Type gripe #1: Why I don’t have a “favorite” font

December 6th, 2010

As a typography specialist and educator, one of the first (and most common) question I’m asked in my travels is “What is your favorite font?” If I had a dollar for every time I’m asked this, I could buy an iPad or two!

It is completely understandable to get this question from non-designers such as friends, family, and as a “conversation-starter” at a party (UGH!) or other social or networking gatherings from people whom I’ve just met. In fact, I can even see it coming — when upon my reply to the inevitable question, “what do you do?” I see the eyebrows raise, the facial muscles come alive, the head tilt to the side or forward just the slightest bit, and the face perk up in general in anticipation of asking their very “clever” (and predictable) question. This is forgivable for non-professionals. But, unfortunately, I am asked this question on a regular basis from design students and professionals alike.

So what is my reply, and why do I have a problem with this question? First let me start off by saying I am not into font bashing, font snobbery, or font elitism. I don’t pretend to be able to recognize every single font upon sight, nor do I try to impress with my knowledge of fonts, typeface design, typesetting conventions, and the like (unless I am ‘on the clock’ so to speak, and even then it is more information-sharing than impressing). I don’t want to see everyone using the same fonts (as me or anyone else), in the same way, or to get them to design or use type exactly the way I do.

What I do want to see, in a perfect typographic world, is everyone (designers and non-designers alike) becoming more equipped to make their own font decisions, that is, to be able to make better decisions regarding what font to use for any particular job. What I try to achieve in all of my typographic endeavors is to give designers a better understanding of what factors go into how to select a typeface, such as understanding the goals of the job and/or client as well as the demographics of the target audience. But just as important (and the more challenging of the two) is to educate designers how to “see” type in terms of understanding what makes a good typeface. (If this reduces the dependency by some on free fonts, all the better!). My goal is to help increase one’s typographic visual acuity which will (hopefully) lead to more confidence in identifying the individual features and characteristics of each typeface, and subsequently the selection of the right font(s) for the job.

It does no favor at all to a student or designer to tell them my favorite fonts, just to have them use it in their next design project. That robs them of them of the very critical task — the font exploration — that should precede any design job, and in fact, should probably take a lot more time than it currently does for many designers. (There have been times when I have spent many hours on the preliminary font exploration, and then a much shorter time to execute the actual piece.)

It matters not that my logo and business identity use Harmonia Sans, that I set my book, Type Rules! in Scala and ITC Blair, or for that matter, that I have an admiration for Coquette, any more than it matters what design motif or color scheme I use in my home, what brand jeans I wear, or what music is currently on rotation in my iTunes — these choices are all very personal and are what define me as an individual. Font choices should represent individual choices in a similar manner, albeit within the context of what works best for the job at hand, and not solely as an expression of personal taste.

So there, that is my typographic beef #1. Thoughts, anyone?

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8 Responses to Type gripe #1: Why I don’t have a “favorite” font

  1. As a type designer I get the same question. I usually answer, “The one I’m currently working on.” or, “The one I just finished.”

    For the longest time I just answered Courier!

  2. I don’t like this question either or which fonts you want on a desert island. My favorite typeface is all of them. They’re all beautiful and useful in their own way. Even picking five or ten favorites from the rest is impossible. All you want to be concerned with is choosing the best one for the job at hand. If you have one very favorite typeface then set your resume in it.

  3. John Brandt says:

    And similarly, why/how could you/anyone need/want/use so many/hundreds/thousands of fonts? (Someone get me a grammarian.) Virtually every font is beautiful and/or has an important use, if only once in a millennia. As every one of us has a unique personality, so does every typeface, enabling designers, and many others so aware, to set their message in a flattering light, uniquely position products and simply enrich the written word.

  4. What’s my favorite font? Depends on the context. I have “go-to” fonts but that’s not the same as favorite fonts.

    I enjoy Gill Sans because of its heritage. I enjoy Helvetica because it communicates without distracting you and is good-to-go wherever, whenever. I enjoy Myriad because it’s clean and efficient but just a little bit expressive. I enjoy Garamond because it’s a witty font that supports serious reading and loves the eye back. And so on, and so on, and so on.

  5. Lexi says:

    I like. I always hate that question too. And I like your beef-off (response) :) I met you at the Typography session in Philly this fall and was just referencing something I learned from you last night! So thanks and keep the type & design talk coming! :)

  6. bill eger says:

    Rather than repeat all those above, let me post a complaint about the failure of publishers of fine books to give readers the names of fonts and other typographic and paper quality information.

    If memory serves, that was almost always done in the past but, at 75, I rarely see it now. Yesterday, when opening the fairly new and very handsome Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner, I was immediately struck by the fine choices of font, embellishment, paper and design by The Belknap Press of Harvard.

    Not a word on identity of those vital matters.

    How can those of us who care about good printing encourage a return to letting us know the elements that so strongly make the design notable?

  7. Bob Callahan says:

    My favorite font when I designed a poster for West Side Story was grafitti; an ad for Western Union it was American Typewriter; for a perfume bottle it was Edwardian Script (modified); for a Pepperidge Farm Old Fashioned Cookie package it was Playbill (modified); for airport signage it was Univers; for…

  8. John says:

    I don’t see what is wrong with having a “favorite” font or three any more than having a favorite color. Just because it appeals to you on some personal level doesn’t mean you are endorsing it as the “best”, or most versatile or the one to use whenever possible, or even expressing a professional opinion. May you just happen to like it and actually rarely if ever use it You may wait your entire career to use it, or never use it at all. Explain this (and your mission) to the questioner and you’re good. It’s an innocent question, relax and have fun with it.

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