Chapter 3. Character Reference

WHEN IT COMES TO TYPEFACES, we are spoilt for choice. But with so many fonts just a mouse click away, it's easy to be overwhelmed rather than empowered by all that choice. We've probably all felt intimidated at one time or another by the length of our font menus. if you're like me, you've probably frittered away the best part of a day experimenting with this or that enticingly named font, only to find yourself unsatisfied with the results.

Complicating matters is the fact that our typefaces may be sending messages without our knowing it. Typefaces can be loadedoften through no fault of their ownwith symbolism or meaning. For example, Times New Roman or Helvetica/Arial might scream "generic" because we are so used to seeing them as the "default" font; Fette Fraktur, because of its adoption by the National Socialists, might connote Nazism. Other fonts, once fashionable, may be trapped in a historical periodgreat if you want to evoke that era, but a potential faux pas if not. Who, in the early twenty-first century, hasn't been overexposed to Comic Sans? Certain fonts may have been co-opted by a ubiquitous advertising campaign and can't help but evoke that product; others may have suddenly become fashionable, only to suddenly changelike an overplayed song on the radiofrom flavor of the month to minor irritation. What's more there's a growing number of type geeks out there who relish the opportunity to point out the historical inappropriateness of using an English sans serif from the 1930s for a book about a Russian art movement of the 1920s.

Tip: Type Specimen Book

The only way to efficiently evaluate typefaces is by using a type specimen book. Don't be tempted to forgo this essential reference in favor of pulling down typefaces from the font menu to see how they look; this is a surefire way to waste time. Several such books are available, including The Type Specimen Book (John Wiley & Sons), and Font Bureau Type Specimens ( Alternatively, you can browse typefaces in the Adobe Type Library at

Maybe I exaggerate. But only a little. The thing is, there's no way to predict how readers will react to our type choices, and, the bolder those choices, the more likely we are to upset someone. So, it's a good idea to arm yourself with at least a basic knowledge of typographic history, a solid understanding of the fonts you use most often, and an awareness of the connotations that certain typefaces carry.