TypeTalk: Text Fonts versus Display Fonts

TypeTalk is a regular blog on typography. Post your questions and comments by clicking on the Comments icon above. If Ilene answers your question in the blog, you’ll receive one Official Creativepro.com T-Shirt!
Q. How can I tell the difference between a text font and a display font? Are there any rules for their use?
A. The bad news is there is no easy, automatic way to tell if a typeface was originally intended for text or display usage. But the good news is no matter what their intended usage, many fonts can be used for both.
Let’s start from the beginning. There are two primary categories of type: text and display. In general, text type is designed to be legible and readable at small sizes. This usually implies fairly clean, consistent, uncomplicated design features; more open spacing than a display face; and thin strokes that hold up at smaller sizes. Display type, on the other hand, can forgo the extreme legibility and readability needed for long blocks of text at small sizes for a stronger personality, elaborate and more expressive shapes, and a more stylish look.
Sometimes they’re interchangeable, but not always. Typefaces look different depending on the size at which you view them. Spacing, proportions, and design details change optically. A text face used at large sizes can sometimes look clunky, heavy, and unattractive, and the spacing looks too open. On the other hand, display designs used at small sizes can have design features that break up, disappear, or fill in when viewed small; become less readable; and look too tight.
To avoid unwanted surprises when choosing a typeface, always try to see how it looks at the size(s) you plan on using. It’s very difficult to visualize what 14-point text will look like from a 60-point showing, and vice versa. In addition, pay close attention to the spacing, and be prepared to open or close the spacing (tracking) as necessary.
Compare and Contrast:
1. This setting of ITC Bradley Hand looks very natural at the smaller, handwriting size, but looks clunky and unremarkable when set large.
2. ITC Aftershock is dramatic and powerful at display sizes, but its details get muddy and blurred at smaller sizes.
3 and 4. ITC Garamond Condensed and Mark Simonson’s Coquette look great at any size.

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer, and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally.
  • sharonc says:

    How can I create my own font? What program is best to use?

  • Terri Stone says:

    Hi there,

    Great topic! But many more people will see your question and have the chance to respond if you post it in the Fonts and Typesetting forum: https://creativepro.com/forum/61

    Would you mind starting a new forum topic at https://creativepro.com/forum/61 ?

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  • tphinney says:

    I’m surprised to see this piece without some mention and explanation of type families that have fonts cut for different optical sizes. At Adobe, most of our original text fonts are designed and issues this way.

    for more info.



  • Anonymous says:

    Is there a good font which can be used to display the info in a scroll box ?

  • Bob Versheck says:

    Some thoughts on text vs display. Certainly some typefaces are better for use in small point sizes. That said, the same typeface can have design differences in text or display versions. The text version of a typeface might have slightly exaggerated tips on the corners of its ascenders and descendents, little extra points. It might also have extended little cuts on the internal angles, like the internal peaks on a capital M. This is was done to allow for “ink spread”, as the ink would fill the cuts keeping the character “sharp” and prevent printed corners of characters from rounding out. Same with toner spread. Very few typefaces being designed for computer use are taking “spread” into account. If you see a typeface used at a large point size that shows the extra points and cuts, it was designed for text use. Now, with the ability to expand a base typeface to virtually any point size, less attention is paid. Even on an electronic display, “pixel spread” can blur details of a display version of a typeface when reduced to a tiny point size.
    OK… Second, a pet peeve of mine. The word “font” has lost its meaning and is used in place of typeface. Times New Roman or Bodoni or Arial are typefaces, not fonts. Bodoni 12 point is a font, a 12 point font. Font means a collection of characters of a given typeface for particular point size. The concept has been lost… One designs a typeface, not a font (thanks Microsoft!). Just the frustration of an old typographic, I guess.

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