Any classically trained typographer worth their salt will tell you that you should only ever use a limited range of typefaces. The countless array of type candy that is all within easy range is a temptation that offers little benefit to design at all.
Celebrated Italian designer Massimo Vignelli controversially claimed “we use too many typefaces“.
Vignelli thought that half-a-dozen to a dozen typefaces were enough for any designer to work with. Of course there are many people who disagree, but there are also many designers who use an abomination of type combinations akin to throwing everything you can find on a Christmas tree and calling it stylish decoration. Potato. Po-ta-to.
“I don’t think that type should be expressive at all. I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.” Massimo Vignelli
Classic typography rules are the foundation for good design
Before being immersed in digital content my background lies in classic print design and I have spent many hours grafting at the coalface of typesetting, justifying large blocks of text by hand for magazines and books. I have studied grids, layouts and kerning. (Read The Elements of Typographic Style.) I know how to balance leading with the width of the type block and how to use white space to enhance page impact and I know how to deal with an orphan and a widow.
Having studied the craft, this puts me in a position of experience to have an opinion that strongly believes, the less we use in design the better. I also agree that to be a type purist you have to work with a single typeface for years before you understand how to achieve balanced perfection on a page.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The right typeface is essential for digital content
With the rise of content production online the selection of the right typeface is more important than you may consider. Your choice should assist in the easy reading of the page. Careful selection of one, or at most two, typefaces should support a visual hierarchy on the page through the use of weight and size.
If you want people to read your content think elegant and minimal; not a circus carnival of gimmicky display fonts.
The following is my selection of the classic typefaces of all time inspired by Vinelli’s quote. After many years experience working with type, I don’t believe you can better anything on this list. A good designer should have an intimate, working knowledge of every one of these fonts, at the very minimum.
The 12 best classic fonts for print designers:
DIN is an acronym for: Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardization). The font was originally released in 1923 by the D Stempel AG foundry and used mainly for technical drawings and blueprints. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that DIN gained popularity after Letrasest made the font available as a rub down sheet. The font represents industrialism and efficiency perfectly with its technical appearance and is one of my favourite fonts ever.
Futura was designed by Paul Renner in 1927: one of the most important and widely used fonts of the 21st century. Futura is a classic representation of a geometric sans-serif typeface very reminiscent of the Bauhaus style. Constructed from simple geometric forms with strokes of near-even weight, the typeface is symbolic of Russian Constructivism and the early modernity. Futura is such a cult classic that it has inspired endless copies, the most famous being Avenir (designed by Frutiger). Futura has been used by Shell, VW, IKEA and HP.
Adrian Frutiger along with Eric Gill are the most well-known typographers due to their most celebrated fonts carrying their names. Frutiger, who was already well known for his Univers typeface, was commissioned to produce the font Frutiger in 1968 for the new Charles De Gualle International Airport as signage. The font has more warmth than the other sans serifs on this list and this has attributed to its popularity in advertising; the NHS, Royal Navy, London School of Economics, Canadian Broadcasting Company and Swiss road signs all use Frutiger.
Designed by Eric Gill in 1926, originally for a Bookshop window fascia, the font was released in 1928 by Monotype. Gill Sans is best known for its use on the London and North Eastern Railway and the iconic Penguin books. The proportions are based on the monumental roman capitals (as found on the coloumn of Trajan) which differentiates the font from sans serif geometric faces such as Futura. Gill Sans went on to inspire other humanist sans serif fonts such as Syntax and FF Scala Sans (my favourite book font).
Helvetica: a true design classic that even has its own film, does it really need an introduction? Designed by Max Miedinger at the Haas type foundry in 1957 Helvetica was originally called Neue Haas Grotesk. Helvetica is the most widely used font today. Love it or not, helvetica’s neutrality offers a chameleon ability to absorb and adapt to any styling you wish to add. If I had to choose only 1 font to use forever it would have to be Helvetica, purely for versatility. Used by companies such as 3M, American Airlines, American Apparel, BMW, Jeep, JCPenney, Lufthansa, Panasonic and many more.
Trade Gothic was designed by Jackson Burke in 1948; not as high profile as the other fonts on this list but a personal favourite of mine. I especially like the extended version and will use this in preference to the over-used Helvtica Neue extended font. Industrial and technical: Trade Gothic has similarities with both Helvetica and DIN.
Released by H Berthold AG type foundry in 1896, Akzidenz Grotesk is the original sans serif face and was the inspiration to many other typefaces including Univers and the most famous font of all times: Helvetica. Akzidenz, Helvetica and Univers are difficult to tell apart but can be differentiated by the C and uppercase G, J R and Q; Helvetica also has a higher X height. Akzidenz is a prime example of pioneering avant garde design being superseded by much more successful imitators.
The oldest typeface on the list, Garamond takes its name from French punch cutter Claude Garamond (1480-1561), although Jean Jannon (c 1621) redesigned Garamonds original work which became the basis for many revivals; the origins of Garamond today must be attributed to both punch cutters. The original Garamond face was adopted by the French Court (1540) and subsequently influenced type styles across Europe at this important time. In 1621 Jannon’s redesign of Garamond became the house style for the French Royal Printing Office (under the name Caractère de l’Université) but in 1825 The French National Printing Office adapted this font and claimed it as the work of Claude Garamond. Revivals of Garamond began in the 1900’s inspired by both Jannon and Garamond; today the most prominent versions of Garamond are: Adobe Garamond (Robert Slimbach) and ITC Garamond (Tony Stan). Sabon (Jan Tschichold) is also considered a Garamond revival.
Garamond is used extensively in print as a book font and considered one of the most legible serif typefaces for print. A true classic serif font.
Designed by Carol Twombly in 1989 Trajan (like Gill Sans) is inspired by inscriptions from the Trajan Column based on Roman Square Capitals. The classic and statesman-like representation of the font has attributed to its uptake as an official font for many Universities and Political Parties; Trajan also enjoys popularity on many cinema posters and book covers. A great font for titles where all caps are required.
Minion was designed for adobe in 1990 by Robert Slimbach (who also designed Adobe Garamond). Another classic serif font used extensively for book design; the reason I have chosen this font is purely based on it being used for the typographic must-read bible: Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (a stunning example of typesetting elegance). Minion is one of the most complete families of a serif font available with a staggering 64 sets on offer.
Like Garamond, Bodoni is another set of classic typefaces which attribute their name to the original designer: Giambattista Bodoni (in 1798). Variations include: ATF Bodoni, Bauer Bodoni, Bodoni Anitqua, Bodoni Old Face, ITC Bodoni Seventy Two, ITC Bodoni Six, ITC Bodoni Twelve, Bodoni MT, LTC Bodon 175, WTC Our Bodoni, BodoniEF, Bodoni Classico and TS Bodoni. The most popular of the revivals are ATF designed by Morris Fuller Benton (in 1907) and Bauer by Heinrich Jost (in 1926). Bodoni is used predominantly for print in posters, book cover design and logo design: most prominent examples being Nirvana, Hilton Hotels, Lady Gaga and Tom Clancy (the author). Bodoni suffers as a digital font due to the thick and thin strokes displaying what is known as ‘dazzle’ (the thin strokes breaking down), a kind of legibility degradation, as the font is used at smaller text sizes. Digital version of Bodoni are scaled with mathematical calculation as opposed to the original metal typesetting fonts which have been individually scaled with perfect proportion. Bodoni is best used as a title and branding font at larger point sizes.
Designed by Matthew Carter in 1972 Shelley is based upon the scripts of eighteenth century master calligrapher George Shelley: inspired by the thin and thick strokes of a quill nib. Of all the script fonts available Shelley is the finest example and one I always find hard to replace or better. I love this font and have used it many times for branding and titles to soften a design without being overly feminine.
This article was originally posted November 27, 2012. Updated August 2016.