The Delicate Art of Font Selection

When it comes to font selection, a designer has to have a sense of history, psychology, and an eye for matchmaking.

If an analysis of election campaign print designs proves anything, it proves that font selection plays a critical part in successful (if not good) design.

I'm amazed at how many blogs I've been coming across this week that focus on brand or design analysis of the Presidential candidates! One popped up yesterday on Presidential Brands2008. And that excellent site pointed the way to a similar post on Hue, a beautiful blog about that beloved design element, color.

Both posts, like the one mentioned earlier this week, make some great points about each campaign's design decisions.

Ryan Bowman over at GOOD has a great sense for seeing where the campaigns have taken from concepts created by great (or not so great) election campaigns of the past.

Marc Cardwell, writing for PB2008, makes astute distinctions as to which candidates are working with professional designers, and which look like they're still depending on “clip-art.”

As a color consultant, Hue's Rachel Perls is bored with the unflaggingly uniform color choices of most campaigns – a design problem that we've mused about often enough here on the HC blog.

But what really got my attention was the distinctions being made between those campaigns that opted for a serif font, and those that chose a sans serif font. This is always a great design topic that starts with one simple rule: Serif fonts are for headlines, sans serif fonts are for body text.

But it doesn't end there. Oh no! After all, isn't sans serif, in fact, synonymous, with 'modern?' And doesn't modern look good in headlines? And really, shouldn't all good designers be using nothing BUT sans serifs, unless they're designing for a goth band, a line of baroque-inspired clothing, or a medieval fair?

Well, no, that's not right.

There are tons of instances in which serifs look absolutely beautiful, but the problem is that, as a designer, it can be hard to drawn the line between what I love, and what is actually good design. If it was up to me, and the sacred principles of good design were thrown out the window, I'd use six different serif fonts in one design. I'd use those crazy, curly, boxy fonts I used to design my birthday party invitations with in McDraw

Alas, those days of carefree design are long gone. Now that we're all grown up, it turns out that election campaigns and other design employers are about as interested in fun fonts as they are in balloon borders. And now the pressure's on. As an election campaign designer, you've got to pick a font for your candidate's name that is going to be used over and over and over again. It's going to be in print and online. It's going to be all different sizes, and scariest of all, it's going to communicate a very distinctive message about who your candidate is as a human being and what he or she stands for.

Serifs are softer than sans serifs. You might even call them feminine. At their best, serifs are an elegant design choice. At their worst, they can look showy and downright silly.

Sans serifs, on the other hand, are bold. They make a statement that they seem bound to stick to, whereas some serifs can look like they might get up and walk right off the page at any moment. Sans serifs allude to many of the qualities traditionally considered to be masculine.

Looking at the different font type choices in this light, I might choose a sans serif font to represent a strong, no-nonsense election campaign, while a serif would speak for a gentler, more refined candidate.

Of course, in this case, you could just as easily replace “strong” and “no-nonsense” with “robot.” “Gentler” and “more refined” could be replaced with “fancy pants.” But that's what's so great about choosing the right font for your subject matter. For example, the blocky sans serif used on the John Edwards campaign pulls attention away for the automatic urge to pin Edwards as a softy. Similarly, Hillary's serif font, along with the italicizing of “for President” in her campaign designs, visually prepares voters to think of her as not being such a hardass.

Every font has a personality. It also has a history. It comes with a universe of pre-existing associations that might evoke anything from comic books, to dusty diners, to communist propaganda. Finding the right font for a particular design (and to represent a brand, or a presidential candidate) is kind of like the delicate art of matchmaking. If you don't have a good sense of a font's history and personality, you probably won't be able to match it up with the right partner. The subtleties of font romance are multifarious and obscure, but when you get them right, the results are magical.


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