? Plays? Movies? Is type design so unexpressive that nothing new can be said? I say it's garbage.

As for working within constraints, that's cool. It's true that sometimes forcing yourself to use a limited combination of types lets you explore the relationships between the forms. But sometimes it's just boring. And besides, modernism is over. Well, it's back, but as pastiche. Ironic.

Bald Condensed's picture

Erik Spiekermann said something along the lines of: "Why do we need 5.000 different fonts if we can get along with only five? Because my five are not necessarily the same as your five."

dezcom's picture

...and next week, my five will change!


dan_reynolds's picture

Chris, you're only allowed to use your own fonts from now on.

Si_Daniels's picture

>Chris, you’re only allowed to use your own fonts from now on.

EULA permitting of course. ;-)

dan_reynolds's picture

Yes, be sure to only use the number of workstations permitted in the license… or buy an extension. And Chris—this part is very important—no modifications! ;-)

Si_Daniels's picture

Tread carefully as any breach of your EULA terms will result in you taking away your rights to use your fonts now or in the future.

jlg4104's picture

I think what Rodrigue is getting at is pretty simple, and a very good point: type selection should be guided by a strong design sense. I think that's the whole issue. How many fonts there "are" makes no difference. Whether you like to hang out and get to know just a few pair, or if you prefer to scan through scores at a time to pinpoint a few that you like this week-- that makes no difference. You need the knowledge and good sense of typographic design either way, if you hope to get to type nirvana. I am reminded of an essay by Philip Meggs, "The Obscene Typography Machine" way back in 1994:

"Unfortunately, the ease of computer use puts potent graphic capabilities into the hands of people who are devoid of any aesthetic sense about typography and have little or no understanding of the most basic principles of design. Powerful new software programs... give the designer (or moron, as the case may be) the power to flip, rotate, stretch, or bend typography with the click of a mouse button. This permits some of the most obscene type forms ever devised or imagined." (160)

(in Looking Closer: Critical Essays on Graphic Design, pub. Allworth 1994, the first of two "Looking Closer" books and highly recommended)

And, I think it's important to remember that good design sense, accompanied with healthy curiosity and a half a brain, is what leads people beyond the limited palette of the very popular but visual cliche Arial, TNR, Brush Script, and Comic Sans. Imagine if you applied the principle of limiting one's palette (like in painting class, where you work in monochrome before tackling color) to THOSE. I mean, hey, they offer very obvious workhorse examples of sans-serif, serif, "decorative," and "informal." Perfect, right? NOooooo...

- Jay

dezcom's picture

Dan and Si,
LOL!!! I think I will put an escape clause in my EULA :-)


xensen's picture

Ultimately, nothing is necessary.

John Hudson's picture

The discipline of only working with one or two families seems to me separate from the question of whether we collectively need as many as we have. I think it is a good thing to try, Rodrigue. Apart from anything else, you will get to know your choices very intimately. A German fine press printer/publisher, whose name escapes me at the moment (it begins with T), has used only Janson for many years.

elliot100's picture

Some of you get to use more than two fonts*? I should be so lucky!

Elliot (in-house designer)

*OK, two families.

Miss Tiffany's picture

I don't know that I could work with only two fonts, but maybe two super families. :^)

dezcom's picture

Two Superfamilies? You mean like the Corleone's and the Windsors?


Miss Tiffany's picture

:^P aha.

Norbert Florendo's picture

We've visited the "Too Many Typefaces" several times before, some with quite insightful replies, and some with delightful remarks.

If you could only use 5 typefaces...
Please help with information on Massimo Vignelli

One of my own smirky remarks:
Limitation... good,
exclusion... bad!

Setting yourself a limited palette, selection or tool set in order to learn/express higher or deeper aspects is an age old exercise, and even more valid as an exercise today.

It will never matter if there is too much, too many or not enough of anything, as quantity of selection has nothing to do with aesthetics.
For those who don't know what they are doing, limiting their font selections will not necessarily prevent them from inflicting visual harm on others.

Some people can wear the same color shirt every day, some can't.
I'm sure if I had to eat steak and lobster alternately every other day, there would come a point where I'd be sick of them. Luckily I haven't reached that point by a long shot.

jlg4104's picture

javi2307 - clearly you need a spanking. Seriously, though-- that's a perfect example of how design know-how trumps adherence to a system every time. I like the pattern -- it's a right-pointing triangle, and the variation is consistent throughout, i.e., there are dramatic shifts in typeface, but the shifts occur in a patterned way. It wouldn't make the same point, in fact, if there were only three variations, instead of a variation at nearly every letter. That's what I'd tell my students, anyway. Although, even that kind of thing becomes cliché eventually.

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