When picking a typeface for a project it is easy to get lost in the weeds. There are thousands of options to choose from. You could probably spend a lifetime trying out different type options for one line of text. But how do you find the typeface that is the best fit for your project? The trick is don't overthink it. There is so much more to typography than which typeface you choose.
A typeface is a tool that gets a job done
Type is designed to share words and ideas with other people. Functionally, it is a tool. Some of these tools are crafted with care and others are thrown together to make a quick buck. Regardless, when selecting a typeface I am most concerned about what the typeface can do for the job I'm working on. Does it work well for body text? Is it legible at small sizes? What does it look like when it's huge? Do I have lots of notes and captions? Will I need to pair another typeface with it?
The first place to start is to find a typeface that functions well. Superfamilies have a variety of different weights and cuts for headings, body text, numbers, and figures. Superfamilies tend to be pricey. But when it comes to type, you tend to get what you pay for. Scala, designed by Martin Majoor is a classic example of a superfamily. It offers both serif and sans serif types with enough weights in each to tackle any job.
The vast majority of free typefaces are poorly designed and don't have any typographic muscle power. That said, there are a few great open-source fonts. The Google font library has a number of fonts with versatile character sets and a variety of different weights. Erik Spiekermann, Ralph du Carrois, Anja Meiners and Botio Nikoltchev recently designed the typeface, Fira for the Firefox OS. The typeface is open-source, beautifully designed, and incredibly versatile.
Letting history pick a typeface for you
When picking a typeface some prescribe that you should look at the historical context of the piece your working on and find a typeface that works with that. You're setting a book about the Renaissance so you should set it in Bembo. But what about all those tiny notes and photo captions? Or if you are setting a book about love, you find a typeface that is really romantic looking. But reading paragraphs of wedding script isn't going to help your reader. What's good about this methods is that it forces you to pick something to work with. But sometimes the historically correct options aren't versatile enough. And really, when it comes down to it, it is more about how you set your type than what typeface you set it in.
I have seen elegant, feminine perfumes and bold masculine sports promos set in Helvetica. Both done successfully and set completely differently. Helvetica is a good example to work with. People love it and they hate it. Some says it's modern. some say it is classical, boring, elegant, bold, authoritarian, derivitive, timeless, beautiful, ugly, etc.. All of these things are true. But you can do more than one thing with one typeface. The way you set and treat your type affects the message conveyed. A good designer can take a typeface and make it say what needs to be said.
Have something to say
Let's not get to far ahead of ourselves in selecting a typeface. Type represents words and words represent ideas. If you don't have anything meaningful to say, good typography isn't going to do you much good. In other words, your copy has to be amazing. An amazing typeface isn't going to save bad copy. And frankly, an amazing message set in ugly type is still going to get the job done. We sometimes think that aesthetics can solve anything. But they can't. Design goes deeper than that. Have something to say, say it well, and set it well.
Limit your options
Massimo Vignelli is infamous for using a super limited number of typefaces. I think there were six he liked to use. Some people think this is crazy. But the discipline behind it is perfect for focusing on more important things in a design project. When you limit the typefaces you use the greater the opportunity you have to understand the nuances of a particular type.
I am by no means advocating that you only use six typefaces. But what I am saying is to use type that you believe in. Use what your are interested in. Use what you know. Use the type that you care about. And if you don't care about the type you are using, you are using the wrong type. Maybe that means you only use six faces or maybe it means you use 36. That's not really what matters. When you understand the details of a typeface it is easier to manipulate it to accomplish what you need it to do.
When picking a typeface I am not super concerned with its history and what it was originally intended for. Don't get me wrong, that is super interesting. But just because your working on a book on the Renaissance doesn't mean you have to set it in a renaissance face. Not only is that a boring way to make a choice, it is also inefficient. Especially if that book has a complex series of notes, references, and variety of headers and indexes.
Work with type that you can work with
Again, a typeface is a tool. It's best to work with tools that fit you and do what you need them to do. If the concept of the typeface lines up perfectly with what your doing, but you can't read it, then you probably shouldn't use it. Pick type that works for the job and pick type that you can work with. If you can incorporate some deeper stylistic connection that is great. But even if you can, that's not going to be enough. You have to make type work for you. How your type is set and the message that is represents is what matters.
Let's talk more about this. How do you pick a typeface for the job and which ones do you like to work with best?