Think Small: Using Display Fonts at Text Sizes
In Part I we looked at when, where and how to use text fonts at display sizes. This time we’ll look at the flip side of the same coin: using display fonts at text sizes.
As discussed in Part I, today’s typefaces are usually created with a particular size range in mind. Display faces, which are designed to work best in larger settings, can sometimes (but not always) be used successfully in smaller sizes. Here are some guidelines that will help you achieve the best results:
- Do a legibility check. Display designs often have strong personalities, meant to shout rather than whisper. In smaller sizes, though, these look-at-me design features can sometimes wreak havoc with legibility. Test-drive the typeface at the size at which you plan to use it, and do a legibility check before committing.
- Examine the design details. Not all display designs shout. In fact, some have thin, delicate strokes and serifs, or small, tight counters that look tasteful and refined at large sizes. But beware: the same features that exude elegance at display sizes can break up, disappear, or fill in when reduced and printed. Once again, examine the design closely at the size you need before taking the plunge, and pay special attention to serifs, thin strokes and counters.
- Open the spacing. As discussed in Part 1, letter spacing and word spacing optically change with scale. In practice, this means display designs generally look too tight at small sizes. To compensate, first set your type at the size you need, and then open the tracking as necessary. (Note: don’t open up the spacing of connecting scripts! They’re supposed to do just that – connect.)
- Size, track, and kern, in that order. After you’ve selected the size and adjusted the tracking, there’s one more step: revisit and tweak the kerning as needed.
Bear in mind that not every display font will be a good choice for text-sized treatment. Be especially cautious with formal scripts and calligraphic fonts, which vary in their ability to survive “downsizing.” Many lose readability at small sizes, with design features that grow busier and fussier the smaller they get.
Similarly, connecting scripts can be problematic at small sizes: the “shrinking” process can make them look tight and lose readability, and their spacing can’t be opened up to compensate. Proceed with extreme caution.
The key to making the transition from large to small is to engage both your brain and your eye in making an intelligent decision. Be sure to create and print out samples in the specific sizes and typefaces you’re considering before making your final font selections. In short: always look before you take a typographic leap!
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- Editor’s Note: Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 3rd edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.