Finishing out our brief look at type systems, we’re going to talk about what to choose.
The short answer is: anything that works. The slightly longer answer, and I’m sure this doesn’t comfort you much, but just pick something and go with it.
I’ve known designers that only use one type face and just make everything else fit that. And it worked! Most clients don’t notice or care – they see words and letters. Having only one, legible, multi-purpose typeface makes a lot of sense. You can cut down on cognitive load on a page (how much information a person has to process), and it would keep costs down, and in theory improve site performance. It’s drawbacks are obvious too – it’s probably too limiting for all cases and all of your work will eventually feel the same.
I’ve known designers (and I would fall more into this category) that needed to seriously be restrained from trying too many options because, well, there are thousands of great options out there. And that can work too! After all, if we believe that every project should be specific to the project, then we ought to try to pick the appropriate solution for that project.
And then, there are some designers (very famous and important designers) that stake out a middle ground: they have a family of favorites that they’ve found are applicable to just about everything. Massimo Vignelli loved Helvetica as his sans-serif and Bodoni as his serif, and rarely deviated from those. Jason Santa Maria (who literally wrote the book on web typography) recommends that approach as well. If it’s good enough for those two, it’s good enough for you.
If you’re trying to come up with a suitable family, it’s a good idea to have at least one and no more than three typefaces per basic category. This will give you some flexibility but also quickly constrain venturing off into crazy land.
A sample family might be something like this:
Sans Serifs: Futura, FF Meta Sans
Serifs: FF Meta, Caslon
Slab Serifs: Sentinel, Clarendon
Humanist Sans: Whitney
Coming up with different use cases is actually easier when you’re purposefully constrained, and it’s not as if there aren’t thousands of varying applications and permutations of the list above, or any similarly constructed list.
The bottom line is that the web is still, essentially, a reading interface. This means that we need to choose how we display text to be read with care, and that requires a well thought out type system.