What typeface is best for laying out the text in a book?

Like spices, the ideal typeface for text adds a little flavor but not so much as to overwhelm. Some of the best picks are older types that have stood the test of time: Baskerville, some flavor of Garamond, or a modern version of Janson are all good choices for text.

Some of my other favorites are Caslon, Bodoni, and Bembo. I love Palatino, even though it seems to be used a lot, perhaps making it less of a first choice than it once was. (And, sadly MS Word ran the beautiful New Times Roman right into the ground, making it less than ideal for any project needing to feel a little different from the run of the mill).

In theory Verdana, Georgia, and Trebuchet were designed for the screen, not print, and therefore aren’t good choices for a layout headed for ink and paper. But I’ve seen folks using them for print with pretty good results so perhaps that’s a rule made to be broken (though I am not yet this adventurous as of yet).

Another rule that can be broken is that you must never use a sans typeface for text. Although for years folks have claimed serif type guides the eye from one letter to the next, in reality science has found our eyes bump along, often taking in whole words as a single unit, so the notion that the little curls and additions to serif type somehow aids the eye is pretty much bogus. And actual testing shows that modern readers have no trouble reading text laid out with a clean sans typeface, and do so at the same speed as they do with serif text.

So if you’re wanting a very modern look to a science fiction tome or a trendy magazine, a sans font like Frutiger or Century Gothic might work quite well.

Finally, if you’ve purchased Word or any of a number of art software programs, or even have an OS from Apple or Microsoft, chances are you already own some or perhaps all of these typefaces mentioned above — or a cloned version of them. Because typefaces can’t be copyrighted in many nations (including the US), that means there are many “cloned” versions of typefaces that are nearly identical to the originals except for the name of the typeface.

So even if you don’t happen to have, say, Palatino in your typeface collection, you may have Bitstream’s “Zapf Calligraphic 801 BT” which is nearly identical. Of course finding what typeface is what other one is no easy task since companies making clones of their rivals’ products don’t advertise these borrowed ideas too openly.

Fortunately there are web sites that can tell you what the various cloned typefaces are. One excellent list is at Lookalike Fonts. (One caveat here: Arial, while often described as being very similar to Hevetica, is a poor substitute with some of its kerning out of wack especially in print — so I would advise to avoid it for print projects.)

Also, be sure you actually own the rights to the typefaces you employ for your layout projects. A lot of the fonts that can be freely downloaded from the web are stolen and posted without the permission of the companies owning the rights to them (and US and other courts have ruled that fonts are like software and can not be pirated or shared without legal ramifications).

And another trap comes from “free” fonts are free only for non-commercial use; that means once you get even a penny for your work, or your book or magazine is sold (or even given away free for promotional purposes), you’ve opened yourself to a lawsuit if you’ve used a “free for noncommercial use” typeface.

Yes, lawsuits by type foundries is rare. But do you want to be one of those rare cases? Best to play it safe and use only a typeface you’ve purchased or which came with some software or an OS you’ve bought. (Such lawsuits can run into the millions of dollars as with the case recently brought against NBC Univeral for misuse of a typeface.)

If you want to build up a collection of quality typefaces, my advice is to buy a “family” of one of those mentioned above and then employ them for most of your print projects. While it is possible to build up a collection of thousands of typefaces (been there, done that), I have found that I generally only use a handful for almost all my graphic design projects. (Just be sure before purchasing fonts you don’t already have the clones of the classics you need in the font collections that come with OSs and software. Often there’s a wealth of gems in the dross if you sort through them and double check for the various clones in the collections.)

In theory you can employ a decorative typeface for the title and headlines of a project, in practice fancy, weird, or stressed types tend to call too much attention to themselves (the possible exception being with genre cover layouts where these can sometimes set the tone and reflect the genre of the book).

Consequently the old trick of using a clean sans for titles, picture captions, and headlines with a classic serif for your text is not only a safe practice, but will generally yield the most professional results. Another excellent route is to get a family of serifs which includes “Black,” thin, and condensed versions; this allows you to use the heavier/lighter versions for contrasting headings or titling, the condensed with photo captions, and the standard version as the text.

Pairing sans/serif types is an art in itself and space doesn’t permit launching into that here. Some of the “tried and true” pairings are Hevetica and Geramond; Univers and Caslon; Futura/Bodoni; Franklin Gothic/Baskerville. I’d direct readers to: Combining Fonts, Mastering Font Combinations; and — of course — articles Type Pairig Articles Via Google.

Duncan Long is a book cover designer and illustrator. You can see samples of his work in his Online Gallery.