by Charles Maurer
If you want to minimize fiddling with fonts, write in Hoefler Text. This is the best all-purpose font for text. It is easier to read than most fonts on the screen, it is highly legible on paper, and its proportions suit almost any layout.
To maximize the impact of a finished product, use:
If a layouts calls for a contrasting font for headlines, footnotes and/or small blocks of text in boxes or side-bars, use Optima with Hoefler Text and Helvetica Neue with Times New Roman.Details
Fonts used to be cast in foundries and sold by foundries; today, although they work exclusively with computers, font houses are still called foundries. Linotype (inventors of the typesetting machine) and Monotype are the two largest foundries. They produce four of the five fonts above. Here is more information on those fonts and on the ubiquitous Arial/Helvetica:
Times, Times Roman, Times New Roman. In 1931-32, Stanley Morrison, an historian of type, worked with the commercial artist Victor Lardent to design a new font for The Times of London. The old font was named Times Old Roman so the new one became Times New Roman. In North America the "New" was dropped and Apple dropped the "Roman" as well. The basic model for the font was a page by a 16th-century Dutch printer but Morrison and Lardent enhanced it with detail and subtleties that could be provided by what was then the latest technnology (and is now consigned to museums). The font was designed to be economical of space and maximally legible in columns. Its fine serifs required better newsprint than the North American norm, so it never became popular in newspapers here (except during the Second World War, when it was used to conserve paper), but it is often used in magazines. Every type foundry makes a version. Times comes via Apple from Linotype, Times New Roman comes via Microsoft from Monotype. The differences in appearance are trivial but Times New Roman is a unicode font with extra characters.
Century Schoolbook. Designed in 1918-21 by a prolific and methodical American typographer named Morris Benton. Benton designed the font for elementary-school textbooks and took a great deal of care to make it as legible as possible. For lines of text spanning a page (not crammed into columns), nothing is clearer. It is ideal for academic papers. However, it is sufficiently redolent of school that it is may not be appropriate elsewhere. Several foundries produce it now.
Hoefler Text. Commissioned by Apple in 1992 from a promising New York typographer named Jonathan Hoefler, who was only 21 years old at the time. It is, as Hoefler says, "Steeped in the virtues of classical book typography." It is, indeed, old-fashioned and formal. It is also strong and a touch youthful or eccentric (take your pick), the typographical equivalent of a well-tailored, dark, pin-striped business suit with a scarlet bow tie. It has enough formality, enough finesse and enough panache to be suitable for almost anything, and its proportions permit it to be legible no matter how it is used.
Optima. Even before the Romans, many of what became the Roman letters we use had their lines finish with short crosswise serifs, which make a letter look finished when carved in stone. Searching for efficiency in the industrial age, typographers began to remove them, but they called such fonts "grotesques" and used them only for utilitarian purposes, because not until the 1930's did the Bauhaus begin to convince people that stark simplicity might be beautiful. Since the Bauhaus, advertisements have been able to attract positive attention with grotesques but the aesthetic theories of the avante garde have been unable to convince readers' eyes that sans-serif letters are legible when massed as text. It is not just an accident of history that serifs have been applied to letterforms for 2500 years and that nearly all books and magazines are still printed in fonts with serifs, even books about the Bauhaus. The few exceptions tend to be unread works by graphic designers making some kind of statement.
In the early 1950's, a Swiss type designer named Herman Zapf felt the call of modernity. "The type of today and tomorrow will hardly be a faithful recutting of a 16th century roman of the Renaissance," he said. On the other hand, Zapf was sophisticated enough to continue, "Nor will it be a sans-serif of the 19th century." Zapf had a deep knowledge of classical typography and its sources, and he applied that knowledge to the problem of making a sans-serif font. It took him six years but the result was a sans-serif font that nobody would call grotesque. It looks modern, it is modestly elegant, and—perhaps unique among sans-serif fonts—it can be used to set text without guaranteeing that the text will be unread. The original font was compromised aesthetically so that it could be cast in lead. Apple supply this version with Macintoshes. Linotype have recently reworked it in light of digital technology and sell the new version as Optima Nova.
Gill Sans. Eric Gill apprenticed to an architect in London, studied calligraphy, and worked (in self-sufficient religious communities that he set up) as sculptor, wood-engraver, and type designer. He also wrote prodigiously and became a devout Catholic. He designed his first typeface, the classical and now classic Perpetua, for Stanley Morison, for a private printing of a medieval story of a saint, "The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity." In 1928, working for Monotype, he designed a sans-serif type face for the North Eastern Railway. According to Linotype, who make it now, it was "used for all signs, advertising and timetables." The face looks modern but it was not designed with a straight edge and compass, it draws on the proportions of humanist lettering of the Renaissance. Those proportions leave the font sufficiently easy on the eye that despite its lack of serifs, it is acceptable for short runs of text. Monotype never offered Gill Sans for sale in America but it rapidly became the most popular sans-serif font in the U.K.Apple supply it on Macintoshes.
Arial, Helvetica & Helvetica Neue. Max Miedinger trained as a typesetter in Zurich, worked for 10 years setting ads in a department store, then spent another 10 years flogging typefaces for the Swiss Haas foundry, which was part of an interrelated set of companies including Stempel and Linotype. In 1956 Hass hired Miedinger to produce a mundane sans-serif typeface to be named after the foundry, Haas Grotesque. In 1960 the name was changed to Helvetica: thus did Dominion Stores' House Salad Dressing become President's Choice Vinaigrette. To market the new type, Linotype modified the letters to suit their machines and brought out new weights frequently without bothering to co-ordinate them. In the words of Linotype, who have since absorbed Haas and Stempel, "It has become one of the most famous and popular typefaces in the world, thanks to the marketing strategy."
Thanks to the marketing strategy, not to any peculiar virtue. Helvetica is the typographical equivalent of a high-rise apartment block, boring but serviceable and built in every breadth and height. By sticking to Helvetica, a commercial printer can lay out a lot of ads in a day. None of them will look distinguished and none of them will be particularly legible (especially if they incorporate paragraphs of text), but they will all look as respectable as the ad next door.
By the 1980s Helvetica had become so commonplace that it was expected to be built into printers. For some years IBM licensed Helvetica for their printers but they tired of paying the license fees. Instead they decided to hire Monotype to design a substitute that would occupy the same space on the page and look similar enough that most people would not notice the difference. The substitute they named "Sonoran Sans." In the early 1990s, Microsoft distributed Helvetica without permission and found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit. To escape the suit, Microsoft licensed Monotype's knock-off and distributed it instead, renaming it Arial. Monotype have since spent a lot of work cleaning up the version that appears on the screen—originally they had made it just for printers—but meanwhile, Linotype completely reworked and improved their original, removing the adaptations for typesetting machines and co-ordinating the weights. That is Helvetica Neue. If you must use Helvetica/Arial, Helvetica Neue is the best version.