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Choosing and using the right brand fonts is a detail that separates design amateurs from the pros. But when you’re new to design, it can be confusing when you don’t understand the basic principles–but that’s why you’re here so I’ma hook you up.
In this first part of my series Design Tips for the Non-Designer, we’re going to tackle typography. Which is just a fancypants way of saying “using fonts”.
Here are 8 typography tips that will help you level-up your design game and get you feeling more confident and looking like a pro.
Stick to fonts the pros depend on
You should know: there are good fonts and there are bad fonts, and it can take a trained eye to know the difference—having spent hours and hours of my life creating letters by hand and editing existing fonts for customized logos, I can see ‘font junk’ and poorly constructed letters from a mile away. You, however, probably have an actual life.
Unfortunately, a lot of the “bad ones” are the ones you find online for free, so be careful with those. And fun fact: a lot of free fonts do not come with a commercial license, they’re for “demo” or personal use (always check).
When choosing fonts for your brand, you shouldn’t spend all your days scouring Google Fonts or Dafont.com—just stick to what professionals have fussed and debated over for like ever. They’ve done all the hard work so you don’t have to.
Ask any professional designer what fonts they love most and you’ll hear all about their “go-to” fonts they mostly stick to. Some people will insist that FUTURA IS THE ONLY FONT IN THE WORLD and other designers will dig their heels in and prepare to battle it out because #HELVETICA4EVER. But there’s always (always!) a ton of overlap.
The important takeaway from these billions of discussions I’ve been a part of is that it’s never about what’s new and trendy, it’s about what’s tried-and-true.
If you don’t have time to take a typography course or read a book about it, stick to what you know will make you look like a pro by using the fonts that professionals (mostly) agree on.
Here’s a list to get you started. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s all you need.
In the left-hand column are fonts that may have come with your operating system; but if not, you’ll need to purchase them. In the right-hand column are options from Google fonts and those are free and available for commercial use—you can download any of them from fonts.google.com.
Use decorative brand fonts as an accent only
I love a decorative font. I sometimes sit here behind my computer screen secretly wishing and hoping that the perfect project will come along JUST SO I CAN USE A FONT. It’s a thing.
(By decorative I mean anything that’s not suitable to set body text with, they’re usually script- or handwritten-style fonts.)
But when using fonts that are trendy and/or super stylized—proceed with caution. A lot of people get this horribly, horribly wrong.
Decorative fonts should be used as an accent, and should never be used to set large bodies of text—that’s not what they’re made for.
They are great for conveying a mood, adding a bit of flair, and providing you with a way to create design elements that will draw the readers’ attention… but when you overdo it, it creates chaos, visual clutter, and makes things unreadable. (BAD.)
No matter how much you love it, it’s not about you (it’s about the person reading it), so do them a favor and never do this 👇
It’s much more impactful to use stylized fonts in teeny tiny and strategic places—basically only when you need to set a few words (or just one!). This is the same font, better yes? 👌Not only does it make everything more pleasant for the reader, IMHO it elevates the font to a whole new classy level.
Never Use All Caps With A Script Font
Learn Some Kerning Basics
Kerning refers to the space between the letters in a word and designers adjust it because sometimes the “default” kerning that happens when you just start typing in your computer machine is totally jacked up optically. It’s a subtle difference that definitely separates the amateurs from the pros.
When you see some lovely design that’s basically just a font and you’re like, “Hey! When I use this font it doesn’t look anything like this!”—it’s probably because the designer paid meticulous attention to kerning. Two scenarios where you need to pay particular attention to it:
1.) Your Logo Here’s an example of kerning gone terribly wrong:
Getting the kerning just right is often what separates an “amateurish” logo from one that looks polished and professional. If you’re planning to design your own logo, do yourself a HUGE favor and spend a little time on this site practicing. I promise you you’ll never look at spaces between letters the same way again.
If you use Adobe Illustrator, you can use the “Optical” setting in your characters palette if you’re using serif or sans-serif fonts. I always kern logos manually but this gives you a much better result if you don’t feel confident doing that.
2.) When Using A Script Font This is like dragging your nails on a chalkboard to designers… NEVER kern a script font so loosely (or at all, just don’t do it at all) that they don’t connect from one letter to the next as they were intended. When kerning script fonts in Adobe Illustrator, you’ll want to stick to “auto” (NOT optical) this time.
It’s Okay To Stick To One Typeface For Your Brand
A lot of advice that gets floated around is that you NEED! THREE! FONTS! for your brand, but that’s hogwash. If you’re not comfortable with pairings fonts and you’re not at all interested in fonts and if you’re not keen to learn anything about fonts… you can absolutely pick one typeface and call it good.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say you probably should, because nothing causes visual disharmony more than using too many fonts that don’t belong together. Using one typeface means OF COURSE DUH the fonts will go together because they’re in the same family.
Now, you need to know the difference between a typeface and a font. A typeface is a family of fonts, but that definition isn’t helpful because the way we use the word “font” and “typeface” these days is interchangeable, so here’s an example:
Arial is a typeface. Arial Regular, Arial Narrow, Arial Bold, Arial Black, and Arial Italic are all fonts within that typeface.
When you’re selecting a single typeface to use for your brand, you want to select one that has loads of fonts within that typeface to use for many different purposes: for headlines, body text, callouts, etc.
That means making sure it has lots of different weights and comes in italic as well (not all fonts do, and pressing “italic” in Microsoft Word or in WordPress is not the same thing as the italic version of the actual font. Just trust me on that one.)
When you’re using one font, you’ll use the different weights and styles to create the contrast you need to separate different text elements. Here’s an example using Fira Sans (a free Google font).👇
When using a font like Fira Sans, which comes in TONS of different weights and styles, you have the flexibility of “skipping” weights in order to create contrast (see below… and please note they’re not displaying in order so you’ll want to test drive them to see what’s what).
What I mean is, if I decide that my body text is going to be set in Regular, then I will “skip” at least two levels in weight to create my headline styles. In the examples above, I chose Black (skipping a few levels up from Regular) and Thin (skipping a few levels below Regular). You can see depending on which way you skip (up/bolder or down/lighter) these fonts give off a completely different vibe to choose from depending on your brand personality.
Then I can skip at least two levels again to create the subhead styles, its weight will be smack-dab in the middle, so you can be sure that there’s plenty of contrast between both the body text as well as the headline styles. (Does that make sense?)
Here are some more versatile options from Google fonts that come in lots of different weights:
When you’re pairing fonts, make sure there’s plenty of contrast
If you’re more adventurous and you want to use more than one font for your brand identity, make sure you choose fonts that go together and that there’s plenty of contrast between them.
The easiest way to do this is to pair a sans serif with a serif font. You can identify a serif font because they have small lines on the ends of the characters, sans-serifs do not.
I use two sans-serif fonts in my branding but you can see that there’s TONS of contrast between them when you compare my headlines and the body text.
When you’re new to design, and you’re not confident about what two sans-serifs will work together (or serifs, which are SUPER tricky and I’m not even sure I’ve ever pulled that off), it’s best to stick to the serif/sans-serif combo rule.
Here are some lovely font combinations you’re welcome to steal…
Don’t use light/delicate or bold fonts for body copy
I see people doing this quite a lot, especially with hairline and light weight fonts. They look gorgeous when you’re not actually reading them, but they strain the eyes and when you cause discomfort, you have failed at design. Design is not making things look pretty, its job is to help you better communicate with your audience, not make it harder.
If you want to use light fonts or bold fonts, use them for headings instead.
Keep in mind that what’s readable to you is not readable to everyone… and nothing pisses off readers more than fonts that make you squint and struggle to figure out what the words are. DESIGN IS MEANT TO AID READABILITY, never sacrifice that for fancy.
When in doubt, post a mockup to Facebook or email 20 friends and say “what do you think about these fonts?” Feedback is always subjective, but if you’re getting a bunch of, “Holy shit I can’t even read this…” PICK A DIFFERENT FONT.
Make Sure Your Font’s Personality Matches Your Brand’s Personality
This one is subjective and requires a bit of intuition, but you want the “vibe” of your typography to be aligned with the personality of your brand. You should like looking at your fonts, but do not base your font selections exclusively on the fonts you “like.”
Fonts have personality, and you’ll want to carefully select fonts that are in alignment with your brand personality.
I’ve you’ve never thought about a “brand personality,” what you’ll can do is pick an adjective that you can “own” to represent how you want others to feel about you/your company. For example Bold, Timeless, Fun, Reliable, Sophisticated, Free-spirited, Youthful, Zen, Dynamic…
Then, when you’re looking at fonts, ask yourself, “If this font were a person, how would I describe them?”
Looking at the examples below, which column is a better reflection of the personality of the font, right or left?
If you want your brand to be perceived as “serious” … no matter how much you “like” these fonts, don’t use these fonts! 👇
There is nothing wrong with these fonts per se, they’re just wrong for a brand that wants to be perceived as serious. They’re communicating, “Playful, cool, youthful, fun!” and that’s not what you want.
A “serious” company doesn’t need to be boring. You don’t have to stick to your system fonts or play it safe with Times New Roman, just stick with one of the “tried and true” fonts (see pro tip #1).
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Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.