Typography is not a science. Typography is an art. There are those who’d like to make it a science; those who believe that a large enough sample of data will somehow elicit good typography. However, this cookie cutter mentality will only ever produce cookies. That typography and choosing type has no cut and dry rules.
Before we get to choosing type, let’s briefly talk about responsibility. Fundamentally, the responsibility we bear is two-fold: first we owe it to the reader not to hinder their reading pleasure, but to aid it; second, we owe a responsibility to the typeface or typefaces we employ. Good typefaces are designed for a good purpose, but not even the very best types are suited to every situation.
What follows is not a set of rules, but rather a list of guiding principles.
Guideline One: honour content
This, of course, should be every typographer’s mantra. In fact good typographers, most likely won’t even have to consciously think about this, it’s instinctual.
"The domain may be unfamiliar, but establishing contexts, understanding limitations, and identifying options is a constant in design."Gerry Leonidas
It’s worth mentioning here that these principles are equally applicable to any medium. Some of my favourite typefaces look dreadful on screen; and even good typefaces like Georgia or Verdana, designed especially for the screen, often look at best mediocre on paper. Choosing type for the web is easier owing to fewer choices; however, that’s beginning to change.
Guideline Two: read it
If you’re setting text, whether it be for a novel about the Franco-Prussian war or for a single-word headline, read it—really read it. Reading the text will give up vital clues, not only for choosing the right typeface or typefaces, but will also be an aid in the overall design of the page. An example: you’re setting text for an essay on the history of blackletter; so you set the text in blackletter, right?
Probably not. There is a place for considering the historical context; however, it would be wrong to stick rigidly to this method of choosing type. If you’re setting a text on Neanderthal man, you’re going to run into problems.
In addition to reading the text, one should attempt to understand it. This is not always possible. If you’re setting text for an article on String Theory or Quantum Physics, then perhaps full comprehension is out of the question. However, attempt to understand the thrust or theme of the text.
Guideline Three: audience and canvas
Who will read your beautifully set text? Scientists, lawyers, engineers, Millennial Generation, children? If it’s not obvious from the text, then find out. Historical ligatures may not go down too well with pre-school kids.
Consider too the canvas, the page. Perhaps you’re setting text within someone else’s page design and you have no control over margins or page dimensions. A cramped page, with small margins may benefit from a lighter type, whereas ample margins may well merit a blacker typeface.
Guideline Four: does it look right?If your text’s final destination is paper, then print it and see. Your type might look exquisite on screen, but a train wreck on paper. There really is no substitute for printing. If setting for the screen, then check it on both PC and Mac, and at different screen sizes.
Remind yourself that typography really is an art and that many of the decisions you make, including type choice, are subjective. If you’re unsure, ask others (designers and non-designers) to read your work. And seek out examples of great typography.