Evaluating the quality of a typeface
  This headline is set in Henriette by Typejockeys. Get it on Fontstand for only €6.00/month.

With so many to choose from, students, graphic designers, all users of type have to compare fonts all the time to find the fitting ones for their work. But how should we best do that? Leaving mere taste aside, what are some concrete criteria for good quality typefaces?
This headline is set in Henriette by Typejockeys. Get it on Fontstand for only €6.00/month.

I have long been thinking about ways to better assess the quality of different typefaces – and I hope to expand on some of these ideas and more in this section of the site in the future. Educators and seasoned designers alike will tell you that <veteran voice> “it takes years to see”, but without some pointers what to look out for it can feel really hard to compare and pick fonts.

Some features of “good” fonts:

  • Good technical quality of the drawing/outlines, e.g. continuous curves, even rounds, no bumps or corners where straights enter into curves

  • Even stroke thickness fitting the design of the typeface

  • Related proportions of related characters (n/m/h, b/d/p/q, O/C/G/Q etc.)

  • Similar detailing across characters (treatment of related parts, serifs, bowls, extenders)

  • Optical compensations, e.g. slightly larger rounds, overshoots, thinning of strokes at joints, optical middle, verticals slightly thicker etc.

  • Harmonious spacing that fits the design, i.e. fitting the size of counters, optically even space between all glyphs, not too tight or too loose for the intended size of use

  • Individual spacing adjustment of tricky glyph combinations where needed (= kerning). A high number of kerning pairs does not equal high quality; it may in fact indicate spacing flaws

  • A wordspace that fits proportions of the design. Many low-quality free fonts forget to even set the wordspace.

  • Completeness of character-set for the task and language at hand, e.g. not missing basic symbols, accented characters, ß or œ/æ

  • Well-designed diacritical characters that meet standards of native speakers, e.g. regarding size and position of accents, appropriate [historical] form of diacritics that fit the design

  • Fitting design of auxiliary characters like punctuation, numerals, currency symbols etc. (not just copied over from other fonts)

  • Appropriate vertical dimensions, i.e. no clipping on websites, no overlapping extenders when set solid, not too much line spacing

  • Functioning OpenType features, if included, that follow the OT-specifications

  • Basic, if only automatic, hinting for reasonable rendering on Windows systems

  • Related styles that fit together as a family, share design details and proportions. Just one single weight makes a typeface less useful for more complex design

And then there are, of course, typefaces that are intentionally designed to be weird, wonky, imperfect, distressed, uneven, casual or handmade etc. They are not meant to be evaluated by the same set of technical criteria, but you get the idea.

To conclude, some wisdom from good ol’ Frederic W. Goudy: “If there were an individual, readily recognised quality or characteristic which the type designer could incorporate in drawings that would make any one type more beautiful, legible, or distinguished than another, it is obvious that only type of that kind would be designed.” That would be very sad. So experiment away, with typefaces that work well for a given task, intended idea or are just plain fun.


Some resources:

Underware’s Type Workshop

Diacritics – All you need to design a font with correct accents

The relatively easy way to find out the quality of a Cyrillic typeface

and in a metaphorical sense: Three Things David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” Is Not About

The fonts mentioned in this article are available to rent by the month for a fraction of their retail price on Fontstand.