Redesign: Perfecta Trifecta

Text accumulates: letters become words, words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs. Each choice in the design of a letter gets repeated thousands of times in a block of text, so when it comes to reading, typeface selection goes the furthest in setting the visual atmosphere.


What atmosphere do we want? Now is a good time to revisit the aesthetic goals I lined up in a previous post:

Of these, “elevated defaultness” provides the most guidance in our typeface selections because we can use web standard fonts as guides—Times New Roman, Georgia, Verdana, Courier, Monaco, San Francisco, Helvetica, and the like. But, I want to have my own spin on these common typefaces without going too far afield in the look of my font selections. (By the way, I am going to use font and typeface interchangeably in my writing. There used to be significant reasons for the distinction, but much like the difference between records and albums in music, digital technology and democratized access makes those distinctions increasingly insignificant.)

If we were working on a different kind of project (let’s say a visual identity project), we’d be hunting for typefaces that support the communication tone we’ve established as a cornerstone of the brand, all the while making sure that those selections work well in the different applications necessary for the business. Material (the typeface) meets format (its application) to express atmosphere (the tone).

A quick example: last year, I was working with a financial company who was focused on friendly, conversational communication and high-touch support. They had a web app and intentions to make a native mobile app in the next year or so. Most of the views in the web app were tables of transactions and their details. For their primary body typeface, we selected National 2 for its friendly character, memorable numerals, and narrow proportions. These characteristics would give a pleasing information density to their table views, anticipate their upcoming design needs with narrow mobile screens, and make the numerals in the table a satisfying sight—highly legible, but with a bit of flair. Too often, brand typefaces are selected for their visual panache and communicative tone without enough regard to the utilitarian contexts where the typefaces will be used. Both need to be considered, and the right typeface can elegantly serve both needs.

After a quick click-through of my site to define my needs (a lazy man’s content audit), I identified a few kinds of content and some typographic associations I make with them:

I’m still not entirely certain how these typefaces will get used in the design (I’d like to avoid the boilerplate “serif for body copy and sans-serif for headlines” if I can), but now we have a starting place for what kinds of typefaces to seek out and try.

Sans, serif, mono. Not bracingly original, but hey, I call it the perfecta trifecta for a reason. My only additional consideration is a strong preference to buy from small, independent foundries. This will help focus selection and make the source of my design materials match the independent spirit of this site.

Beyond that, I don’t think it’s necessary to have further definition. No matter how much one plans, a designer will crawl through their mental rolodex of fonts and see what feels right to their eye. Post-rationalization is an open secret in the design industry, but with personal work, there is no one to impress with rigor. One can go on intuition. The eye knows.

That’s long enough for now. Next time we’ll look at some fonts.

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Frank Chimero is a designer and writer based in New York City. For the past 15 years, he’s worked at his tiny design studio, Frank, with a few years away to co-found Abstract.

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