Selecting Typefaces for Body Text
This article was originally published on Typekit Practice on September 04, 2014.
Body text refers to the majority of text in a composition. Its job is to be steady so that other things—like wayfinding signals and eye-catching headings—can stand out. Body text is most successful when it is unobtrusive, yet its tone can inspire the expressive qualities of other elements and the composition as a whole.
When we choose typefaces for body text, we consider many things. Does the family have enough weights and styles for the text we’re typesetting (for example, are there italic and bold variations)? Is the typeface prepared for the medium in which the text will live? Is the typeface’s history and culture harmonious with the subject matter of the text? Will readers find the typeface agreeable for the kind of reading the text invites?
All of those considerations help us decide on typefaces that are appropriate for a given project. But more objectively, identifying good body text typefaces means looking for three things: sturdy shapes, even color, and an active texture. Let’s practice looking for these things.
Typefaces made for body text use are designed to be easily and comfortably read at small sizes, so their glyph shapes are intentionally subtle and sturdy. Look for typefaces with high x-heights and few frills. Distinctive glyphs are distracting, and delicate shapes can be lost at small sizes due to the coarseness of rendering environments. Small x-heights are a problem for body text, because they draw too much attention to capitals and extenders.
Body text typefaces are designed for evenness of color—meaning typographic color, the overall gray value of the text. Sometimes it helps to squint at a text block to zero in on this gray value. Whether the color is lighter or darker doesn’t matter as long as it feels consistent and pleasant. Avoid typefaces that show patches of dense blackness or whiteness, which are often the result of specific character shapes and combinations.
Texture is the apparent visual activity of a text block, mostly the result of the typeface’s contrast (the variety of stroke thicknesses that make up its glyphs) and the distribution of white space in and around glyphs. Good body text typefaces have an active texture that is not too lively and not too dull. Lively textures make reading strenuous because they attract too much attention, and dull textures make reading tough because they don’t help our eyes differentiate shapes.
Texture is also influenced by aspects of the typesetting, particularly line height and word spacing. Whereas we can identify fonts with sturdy shapes and even color, achieving an active texture is more about finding a balance among many aspects of the type and text block.
Judge in context
Reevaluate your decisions about shape sturdiness, color evenness, and texture activity in every context you care about, wherever your typeset text may live. Sturdy shapes that look fine at low resolution may look clunky at high resolution. Color and texture that seem even and active on a Mac may not feel the same on an Android tablet.
Choosing typefaces for body text doesn’t necessarily mean deciding on a single typeface. The same typeface may not work in all contexts you care about. You may need to choose several typefaces for different contexts: narrow measures, high resolution, low bandwidth. These should all be factors in your judgment.
Now it’s time to practice. Browse fonts at Typekit.com and evaluate their shapes, colors, and textures. Choose a typeface—say, Brandon Grotesque or Alverata PE—and study its web font specimen (see “Open expanded Web Font Specimen” in the Specimens tab), or paste text into the Type Tester. Also study fonts recommended for paragraph use, and fonts on the good for longform list. How do the fonts you find compare to the ones we’ve reviewed in this lesson?
Talk with others about the typefaces you study. When we evaluate typefaces, there are both objective and subjective aspects of our observations. It helps to have different perspectives on type, especially in the context of a specific design challenge. Feel free to share your thoughts with the Typekit team, too.