Font or Typeface? The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Lettering

Metal Font Letters Printing

Choosing a typeface for your book is something I'm sure won't be at the top of your to-do list—until it suddenly comes around to making the decision. But your choice is incredibly important.

Like any other individual element of the design, the typeface you plump for will influence the look and feel of your book, but—more importantly—it has a huge bearing on whether your readers can actually read it.

A good choice of typeface will help readers effortlessly move through the pages of your book taking everything in. It'll help express your writing character and the tone of the book, and bring everything together.

Conversely, a poor typeface will make your book incomprehensible and difficult to read. If your reader needs to backtrack and re-read every paragraph, or ends up rubbing their eyes in tired frustration and realising they haven't taken a word in, then it doesn't matter how good your writing is, you'll lose them pretty quickly.

So here's a quick lowdown on typefaces and their characteristics to help you decide which will work best for your book project—both on the insides and on the cover design.

Font or typeface? The words have become pretty interchangeable, but there is a difference, so for nerd appeal, I’ll clarify here:

Typeface: is the alphabet (and all the accompanying characters, symbols etc.) created in a particular style, with its own characteristics.

When we’re talking about “Arial” or “Garamond” we’re talking about a set of letters designed in a specific style—and that's the typeface.

Font: Originally, fonts were the small metal or wooden letters that were hand-assembled into a matrix for printing on a press, but these days the terms is used for the digital file containing and describing all the characters and symbols in the typeface. Logically, each font just gets called by its typeface name—otherwise life would get very confusing. 

Typefaces are grouped into styles, depending on their design features. There are tons of different typeface style classifications—and there are styles used frequently in the cover designs of specific book genres. Look at horror novels, or crime thrillers, and notice the similarities between the typefaces used for the titles in each genre.

I could write an entire book on groups, styles, sub-styles, classification, use, but I’m not a full-blown Typography nerd, and there are many good books already out there. 

To give you an idea of what each typeface style looks like—and where to use it, the following examples are shown in their own style (with their name in brackets afterwards). These are the main style groups that you will come across when designing your book:

This is a serif typeface (Baskerville)

Elegant and great for body text—because in print, serif typefaces have long been regarded as easy to read.

If your book is text heavy and has large passages of unbroken writing, I would generally advise that you use a serif typeface for the main body text of your book, because it's vital to have pages that are easy to read and comprehend. 

The typeface your book is printed in should be inconspicuous in favour of the actual content. If your body text is jarring, complicated, fussy or distracting, your reader will find it difficult to get through your book and they'll rapidly switch-off without comprehending your writing. 

Serif Vs. Sans-Serif Type?

A study of 224 people showed interesting results on the level of comprehension when reading material printed in serif compared with sans-serif type*:

Comprehension Level

Good

Fair

Poor

Serif Type

67 %

19 %

14%

Sans-serif Type

12 %

23 %

65 %

Looking at the results in the table above, it's obvious that readers achieved much better comprehension (and also reported less tired eyes, less backtracking and re-reading) with serif type than sans-serif.  

Baskerville, Garamond, Minion Pro or Palatino are all classic and well-tested serif typefaces for you to investigate.

You can also use serif typefaces successfully on the cover for your titles, but you should keep an eye out for a couple of problems:

  • watch that the serifs (those little tops and tails on the letters) don’t make the letters run together,
  • make sure the typeface creates enough impact (use ‘bold’ or ‘titling’ versions of the letters). 
  • Make sure the spacing between each line (called the leading) is enough to let the text breathe, but not so much that each line is disconnected from the next (2 points higher than the text size is usually a good rule of thumb).

Serif type on earlier digital screens was traditionally harder to read. This is changing though—screen displays are becoming much higher definition, and web versions of serif typefaces are now designed to work more successfully in this context.

This is a sans-serif typeface (Montserrat)

As the name suggests, sans-serif letters don’t have the tops and tails on their characters.

They’re excellent for titling, bold headers, and some cases of body text—usually on the web, as serif typefaces historically didn’t render as well on screen.

Sans-serif typefaces work well in different weights (i.e. how bold or chunky the lettering looks) to create different emphasis, but still keeping a unified look. 

Because of their simplicity and gravitas, they work well on business and entrepreneurial books, factual or how-to books. Books that feature an emphasis on design or images—rather than being text-heavy—often use sans-serif typefaces so the overall design doesn’t look too busy or cluttered.

Gill Sans, Helvetica, Futura and Franklin Gothic are classics, Roboto, Aller and Montserrat are some of the best of the newcomers.  

This is a slab-serif typeface (Sanchez)

Originating from typewriters, slab serif typefaces (often called square serif or Egyptian), with their geometric, block-like appendages (sticky-out bits), project solidity, style and confidence.

As I’m writing this in 2019, slab typefaces have definitely been in fashion over the last few years, and are used extensively as a fresh-looking alternative to serif typefaces. Slab style's evolving number of type designs stand out in the crowded world of advertising and read well both on and offline.

Slab is a versatile typeface style which works well both in print and on the web. Great for big, bold headings. Have a look at Museo Slab, Clarendon, Memphis and Sanchez as examples.

This is a script typeface (Parisienne)

As the name suggests, script typefaces are developed from ornate written script.

Script lettering has energy and movement, and can look elegant and classical—but it needs to be used carefully to look its best. I would advise against using this for any lengthy passages of text—it would become very tiring to read.

If you choose a script typeface for your book cover title, I suggest you use a simple (perhaps sans-serif) typeface for the rest of the cover text to stop it overwhelming the reader.

Script titles need to have careful arrangement and letter spacing to make sure they’re comprehensible to read at a glance. Be aware that some of the ornamentation on capital letters can interfere with other words and make your title difficult to read—especially at thumbnail size or from a distance.

This is a handwritten typeface (Caveat)

There are countless styles of handwritten typefaces—as there are handwriting styles.

Some work really well for titles if they’re clear, legible and you’re careful about how you place the words together, but they can be tricky to use to best effect.

They suggest a personal, creative or ‘arty’ mood, and generally look better used as an accent typeface (e.g. in a subtitle), or used with a name to imply a signature.

Here are a few tips on choosing a typeface for your book (and cover):

  • For book interiors featuring predominantly text, choose a serif typeface for ease of readability and comprehension.
  • Have look through your own bookshelves. Books often have their typefaces printed on the Copyright Page (along with the publishers notes and ISBN—usually at the front of the book), so you should be able to find a few examples of different typefaces in print for you to choose from.
  • Choose a page of your book and print it out at the correct print size in different typefaces to see which is the easiest to read and has a character that fits with your writing. 
  • You can get more creative with your book cover title type—but above all, they should be easy to read and fit the design.
  • Avoid choosing a typeface that’s overly ornate for your cover and titles. It’s heaps more difficult to get looking right without years of design experience, and your reader will struggle to read anything too complicated in that split-second and walk off.
  • Fiction, creative, or children’s books can sometimes stand looking more dramatic or unusual, so play around with different typefaces to see which ones are clear to read.
  • On your cover design, I recommend using a maximum of two different typefaces—any more and your design will look a mess

One last thing about choosing a typeface for your book cover:

In the design industry, there are typefaces that have come to represent the most cheesy, naff extreme of awful design. 

Their over-use (think school posters and pub quiz nights), and just plain bad application inspire horror and ridicule among graphic designers worldwide. I think you’ll recognise at least one: 

There may be a day, in the future, after everyone has forgotten about them, when these typefaces are brought back into fashion by some ‘edgy’ creative (probably a millennial) who wants to have a laugh. Judging by how fashion goes, I’m positive this will be the case.

Until that happens, think very carefully about choosing any of these typefaces in your book cover design. And then please decide against it.

If you take one thing away from this article, it’s this:

Using any of the above typefaces on your book cover will make it look amateurish—they scream 'self-published'. 

There are literally thousands of useful, better designed, more attractive typefaces out there, so use one of those instead.

There is obviously no single answer to a typeface solution on your book cover, as context is a major part of the decision, but if you’re at all in doubt—keep it simple, keep it clear (at full size and at thumbnail size) and try to find a balance in your design. 

Resource List - My go-to font sourcing sites:

Font Squirrel - A fantastic selection of fonts, many with free licencing. Also has a good search facility to narrow them down, or find a specific foundry.

DaFont - Massive choice of fonts and links to their designers. Good for display fonts.

1001 Fonts - Also has a huge choice. Has a handy text preview so you can see your lettering in each font.

FontShop - Good prices and huge range of paid fonts and packages for download. Useful if you're making the investment to buy a font or set of fonts.

Adobe Fonts - Excellent selection of top-quality print and web fonts (included if you have a Creative Cloud subscription).



* From Type & Layout, Colin Wheildon (The Worsley Press)

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I'm on a mission to help self-publishing authors get the pro-level book cover designs they deserve. If you want to learn more about designing your own book, you can check out my blog for more articles and guides. 

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About Julia

Julia Brown

Julia is a motorcycle-riding, cat-herding, food loving artist, illustrator and book designer. She loves food and cooking but then has to run it off at some point later.

She takes great pleasure in making paintings and artwork to sell, and with her design hat on, she helps self-publishing authors get high-end book design and illustration to boost their marketing and help them sell lots of books—all without having to approach big scary design firms.

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