My Font Toolbox — 10 Fonts Every Designer Should Know and Love

It has always been my belief that the right tools are better than too many. Mastering them 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 so sets of lead type in varying sizes; now most modern designer’s hard drives are filled with fonts of 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 toolkit considerably to a few dozen I use for every project. A few Geometrics, a grotesque or two, some humanist, some go to serifs for long-form content; slab serifs for logos and headlines. What follows is a list of my ten favorite fonts. It’s up to every designer to choose their own, but if you’re stuck, this list is a good group to fall back on.

 

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 bit boring and its classification as a grotesque was due to its utilitarian nature which designers around the turn of the century thought looked well, grotesque. It’s great for creating logos, headlines, and anchoring large design systems as its well-considered weights work seamlessly together. It says old and modern at the same time and works very within a deliberate grid. It’s timeless and almost impossible to misuse.

 

Avante Garde

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, media, and awards. It 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 vintage if over-used, but can also transform like it in the case of the Macy’s logo. It’s 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.

 

Gil Sans

Eric Gill was a weird guy (or possibly a monster). He 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 an evolved version of that. A humanist font noted for its readability without feeling stiff. Its many weights and sizes, notably Ultra Bold, look like stand-alone fonts and includes flourishes like and i’s and j’s whose dots look 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.

 

Knockout

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

Bodoni’s weights vary in style pretty drastically and I’m specifically endeared 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.

 

Clarendon LT

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.

 

Gotham

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

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 versions are hidden in logos for brands like ABC and FootLocker. Beware, it can sometimes make a design feel a little dated.

 

DIN

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 rounded, 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 it lost some its personality.

 

Futura

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 — ouch.

 

Runner ups:

Franklin Gothic, Hellenic Wide, Cooper Black, Georgia, PL Behemoth, Archer


10 Principles For Being a Graphic Designer

Industrial designer and list maker Dieter Rams wrote a mini-festo in 80s called “Ten Principles for Good Design”. It’s hard to disagree with but I always felt it lacked a practicality that a student or someone early in their career might find helpful. Although I have years before I can consider myself a master like Rams, I thought it would be useful to post my own list of what I’ve learned so far. Here are ten I find most important:

1. The computer is a production tool, not a design tool.

Design is both a noun and a verb. A design is something you create, a technical drawing, a digital comp, or a set of instructions. To design is to imagine then articulate; it is the act of forming an intention. The verb form takes place in your head, then must be translated and worked out with a tool — and the less restrictive the better. I recommend a pencil.

2. Understand the golden ratio and use it.

I like to think of 1.618 as the Pi of rectangles. Just as Pi describes the relationship of a perfect circle to its radius, The Golden Ratio describes the relationship of a perfect rectangle to its diagonals. Because graphic designers work almost primarily with rectangles, (e.g. computer screens, paper, televisions) it is important to know how to use them correctly. Oddly enough, the ratio also describes the shape of spiral galaxies and just about every system in nature. There is much to learn, so read up.

3. Do not reinvent convention, use conventions that work.

Convention is something that is adopted by a user group or society, more than it is created by a single designer. Think of it as a process of consensus that over gets harder and harder to change over time. Asking a user to adjust to something unconventional is asking for their time, most users are only willing to spare a little before jumping ship.

4. You, the designer, must decide what is most important.

Hierarchy is what separates something that is designed from something that is not. It is a tool to create a linear narrative, even if the experience is non-linear–such as with most websites. Users left to there own devices will create a wide range of experiences for themselves, but most will take the path of less resistance. It is your job to make that path lead somewhere.

5. Tell a story.

Design is communication. Communication at its most basic level is the telling of a story. A good product or brand is an extension of our personal story. Our smart phones, our sports cars, our clothes. Anything that says something about our personality and the choices we make. Graphic design is a big part of how that is story told.

6. Done is better than perfect.

I once took a class with Ed Benguiat, a legendary logo and type designer who drew most of the fonts you use everyday with his hand. Reflecting on a long and prolific career he once said, “I never made a single piece that I liked”. This is the rub of being a perfectionist; you are never satisfied, you are never finished. Unfortunately clients don’t think the same way and judge you by the work you actually produce. At a certain point, often before you’re ready, you must hand over your masterpiece.

7. Making good work is difficult.

If you’re tired, frustrated, and are thinking of a career change, you’re probably making progress.

8. Understand typography and use it.

Developing your typography skills is akin to learning how to play the piano. Playing a note is as easy as pushing a key. There are a few simple tunes you can pick up quick, but mastering arrangement, rhythm, and cadence takes time and practice. Like music, type has subtleties that are not easily explained–it just has to feel right. There are a few rules too. Find a great teacher.

9. Be a psychologist.

Clients are often terrible at saying what they really mean or even knowing what they really want. The reasoning behind their decision making often has to do with factors that have little to do with a good design, like what they think their boss will like. Use design rounds as a way of understanding what they want, not as a way of gaining their approval. Convince them a great idea is theirs–they are paying for your council and your expertise, not your ego.

10. Learn to love the process not the product.

My first drawing class in college involved making countless three minute gesture drawings in charcoal, which were thrown away at the end of class. After a few classes our teacher gave us the chance to really show our stuff, telling us to spend an hour and a half on one drawing. When we were finished he instructed us to throw those drawings away as well, without sharing them with anyone. It was a special kind of torture for a group of young art students who were eager to impress, but it was an important lesson.

In design, anything worth doing will involve a team of people and most likely someone else’s money. Falling too much in love with your own vision will not only prevent you from accepting other’s good ideas, it will cause friction from your co-workers. Love what you do and let the good work happen on its own.


Content Creation vs. the Creative Services Agency Model

Two years ago, after deciding to leave my role as Creative Director at NBCUniversal, I began to plot out what to do next. I had spent five years working on a team that would do anything for our clients — a can do spirit that gave us a great reputation and would often help us to win business away from outside agencies. We worked on everything from rebrands to app design, internal marketing to interior spaces, digital campaigns, strategy, content creation, even sports jerseys. Anything and everything. If a client asked we’d simply say yes.

What seemed clear to me at the time was that if I took this attitude with me into the world, I’d have everything I needed to start my own creative services agency. I knew how to build a pitch, how to present, how to design an experience, how to concept a campaign to market it, and I was willing to take on any type of work. I could start small and grow over time, using onsite freelance roles to supplement my income.

The service agency model is simple. Find a big client that needs a website, mobile app, or campaign. Become a reliable partner. Take on as much work as they’re willing to give you. Build out a creative team and retain a percentage on their billable hours. Sustain this over time and repeat. The model breaks when a client underestimates the value of your services on a small scale. This happens almost every time. Most companies are already overpaying a large agency on retainer, often by millions of dollars a year. This makes it hard to justify paying other, smaller firms. Unless they can do so cheaply.

A smaller project such as a site redesign can bring in say, fifty grand. This sounds like a lot, but there is a ton of work that goes into it. You’re often starting from the ground up, creating requirements, wireframes, concept, UX, content strategy, and visual design. There is also the time and effort to win the business and the period where you literally just wait for the approvals on their end, which can take months. These are all unbillable hours. I would estimate 50% of an agency’s time can be spent in this way.

In order to build this into the cost you need to do one of two things; double your cost to the client or work for free. Doubling the cost is directly contrary to the benefit of being cheap. Most successful smaller agencies use interns that are working for next to nothing (or for nothing) or push salaried employees to work unfathomable hours to bridge the gap. This has become standard practice for almost every small to mid sized agency. Churn and burn is often only path to sustainability.

In the past year and a half since Science & Co. incorporated I have looked for a solution. It’s a problem that became most obvious after pitching a large client and not winning the business — a process that took three months. It became more obvious after winning business from another, only to learn the project would eventually be cancelled — six months. The solution became clear, either put my own and others blood, sweat, and tears into running a company that would be barely profitable firing on all cylinders or change the business model.

Over the next few months I’ll be shifting the focus of Science & Co. toward content creation. I hope to specifically explore data-based storytelling and visualization. Content that is both easily consumable and highly compelling. Using my experience in design, art direction, and technology I will be exploring topics in politics, science, and other subjects that have the potential to reveal big truths. I have seen so much great work in this sphere recently and I’m extremely excited to be a part of it.

The reason why I became a designer and art director lies in the ability for design to tell a story. With the onset of big data from so many new sources that story can not only be inspiring and disruptive, but it can be supported by real-time information. With the focus on this kind of content creation, I have a new found sense of freedom — not just from the trap of the agency model but from the idea that I can help give information a voice. Stay tuned for what comes next.