Choosing the right typeface

By Gary Anderson

Posted on Friday, May 27th, 2022

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Which typefaces would you take to a desert island?

Every designer has his or her favorite typefaces—ones that are so useful and so dependable that they continually find their way into the designer’s work. We asked Gary what fonts he would take if he were going to be stranded on a desert island (not that he’d be busy making signs, but he might).

“Cohesion, Times Roman Bold, Palatino Regular, Optima Regular,” he said, “and of course the ability to design custom type!”

There’s an enormous amount of type and an infinite amount of custom-designed type available to the sign designer today. But the choice will always depend on the project at hand, budget, client logotype and, of course, your abilities and personality.

Appropriate type means that the design of the type fits the project. How is the sign to be viewed—will viewers be walking or driving by? Is it historic, professional, corporate, temporary or humorous?

Above all, no matter what type style is chosen, it should fit the project, be easily read and be of good contrast. Many, if not most of the available typefaces, will not perform well on a sign because they were designed for use on the printed page at much smaller sizes than we use them on signs.

Which type to use, and where

There are two categories of typefaces: display and text. Normally display type is bold and used for the client’s name or sometimes the product or service offered. (You may want to emphasize the product or service if their business is new or the product they offer has a readily identifiable image that people know.)

Text typefaces are generally lighter, and often used for secondary copy that describes the business or product. It allows the display type to communicate the gist of the sign without competition from the text type. This contrast makes a sign faster and easier to read.

Making all the type of equal size, weight and color makes for a boring and ineffective sign. Contrasts between size, weight and color adds interest to a sign—unless you over-do it, which will create confusion instead of appeal.

You can use type with little or no distortion, which is probably the most common use of type. But you can also distort type to alter the look and feel. You can also go a step further, customizing type for primary copy to create a totally unique look, taking advantage of the letters in the copy and the characteristics of the type.

Who needs type anyway?

With all this talk about type, it’s important to remember that at one time, type was rarely used on a sign because very few people could read. It was up to the images to deliver the message. That idea can still work today. The Lego suit that I built for the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, for example, was meant to drum up attendance for a Lego display.

So go out there and have a good time with type. Just remember: READABILITY! READABILITY! READABILITY!


Gary Anderson’s studio, Bloomington Design, is in Bloomington, Indiana.

This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of SignCraft.





Stock type—that is, using the type with no distortions—is often used for professional or corporate projects, though not always. Broomcorn Johnny’s, Juls Etc. and Cabin 360 are all examples of stock type.

Customizing standard type will give it uniqueness and appropriateness to many projects. This means adding embellishments, extending or condensing or making it bounce around.

I really love custom-designed type because it is totally unique, given the different subject matters and combinations of letters. This is where ligatures, which is the typographic joining of two letters, can often be used well. They are wonderful to play with, but the same rules of readability apply.

There is always the occasion for a combination of custom and stock type, which is something I do frequently.

Working with a given logotype is always challenging because it can’t be changed or distorted.

Gary Anderson’s shop, Bloomington Design, is in Bloomington, Indiana. Now retired, he has contributed to SignCraft for over 35 years, and authored two books: Signs, Graphics & Other Neat Stuff and More Signs, Graphics & Other Neat Stuff, both published by SignCraft.