Best way to familiarize yourself with fonts?

Plaidjaney's picture

Greetings my friends. I would like to familiarize myself with sans fonts (I seem to have a problem with differentiation of sans), so much so that I can recognize them and name them and, hopefully, know what my designs need in a more timely fashion. Can you please tell me different ways to familiarize myself with them, besides use of course, that can better train my eye? Thank you so much for your help, as always. I am a sponge-impart your wisdom!

1985's picture

Designing in a specific genre always helps, that way one always pays careful attention to the way other designers construct their faces. Bookmarking/filing things you like also helps build a mental library of faces.

blank's picture

Read Fontbook while you’re on the can.

Plaidjaney's picture

1985-Very good idea. James Puckett-I laughed out loud at this one.

PublishingMojo's picture

Here's a cheat sheet for spotting characteristics that differentiate sans serifs:

  • Uniform stroke weight, or some variation between thick and thin?
  • Are C, G, O, Q, e, and o circular, oval, or are sides slightly flattened?
  • Compare the forms of the a and g.
  • Compare the shape of the bowls on B and P.
  • Compare the shape of the lower-right stroke of the R.
  • Compare the shape of the tail on the Q.
  • Compare the cross-stroke of the G, and whether there is a spur at the lower-right corner of the G.
  • Compare the way the strokes intersect on K and k.
  • Compare the shape of the bowls on b, d, p, and q.
  • Compare the shape of the ascenders and cross-strokes on f and t, and whether t curves to the right at the foot.
  • Compare the shape of the descender on y.
  • Compare the dots on i and j: round, square, or diamond?.
  • tearsforsappho's picture

    Yeah, i totally just cmd+shift+4'd that cheat sheet. Thanks!

    I already read font book on the can! Its called dedication.

    Plaidjaney's picture

    This is fantastic. I'm printing this out. I'm going to make a document of fonts showing the letters you've listed above and study the differences. Thanks so much!

    paragraph's picture

    Descender on y: Helvetica or Univers
    Bowl on a: Helvetica/Univers and other Frutiger typefaces/Stone Sans

    Nick Shinn's picture

    A little history wouldn't hurt.
    Many of the types used today have been around a while, and have interesting cultural connections.
    For instance, Chris Burke's book "Renner" shows how the circumstances of Paul Renner's life came together to inform the design of Futura. So you start to get an idea of why the designer made the letters the shapes they are, and what you see in a letter shape becomes a microcosm, full of meaning.

    http://www.typophile.com/books/graphicdesign-history

    Dan Gayle's picture

    Get FontExplorer and start organizing your fonts according to style, era, etc. It forces you to actually LOOK at a typeface for specific features, and then also to understand what those features mean and where they fit in.

    A Brief History of the Printed Word is also a good read.

    @james
    You can hold the Fontbook while on the can? You're a better man than I, that's for sure :)

    Plaidjaney's picture

    paragraph-Thank you for this-I'm adding these notes to Publishing Mojo's list.

    Nick-This is great information and thank you for the link. Getting to know the fonts personal stories is a great suggestion. I always think of the fonts having certain personalities so attaching a history will help in my recognition!

    Dan-I use suitcase presently, but I'm going to look at this FontExplorer. What do you like about it? I never thought to organize for style, era.

    These are great suggestions; this is why I love this site. Thanks again.

    Dan Gayle's picture

    @Plaidjaney
    Suitcase will work well for organizing your fonts. I use FEX because it works well for my purposes, and is free.

    As to understanding the history of the types, it will also help you as a designer because you will then understand the original intended use, the philosophical outlook of the era in which the type came from, etc. Not that you have to only use type for their original purposes, but it certainly helps to know the context of where a font came from so you can contrast it or understand its use.

    (For an example of that, look at the thread about the Rocky Mountain News nameplate where Nick explains the choice of Minion vs. the standard newspaper font.)

    Plaidjaney's picture

    I agree. I have no formal education in fonts (my course of study was illustration), I just go by feel. I think by scheduling some study-time into my day, I will further develop my talents. I'm going to your link now-thanks!

    Ricardo Cordoba's picture

    You might enjoy these online articles, Janet:

    Alternatives to Your Favorite Sans Serif Typefaces [Updated with Specimens], on Designer Daily.

    Helvetica and Alternatives to Helvetica, by Stephen Coles, over at The FontFeed.

    Not Your Father's Sans Serif, by John D. Berry, which is about humanist sans serifs.

    Another article on the same subject: What is a humanist sans, and why should we care?, by David Bergsland.

    Finally, an article by Adrian Frutiger, designer of Univers, Frutiger, OCR B, and Serifa, among many others: The History of Linear, Sans Serif Typefaces. This one is split up into 4 pages.

    speter's picture

    Ricardo, that last link is shooting a blank.

    You can view the article here.

    blank's picture

    @dangayle: you web designers just don’t have the muscles that hard core geeks build to to get our old ATF and Linotype books off the shelves.

    Ricardo Cordoba's picture

    Ricardo, that last link is shooting a blank.

    Whoops... It's almost like that drawing of the snake eating its own tail... :-D Thanks for catching that and for posting the correct link, sir. Much obliged.

    hrant's picture

    You probably shouldn't look at sans separate from serif.
    I'd start by reading this one of the triumvirate:
    "Anatomy of a Typeface" by A Lawson.

    hhp

    microspective's picture

    @hrant triumvirate

    What comprises said triumvirate? I'm assuming Lawson and Bringhurst make 2/3, but who's number three? Lupton? (That would make my big three). White? Tchishold? Someone else I might be missing?

    @Plaidjaney

    Thinking in Type from Alex White taught me a lot in the beginning. Silly cover, fantastic, well-written content with great examples. Good luck!

    Plaidjaney's picture

    Ricardo- thank you so much for these links. They will help a lot.

    Microspective-this book sounds great. Thank you for providing this!

    Thanks all. School's in session!

    eliason's picture

    I think Walter Tracy is the third general in the triumvirate.

    Make yourself flash cards - sample on the front, name/designer/date on the back. Review 2-3/day until you never guess wrong. No peeking. You can use these the same way, if you want to go beyond sans serifs.

    hrant's picture

    > I think Walter Tracy is the third general in the triumvirate.

    Yup.
    There's a Typophile wiki, somewhere.

    hhp

    Plaidjaney's picture

    All these suggestions are great. Keep them coming. I know there are lurkers out there who need this info, too.

    I was on one of the suggested links and it lead me to this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sans-serif

    I think that this is a good description of the different types of sans.

    will powers's picture

    triumvirate

    that was a Compugraphic version of Helvetica in the 1980s.

    powers

    Plaidjaney's picture

    Question-so is Helvetica a Grotesque or Geometric? The wiki info is conflicting...

    blank's picture

    Question-so is Helvetica a Grotesque or Geometric? The wiki info is conflicting...

    Neither. It’s a (some would say the quintessential) neo-grotesque.

    hrant's picture

    I'd just call it a grotesque. In more ways than one.

    hhp

    microspective's picture

    @ In more ways than one.

    (*rimshot*)

    Nick Shinn's picture

    ...neo-grotesque.

    Does that make Avant Garde neo-geometric?
    And Myriad neo-humanist?

    "Neo-" is just packaging, glamming up a retread.

    Frode Bo Helland's picture

    Doesn't "neo" refer to the humanist features in an otherwise grotesque design? (And obiviously translates as "new".)

    Nick Shinn's picture

    Doesn’t “neo” refer to the humanist features in an otherwise grotesque design?

    I'm not sure what it means. As Janet observes, there seems to be some debate as to whether the prefix is taxonomic (denoting physical features) or phylogenetic (denoting evolutionary provenance).

    blank's picture

    Doesn’t “neo” refer to the humanist features in an otherwise grotesque design?

    Neo-grotesque refers to the intentional removal of idiosyncrasies and humanist features from the pre-1957 grotesques. The most obvious example, horizontal stroke terminals throughout, appears in all three of the original neo-grotesques, Helvetica, Folio, and Univers. The inward turns of terminals found in the British grotesques disappears, as do most examples of asymmetric stroke widths such as those found in the Benton gothics. The design of the neo-grotesques is also a function of the way the counter spaces can seem to lock the letters into place and vice-versa (see Mike Parker’s interview in Helvetica).

    Some of the old grotesques have been redesigned, and more added, since 1957, incorporating features of the neo-grotesques (such as Lange’s redesign of Akzidenz). So when the term is applied outside of that very specific historical context, its meaning starts to fall apart.

    eliason's picture

    @Nick: I don't really understand how the "neo-" part could be denoting physical features.

    nina's picture

    pre-1957 grotesques
    Is Helvetica really *that* historical, or is 1957 a phototype-related date?

    Craig: Doesn't any "neo"-ization, that is, revival/"reconception", in a way, imply a new (re-)interpretation that can/will also manifest itself in terms of a slightly different formal vocabulary?

    Nick Shinn's picture

    James: Neo-grotesque refers to...

    That is indeed the way that the term is understood by some people, but it's overblown.
    Helvetica and Folio are traditional grotesques, nicely and consistently executed, that's all.
    All the features considered to be Neo were already present in the 24 pt size of Akzidenz Grotesk, prior to Helvetica &c.
    We don't call new, slicker versions of other historical genres Neo (e.g. 20th century Bodonis are not Neo-didone).
    But for historical reasons, certain mid-20th century grotesques get the nod.

    Better fix the Wiki, James!

    speter's picture

    Grotesques are more elegant than their predecessors and hardly have any distinguishing features

    They're distinguished and are not distinguished...

    eliason's picture

    Doesn’t any “neo”-ization, that is, revival/”reconception”, in a way, imply a new (re-)interpretation that can/will also manifest itself in terms of a slightly different formal vocabulary?

    Well, nothing is ever exactly the same way twice, but I think "neo-" says much more about history (something that was around before is now around again) than about form. The newness of neoclassicism in interior design, as an example, says to me not "this is a new kind of classicism, different from the old classical art" but rather "this is classicism again (like the old classical art), different from the Rococo styles that preceded it."

    That leaves open to argument the applicability of "neo-" here - it would seem to me to hinge on how fair it would be to say that other non-grotesques (Gill, German geometrics) had eclipsed the older grotesques in the 30s and 40s so that the use of those grotesques (and cleaned-up manifestations like Helvetica etc.) in the 50s was "new."

    blank's picture

    All the features considered to be Neo were already present in the 24 pt size of Akzidenz Grotesk…

    They were all present in plenty of typefaces. But they were not all carefully worked into the entire font to produce the dramatically regimented designs that made the neo-grotesques an innovation—for example, in the 24-point AG terminals are a mix of angles and horizontals and the widths of b, d, p and q create counters that create a less monotonous color. There is something new and special in the neo-grotesque faces—a Swiss obsession with regulation that borders on psychotic.

    Paul Cutler's picture

    Pound this board. I have learned a lot…

    pbc

    My mind is subject to change without notice, I should know, but don't…

    Nick Shinn's picture

    ...something new and special in the neo-grotesque faces—a Swiss obsession with regulation that borders on psychotic...

    Leveraging nationalistic stereotypes in a typeface: that's how Haas Standard was marketed as Helvetica, puffing up its attributes.

    There were many polished grotesques produced in Europe during the 1950s and 60s which may be considered part of the International Style. Univers and Folio were somewhat more original than Helvetica. But all in all, there's not a huge amount to distinguish them from types of the traditional grotesque genre that had never gone out of commission, such as Monotype Grotesque (1930s, English, with single-storey "g" and a beautifully smooth and designy Light weight well suited to the International Style). Futura and Gill Sans, the paragons of the Geometric and Humanist classes of sans serif, were formally far more innovative, as would be Frutiger, which is yet to be named to the head of its class.

    Nina is onto something with mention of phototype. The fact that the discreet detailing of the Neo-grotesques is their distinguishing feature may well be a result of media convergence at that time, when new types were being produced for a variety of technologies, with the qualities of understatement that looked slick and professional in display media (typositor, dry transfer, &c.) transporting to text.

    Here's Akzidenz Grotesk from the 1954 Berthold specimen:

    The smaller fonts have the funky terminals James refers to; the larger sizes are more consistently detailed. Note how the angled terminal of "e" in the 20 pt gets perpendicular in the 24 pt.

    Clean it up, increase the x-height, and voilà the neo-grotesque Helvetica. Twenty years later American designers did the same thing for some old faces at ITC (Garamond, Cheltenham, &c.)

    In the 1980s Headliners International prefixed all their Font names with "Neo-", and trademarked it.

    nina's picture

    I suspect that the "Neo-Grotesque" wave, at least originally here in Switzerland, was heavily triggered both by the advent of phototype (which made it so much easier / more cost-effective to produce new fonts), and the grotesque-heavy Swiss Style, which seemed to suggest a huge market for such types – which in fact wasn't really there at first.
    As Hans Neuburg wrote in Neue Grafik (No. 4, December 1959, p. 54; my translation):
    "Nobody will seriously deny the necessity of designing typefaces that satisfy the beliefs of our times, as long as they constitute a meaningful expansion and enhancement of the existing inventory. However, it is questionable if this necessity also extends to the design and release of such a large number of grotesque types in the 'old style', and if this makes sense from an economic perspective (not addressing the issue of originality at all)… The experiences the foundries have made so far, as well as current and past design trends, rather seem to hint at self-imposed limitation [in terms of the number of typefaces used]."

    Nick Shinn's picture

    ... hint at self-imposed limitation ...

    Seems like a lot of foundries had the same idea at the same time.
    Was Neuberg suggesting restrictive trade practice -- a cartel?

    Nonetheless, by 1977 Haas was ready to take another shot at the genre with Unica.

    nina's picture

    "Was Neuberg suggesting restrictive trade practice — a cartel?"
    That would surprise me – I read that as a comment on how very deeply rooted Akzidenz Grotesk was in the original "Swiss" style of design. It seems like a number of designers back in 1957 were a bit perplexed at the sudden repertoire of new grotesques, and some maintained they were so happy with Akzidenz they weren't really in that dire a need of alternatives. Karl Gerstner was quoted in TM 2 in February 1972 (!) as saying, "That feature of Akzidenz which is sometimes criticized as 'imbalance', we see as its biggest merit: its liveliness, its (literally) original freshness." Neuburg too, incidentally, appears to have been a huge fan of AG, calling it "one of the cleanest (!) and most noble grotesques".

    Nick Shinn's picture

    Right, I see what he means by "self-imposed limitations": referring not to foundries limiting their output, but to typographers being reluctant to use a larger repertoire of faces.

    nina's picture

    I think so, yes. I was being a bit long-winded. :)

    Plaidjaney's picture

    Hi all! Okay, so I'm hard at work studying all of your great suggestions. I've played all of the great font games, read almost all of the articles, just received my font book so I can read it "on the can", and am the only psycho-woman at my gym comparing sans font specimens while walking on the treadmill. I would like to know if anyone knows of a font site that lets you compare fonts side by side? Also, if there is a font site that pairs examples text and display? Sort of like, if you like this, you might want to try this?, type of thing? As always, thank you.

    Nick Shinn's picture

    Josh Darden and Dalton Maag have type testers that show several fonts together.

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