Oct 21 | 2017
How to Choose Amazing Fonts

I’m James Van Niekerk, and I’ve been a Graphic Designer for 10+ years. I’ve been working on my own game, and getting involved with the vast online community of game designers, and I’ve noticed that most of them don’t have a background in Graphic Design. Since their role often involves concocting intuitive graphics, I see that many Designers out there could benefit from some intro-to-Graphic-Design content to learn about! And with that I introduce that this as the first of many posts I’ll write about Graphic Design!

The next few posts are going to be about Fonts! I’ve seen many people share their card layouts on Reddit and Facebook for feedback and my first comment is most often about their fonts, so I decided this would be a good starting point.

First, let’s dispel the myth that good fonts should be free

Many people feel like a font is something that should be free, BUT, you get what you pay for! If you’re limiting yourself to system fonts or bottom of the barrel dafont.com fonts, you are going to need a keen eye to make sure you maintain a professional look for your design. There are certainly good free options out there, but I would encourage you to be open to a budget of $100 bucks for your project to buy some great fonts, you may not need it all, but it will go a long way.

What makes a font good?

Understanding what font is best will depend on its application. For me, I usually look at fonts for serving two main purposes in a design,

Display fonts:
Chosen for their boldness, style and flavour to make your short headlines striking

Body fonts:
Chosen for their legibility. They must read clearly in big paragraphs, and then as a bonus, they hopefully stylistically compliment your display font

I find it is only in rare cases that I will choose the same font for both my Display and Body fonts. Only the really good fonts have that sort of range, and it tends to be more interesting to use two anyways! That said, I will place a caveat here to say that I rarely use more than 2 fonts in a project ever. Any more than two and you venture into a font-soup situation, and nobody likes a font soup… If you find you need more variation in your fonts than just display and body, that’s where making use of a single font’s range of font-weights becomes important.

Here are examples that illustrate the difference between display & body fonts:

You can see with this last example, that using a detailed Display font as a Body causes problems with legibility. These fonts are designed for headlines and aren’t intended to fill out huge blocks of copy. This leads into my next heading:

When does a font suck?

Maybe this goes without saying, but a font is not a graphic. Its primary purpose is for legibility. If it can also convey a theme that’s a secondary bonus. If I am making a game about pirates, I want to find a display font that evokes that theme, but be wary of going too far! You can find loads of fonts that replace your strokes with bones and O’s with jolly rogers, but to put it plainly, this is not good. You will never see this done in professional graphic design!

If I am looking for a font that evokes a pirate theme, I will want it to feel like it was written in that era, or I want to see that subtle elements of the font make me think of something from the theme, like perhaps sharp corners that remind me of a cutlass or weathered lettering that looks like a treasure map (just don’t use cliche system fonts like papyrus).

Most importantly though, I need it to be clear, tasteful and bold typography.

So How do I search for fonts?

It’s harder to find the subtly appropriate font for your project. Simply searching pirates on a font site is gonna come up with the cheesy results first, so you’ll need to search a few keywords and scroll through a lot of options if you want to find the perfect candidate. There is a large degree of taste involved with choosing any font, and depending on the application my advice would change, but here’s a few tricks I use when browsing for fonts:

The main resources I use when searching fonts are:

  • go to fontsquirrel.com (It is a free font site that is hand curated by designers, and tends to cut the chaff of tasteless fonts that other free font sites are polluted with)
  • or go to myfonts.com. It isn’t free, but the quality here is very good, and their catalogue is immense! One thing I love about their site is that they create an endless wall of fonts to scroll through based on your search results. Most fonts can be purchased for under $50. In the grand scheme of your project, this is a nominal fee, and I feel can make a big difference! If choosing a font feels overwhelming, browse their hot new fonts or top sellers tab (which will reliably have fonts that anyone can appreciate).
  • Lastly, I am going to be working next on a few more posts regarding fonts, and a few that will cover common themes we see in board games, and list a bunch of cool fonts I might use if I was working within that theme. So you can subscribe to this blog RSS to stay tuned!

Here are a few tips to consider when choosing your fonts:

  • Start by finding your Display font. This font tends to pull the weight of establishing the theme for the project. You can get more out there with its style because it doesn’t need to focus so heavily on legibility, as we are only going to use it only for short segments of text.
  • Be aware of your audience and the associations a font can carry. Some fonts are really playful and will tell your viewer this is an approachable game, some are more regal or intricate, and might suggest that your game is more complicated or mature.
  • An added bonus is if a font has a lot of weights available, as you’ll often find it handy to have an extra bold or light font-weight when you need it.
  • Look out for fonts that have no lowercase letters. These might work for your project, but just be wary that they are somewhat limited in their use.

A Playful Font Combo

A More Serious Font Combo

Then I will choose a Body Font. If my Display font has serifs, or rounded corners, I will try to find a font that matches, but since it’s a body font I have to put it to the 10 point type paragraph test to make sure I am happy with it, and its clarity!

As I’m searching for the two fonts I just mentioned, I’ll type some dummy text into the panagrams field on the website I’m using and start searching. Anytime I find a font that looks like a candidate, I’ll open it into a new tab in the background and keep on searching. Then I go through all my tabs, and save each font I liked out to my computer and throw those all onto one page, which I call a moodboard, so that I can compare them easily and see how they mix and match. Here’s where I’ll narrow down to my favourite Display and Body options that work well with each other!

Example moodboard from Minions of Mordak

Now you can take your favourite picks from the moodboard and try those out in context, be it on a test card, or in your rulebook, logo, what have you. The more you can test and prove out the font the more confident you can be that it’s the right fit for your game before you buy it. Look out for some fonts which have demo versions available, as a great way to test it across your game.

Closing Thoughts

So that should give you some bearing on a process for selecting fonts! I’m in the process of writing some rules and tips for using them effectively, which is equally important. I’ll be posting that coming this coming week, so be sure to subscribe to stay notified.

This is the start of a new series for me. I’d really appreciate a shout out if you found this useful or feedback in the comments if you found it could have been more clear. It will help me to know that this is a useful tool for the community!

Thanks for reading!

  • Chris Backe

    Nice post. The rule about the display / headline font being either serif or sans serif (with the body text being the other one) works on websites, but not as well on cards.

    Among other sites, I’d highly recommend the following:
    1001freefonts.com (lots of free fonts, many allow commercial use)
    google.com/fonts (hundreds of curated open source fonts)
    mightydeals.com (font packages with commercial licenses for one price – I’ve seen anywhere from $9 to $27.

    As size goes, anything bigger than 8pt is fine.

    • JamesVanNiekerk

      Nice, good points Chris, and thanks for adding the font site links to the resources here!