Whether you need character, elegance or simple utility, these top fonts should help keep your font folder brimming with inspiration.
Renowned Italian designer Massimo Vignelli, creator of the classic American Airlines logo, famously said in 2010 that designers use far too many typefaces - and added that 12 families, carefully chosen and used appropriately, should be more than enough.
His all-purpose toolkit features household names like Garamond, Bodoni, Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Caslon and Baskerville - between them spanning some three centuries of type design history. And few designers would disagree that all of the above are timeless, albeit well-worn classics.
But sometimes something a little different is required of a display face for that extra punch. Sometimes the ubiquitous serifs of Times New Roman just don't quite cut it. And sometimes you come across the familiar challenge of needing something 'like Helvetica, but not Helvetica'. In which case, the following list of top fonts that often get overlooked should really come in handy...
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Okay, so Vignelli already ticked Bodoni off the list - and a beautifully classy Didone-style serif it is too, thanks to the craft skills of Giambattista Bodoni in the late 18th century. But this display version from the 1920s is something extra special for setting large, high-impact type where the extreme contrast between the stem thickness really comes into its own. A top font that's perfect for setting large, high-impact type where the extreme contrast between the stem thickness really comes into its own.
Crafted by legendary Barcelona-based illustrated type supremo Alex Trochut, this D&AD Award-winning display face has outsold the next most successful font in HypeForType's growing library by more than eight to one. Extremely complex, but still effortlessly elegant, this top font is hugely characterful and asking to be used large to show off its fine level of detail.
Designed by Stefan Kjartansson for YouWorkForThem, this utterly unique, quite surreal display font combines simple, ultra-thin lines with bulbous, cloud-like forms to give Cumulus & Foam its tagline, "the most beautifully grotesque font of our time." Although Kjartansson proudly asserts that it doesn't work as a typeface, this top font's "ugly beauty" and "disciplined chaos" can certainly add character to a project.
Available in a huge range of 32 weights, this typeface from Hoefler & Frere-Jones is accordingly extremely versatile - from sleek, contemporary and minimal right through to ultra-chunky, dramatic and bold. As a result, having the pick of the Knockout family gives you the option to blend several distinctive styles within one cohesive design, or go all-out for one bold statement.
When you're looking for a great stencil font that's beautifully designed and not in the least bit cheap-looking or gimmicky, this House Industries favourite should be your first port of call. This top font is part of the broader Eames family, developed in homage to the late great Charles and Ray Eames - which comes in its own bespoke wooden packaging. The curves in the stencil font were inspired by the curvature of bent plywood.
This Bodoni alternative was also developed in the late 18th century, and the mutual influence between the two contemporaries is apparent. Both share characteristic sharp, seductive serifs and harsh angles, but with more space allowed for its counterweight, Didot feels like a slimmer version of Bodoni. This top font is great for adding a classic, timeless elegance to your work.
While its unconventional name may raise a few eyebrows, Emigre's versatile serif, designed by Zuzana Licko in 1996, is a subtle modern interpretation of the work of legendary 18th century type pioneer John Baskerville, and named after Sarah Eaves, the housekeeper who would become his wife. You may recognise it from its use in the WordPress logotype.
A 20th century revival of an old-style serif originally cut by Francesco Griffo in the late 15th century, Bembo was reborn under the Monotype label in 1929. Widely considered a great typeface for setting book copy, this top font is generally best used to express traditional, formal beauty, and is particularly notable for its stylish italic ampersand.
Designed by Stephenson Blake, this relatively new, modern serif is excellent typographical shorthand for quality and refinement. Designed by Edward Benguiat for Bitstream, it's perfect for adding class to titles the world over, but there's no better testimonial than the fact it's been employed for world-renowned design agency Pentagram's logotype.
One of a growing number of modern fonts earmarked as particularly effective for use on screen - particularly for apps and websites - Jan Fromm's Rooney typeface has a friendly feel, without ever being too cheap and cheerful. The subtle rounded serifs and terminals of this top font add personality and impact when used large, as well as having a softening effect when set in smaller sizes. It's available in six weights.
SANS SERIF FONTS
Although based on the root typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk - the late 19th century precursor to Helvetica, and indeed all modern sans serifs - this rounded version from Berthold has a considerably softer, more informal feel, generous spacing and large x-height, all of which combine to make it well-suited to easy reading in children's books and advertising.
Originally designed in 1903, redrawn in 1980 and finally updated in 1991, Franklin Gothic (or Grotesque in the US) can boast a broad range of weights to suit print, web and other purposes. Although it fell out of favour for a brief period in the 1930s after the introduction of European faces such as Futura, Franklin soon regained and maintained its popularity in the States, and is today a shoo-in for our list of top fonts.
The obligatory Helvetica alternative, developed by Dutch foundry ARS Type, with plenty of width and a generous x-height to ensure legibility and a friendly, open feel. ARS Maquette is something of a workhorse for designers working with text-heavy publications - while it's simple enough to be timeless, its little details ensure that just enough character shines through.
Canada Type's original intention with this extensive redesign of Edel Gothic/Grotesque was to update, enhance and adapt the early 20th century typeface for use on digital platforms. Accordingly, Wagner Condensed is particularly well-suited to screen use, although its impact and legibility ensure it works hard on posters and in headlines too.
A favourite among designers and an obvious choice for our list of top fonts, Hermes is available in a large range of weights and styles. In 1995, Font Bureau's Matthew Butterick updated an original German design from 1908 - maintaining the blunt corners that once signified wear and tear from the heavy industrial presses, but are now a distinctive characteristic of the modern Hermes typeface as we know it.
Unexpected flourishes on certain characters give Cadson Demak's appealing slab serif something of a dual personality. This top font work hard as a legible text face, but used large enough, the sweeping descenders on the 'K', 'Q' and 'R' provide just the level of detail it needs to feel special enough to carry a headline.
Besides Cumulus & Foam, this is Stefan Kjartansson's other major claim to fame - the headline-stealing, self-proclaimed "heaviest typeface in the world", with slivers of white space in between ultra-chunky geometric letterforms. Suffice to say, this one doesn't function at any size below monster - but then if you use it, you'll want it to roar.
Designed by Terminal Design's James Montalbano with the goal of being unique but still highly legible, Enclave boasts thick, chunky slab serifs that are nonetheless softened and subtly rounded to take some of the harsh edge off, and warmth, and stop it looking too much like a typewriter font. Another top font that works equally well large or as a text face.
Based on Clarendon - one of the first and arguably most defining examples of a slab serif typeface, released in 1845 - Hoefler & Frere-Jones' 'slab serif that works' overcomes many of the shortcomings of a traditional slab by integrating a broad range of weights, and carefully-designed italics, to ensure true versatility without compromising on style. This top font was recently seen in President Obama's 2012 campaign messaging.
One of the best-known examples of the slab serif genre, Rockwell demonstrates what strong, thick, edgy serifs, bold shapes and opposing curves can do to add clout and impact to a typeface. This top font is effective in capitals for a statement headline piece, but also features beautiful lower case forms for more versatile uses.
Words: Nick Carson
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Do you have big love for a widely underrated font? Tell us about your own top fonts in the comments below!