Mastering the Emotional Impact of Fonts

With more than 5,000 typefaces available today, you could spend weeks trying to come up with the perfect one for your project. But who has that kind of time?

Fortunately, with a little planning, you can pick the right one in a matter of minutes. Here's a quick tutorial to help make it easier.

Consider the Emotional Impact You Want

Part of the function of a typeface is to make an emotional impression on the viewer. It does this at both the conscious and subconscious level. So when you choose a typeface, consider the effect it may have upon your design and upon other typefaces that will be combined with it. Just as important, consider the psychological effect it will have on your viewer.

The width of a letter's basic stroke and its relation to interior spaces and letter height create narrow or wide, thick or thin letters. The direction of the basic strokes and connections between them create round, soft, flourished, tight, pointed, hard, or stiff impressions.

When you put them all together, you get a stroke rhythm that can be smooth, flowing, intense, swinging, rigid, controlled, or monotonous. And that rhythm conveys a feeling to the viewer that might be forceful, energetic, elegant, youthful, formal, casual, restrained, inhibited, or obstructed.

For example, Apple Butter (see a sample at is a serif typeface with strokes that lean slightly to the left and curved serifs that give it a “down home” feel. You might use it for a café menu.

Bradley Gratis ( resembles Old English type. You might use it on the cover of a historical novel.

And CAC Champagne (, a simple, clean script, would work beautifully in a wedding brochure.

You'll also find that, even among similar typefaces, there are great contrasts – created by stroke widths and proportions. These contrasts can make the text appear airy and light, thin and dim, or heavy and dark.

Times Roman, Georgia, and Rockwell are all serif typefaces. But their differences in stroke width and internal spacing make very different impressions on the viewer.

Georgia ( is open with broad curves and higher “x” heights, giving it a softer, more feminine feeling. Rockwell ( is heavy and dark, rather masculine, with very square serifs (called slab serifs), giving it a forceful feeling. And Times ( falls in the middle, between the two.

Serif or Sans Serif?

In general, consider serif faces for a subdued, formal, or serious look. Use sans serif fonts for a crisper, bolder, or more informal tone.

However, if you're specifying type for an extended run of text, keep in mind that serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif fonts. The serifs help tie the letters together visually and make it easier for the reader's eyes to scan across and down a page.

Save script fonts and fancy fonts for creating very specific effects. And use them only for a limited amount of text. They are hard to read and will interfere with your reader's ability to understand the copy. When you're working with marketing copy, this means reduced sales … not what you want!

Creativity Is Fine, Except …

As the designer, your personality, temperament, taste, imagination, and creativity will influence your choice of typeface to a certain extent. But never try to be “original at all costs.” Some tasks require great restraint.

Designs for direct marketing and product packaging call for you to lay aside your artistic preferences in favor of whatever does the best job of selling. This means listening closely to the client's suggestions and studying what's worked for them in the past. You also want to study the successful promotional packages of competitors to see what's worked for them.

This doesn't mean giving up all input and creativity. New fonts for an existing promotion (with other tweaks and adjustments) can revitalize a sagging package. But make those changes within constraints set by the prospect's emotions that you're trying to hit, the client's needs, and the principles you're learning in the Graphic Design Success Program.

One More Important Consideration

Unless you're designing a circus poster – or trying to capture the feel of one – do not use more than 2 (absolute limit of 3) different font families in one layout. If you do, your design becomes untidy, difficult to read, and looks like the work of an amateur.

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Published: May 18, 2006

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