Jamie Neely: How to make your way through the font fog?

Like with good wine, there can never be enough good type, referring to Adrian Frutiger’s answer to the question if we still need more typefaces. But to find your favorite bottle of the tasty red, you might need to take a few sips.
Huge diversity, all the details and possible combinations do not make it an easy decision to pick out the right typeface – and this is where it comes down to a good strategy.

Jamie Neely on “How to discover the right fonts”. © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)

Maybe some of you already know the young designer and developer from Belfast.
Besides from running a studio for ten years, he is well known for the typecast tool.
An application, that is part of the monotype toolbox, good for prototyping different typographical settings for the web, testing CSS settings or just quickly testing typefaces. The tool reached the mark of one million users at the end of last year and the best thing – it is free to use.

Today Jamie talked about different strategies for choosing the right typeface or how to find fonts and how you can approach that. Over the last two and a half years he has spoken to hundreds of designers to get to know how they think about and choose type. That information helped him to build his own mental model for the choice of the right typeface. If you are aware what your personal strategies are, it will lead to better solutions and ultimately to a better design.

First of all there is the typeface discovery itself. This is where the design problem gets translated into a set of tasks that your type should fulfill. If you have found some fitting typefaces, there comes step two, the audition. At that point you put a small core set of typefaces on your stage and compare them, when finally you have to commit to a certain one.

Designers & Type

Considering himself as a “visual designer” – drawing a distinction between somebody, who sets type and those who design type – a typeface consists of two main ingredients: Every type has an essence, showing anatomic qualities and decisions the type designer brings to the design.

TYPO-Berlin-15-05-21-Sebastian-Weiss-Monotype-7801Visual Designer Jamie Neely during his talk on the TYPO-Stage. © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)
Those characteristics are all in their control – part science, part art. The resulting product is the second ingredient: the feel. Intuitively experienced by the reader, the consumer, who the type is made for. But not to forget that in the middle position we find the visual designer, who has the opportunity to give the design a different feeling. This relationship defines a very important connection in between the reader and the type designer. A privilege you have to treat with big respect – trying to get the best for both sides.

Choosing fonts out of the fog

There are some people out there, able to choose type in a way, that it feels like, it has always been there and you can’t imagine it, being any different.
But they can’t know all of the typefaces, right?

Large marketplaces offer thousands of fonts and give a pretty good impression of the overall available type, divided into groups concerning the style, language, character sets, file formats and screen resolution which seems to be quite overwhelming, but at the same time it almost feels like you are stuck in a fog.

Classification builds one option and also describes what most designers are telling Jamie, if he asks them about their personal strategy – observation though shows a different approach. The use of type classifications could be a solution, but actually you would need to know exactly what you want – which is more of a luxury best-case scenario. Thus we still need possibilities to see through the fog.

“If designers look for a font, they return to the familiar and brief the new.”

There are three important behaviors to finally make the right choice for your desire. The safe way is all about established growth, where strong, popular typefaces are coming in. A well-made font seems to be a bullet-proof strategy, also showing we always rely on good reputation.

Strategy number two: the familiar typefaces define the roots that are closest to us. Figuratively speaking, the journeys we take the most often, require the least effort, because our intuition takes over. Perhaps this could relate to our favorite typefaces, or recommended ones. But a place where you can definitely find your familiar fonts, is in the font menu. Right on top in your font list, you can see your recently used type. Those fonts are likely to be your familiar set and define your “type DNA”.

“Among the weeds,
there is an orchid.”

The the most exciting and difficult third strategy: new typefaces. It is the most diverse group and it is tough, because new typefaces are fighting for survival. Jamie thinks that the reason why we like them so much, is the break from the familiar.


Jamie Neely

Director of Product Design, Monotype (Belfast)

Jamie leads product design at Monotype – with a special focus on digital design workflow using typography. He was previously Creative Director at Typecast, a free web app helping to make web typography accessible, useful and fun.
We like to imagine the best versions of ourselves and want to do new stuff that stands out. The new perfectly fits into our mood as designers. On top of that, we all have a secret list of typefaces that are new and that we want to use in the near future. Although we haven’t had the chance yet, we want to use them before anybody else does, which makes them even more precious. /JR