It has always been my belief that the right tools are better than too many. Mastering the use of your tools takes time and practice and when faced with too many options, you’ll never give yourself the chance to do so. This especially applies to fonts, where the options have become infinite with the invention of digital type. Once upon a time, a print shop would have had a dozen or two sets of lead-type in varying sizes; now most modern designer’s hard drives are filled with type or varying qualities and questionable sources. Sites like Dafont and Google fonts have further muddied the field by creating thousands of “free” low-quality fonts.
Over the years I have slimmed down my tool kit considerably and there are a few dozen I use for every project. A few Geometrics, a grotesque or two, some humanist, so go to serifs for long form content, slab serifs for logos and headlines. What follows is a list of my 10 go to fonts that I know intimately. It’s up to every designer to choose their favorite, but if you’re stuck this list is a good starting point.
Helvetica Neue LT
Linotype’s Helvetica Neue comes in two packages; standard and pro, with additional ligatures being the difference of the latter. It’s the most versatile rendering of the font and is discernibly better than the standard Helvetica that comes with your Mac or PC. There is plenty written about its history — I’ll spare you its praises because it’s universally adored. Counter to that, Helvetica can feel like a boring font and its classification as a grotesque was due to its utilitarian nature which designers around the turn of the century thought looked very ugly. But great for creating logos, headlines, and anchoring large design systems as its well-considered weights work incredibly well together. It says old and modern at the same time and works very withing a deliberate grid. It’s a timeless and almost impossible to misuse.
Originally designed by Herb Lubalin as a magazine logo, Ed Benguiat expanded and refined it for the ITC version. Avante Garde is a sultry and hypnotizing font. It oozes cool in a way that is made for entertainment. It also has a wealth of ligatures that help bleed a U into a T or snuggly fit an A under the foot of a W. It’s a ready-made logo font. It can feel a bit retro if over-used, but can also transform like it in the case of the Macy’s logo. It can feel art deco when used in gold; variations are often seen in awards ceremonies like the Emmys or the OSCARS. I personally love it for posters as its geometric quality looks great in all caps and because of how well it stacks.
Eric Gill was a weird guy (or possibly a monster). He was also happened to be a phenomenal typographer. A student of Edward Johnston who best known for his design of the London Underground typeface, Gil Sans lived on as a refined version of that. A humanist font noted for its readability without feeling stiff. Its many weights and sizes, notably its Ultra Bold weight, look like their own stand alone fonts and extend the fonts playful to include things like and i’s and j’s whose dots looks like they’re about to roll off the top. Gils sans feels informal and fun and has a lively push and pull between letters. It’s a great way to lighten the mood of a more serious client and an alternative to the stiffness of Helvetica or Futura.
A Hoefler & Co. font modeled after the boxing posters of the 50s and 60s, Knockout is the closest thing to a loose set of wood-type you’ll get digitally. It has a ton of weights which are meant to be combined, mismatched, and juxtaposed. It’s a deliberately American font which can be combined with a slab serif for a Hatch Show print look. Check out Paula Scher’s work for the public theater for some examples.
Bodoni’s weights vary in style pretty drastically and I specifically adorned to Ultra Bold. It’s a great stepping stone for designers who tend to shy away from classic serifs. It’s particularly useful for article headlines and pull-quotes that need a hip yet classic feel. To me, it’s defined more by its negative spaces than its thick strokes, and its hairline serifs are what hold it all together. I personally like Bauer Bodoni but both Monotype and Linotype have pretty nice cuts.
Another serif that has great curves, Claredon‘s clever little flourishes on its ascenders, and thick slabs for its serif without feeling heavy handed. It’s a font that feels like someone’s handwriting — not like a script but like a human typeset. It’s great for body copy and readability, especially in book interiors. Again, careful using the poorly rendered versions that come with PCs and Macs and opt for the Linotype version.
After Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign used it, the world because so oversaturated in Gotham I almost don’t want to write about it. It truly does rank up there with the more beautifully design fonts of all time, which is remarkable for a modern font. It takes a bit from Gil Sans, a bit from Futura, and a just a little from DIN — making it balanced and readable from afar. It conveys trust and integrity. Great for movie posters, subway maps, and political campaigns.
Bauhaus is a great place to start a logo. It’s the kind of font whose letters cannot exist independently (seriously, look how weird they look on their own), but the harmony they create together is mesmerizing. Popularized in the 80s for its futuristic techno look, altered version are hidden in logos for brands like ABC and FootLocker. Beware, overusing it can make a design feel a little dated.
Originally designed to for the sides of German freight cars, DIN was tailor made to be readable from a distance. Because of this, it lends itself well to interface and device design. Utilitarian and bold, blocky yet curved, it feels it was carved out of metal. There are many different cuts and some are pretty flawed. Personally I like Linotype’s Schriften complete family specifically for of its “1451” MittelSchrift and EngShrift weights. There is also FF DIN which is a cleaner cut that has many weights but feels to me to somehow lost some its personality.
In my early career, I worked on a succession of clients who used Futura and I grew a bit tired of it. But like an old flame, I never stopped loving Futura. Its weights are fun to mix and its geometric nature lends itself well to be tracked out like crazy. It’s also great for just about everything but body copy (but I’ve seen it used successfully for that as well). Just watch out for the sharp corners of the M, W, and V.
Franklin Gothic, Hellenic Wide, Cooper Black, Brandon Grotesque, Georgia, PL Behemoth, Archer