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“Elementary, my dear Fontson”: A study in display fonts

So, I’m buried up to my neck at North Shore Beach in Skegness. Left for dead by some weirdo who calls himself Professor Moriarty or something daft. I always suspected it would end like this.

As the tide creeps nearer, I take a deep breath and have just one final thought:

“You know that article I read last week about ‘the 10 BEST display fonts to use in 2023’ – best isn’t really the right word, is it?”

Surely the “best” one is the font that:

  • Is appropriate for the specific task at hand
  • That’s it, that’s the only thing it should be.

Am I wrong? Are some display fonts inherently better than the others?

There’s only one way to find out, my friend – grab that plastic spade over there and dig me out at once! Let’s fashion long capes out of stolen beach towels and stomp about while we solve this mystery.

I’m going to attempt to smoke tobacco out of an old kettle, and I want you to develop a really thick neck, grow a tiny moustache and say eye-rollingly cringy things like “I’m an army doctor, which means I could break every bone in your body while naming them”.

Come on Dr Fontson, we have a murder to commit and then solve!

What is a display font?

It simply means a font intended to show small quantities of text at a large size.

This means it would be unsuitable for use as body copy, which generally shows large quantities of text set at a small size.

It’s useful to think of the scenarios a display font would be used:

  • Posters / leaflets / adverts
  • Hero statements on websites
  • Signage
  • Content thumbnails
  • Music / film covers
  • Packaging

Places where text is limited and needs to work extra hard to tell a story.

Are you a display font?

Hmm, you don’t sound like one. But fear not, I’ve apparently decided that I’m a detective, and I have a display font tester right here with me now. It’s in the patrol car, which definitely isn’t just an old wheelbarrow with some Christmas tree lights sellotaped onto the side.

You just need to blow into the tester until you hear the beep. It measures you on five key metrics, so stop swaying from side to side and let’s see what it says.

1. Do you tell a story?

Your very purpose is to provide an immediate visual context, or at least reinforce a feeling. Look at this flyer for my upcoming rodeo:

We spot the wonderfully embellished, condensed lettering and we know that it equals yee-haws and spitting into a bucket.

I said “spitting”. You dirty thing.

2. Are you a good team player?

I recently went on a Tilda Swinton film binge with my wife.

Tilda Swinton is a display font. She stands out among the rest of any cast she works with, but she also complements them. She doesn’t compete. The ultimate team player.

If you command attention and then use that to elevate the whole team, you might just be a display font.

Keep blowing, we haven’t heard a beep yet.

3. Is your wardrobe massive?

We want options. We need costume changes. Those red plastic visors from the ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ music video. Give me all of them.

A good display font has plenty of alternative characters. We’re talking glyphs, swashes and ligatures.

Take this letter T for example. Mighty fine.

But let’s see what alternate characters we have:

What a costume change! They’re not always this dramatic and curly-wurly, but they are useful when you want to embellish lettering and balance out blank space in a layout.

4. Are you versatile enough?

As we’ve seen above, it’s useful to have extra characters, but it’s vital that we have enough.

I regularly find a display font that is perfect for a layout, but doesn’t have enough punctuation marks, glyphs, or a number set.

Now and then it’s worth pushing through, and manually creating any missing glyphs. But for the most part, I’ll take a font with a large, versatile set of characters.

5. Have you been overused?

There are a handful of fonts that have been churned out one too many times. Take Lobster as an example:

It’s perfectly fine as a display font. There are plenty of glyphs, it has tons of character. A little sprinkling of retro vibes too.

But because it’s been used so many times, for everything ever, it has been rendered powerless.

Keep a look out for it. Independent cafes, Etsy shops, bistros and bars are notorious for using it in their logos. I saw it on the side of a tram in Leicester once, advertising a £4 day ticket. And also everywhere, ever – did I mention that bit?

I’m a firm believer of the whole “nothing is original” notion. Everything is a remix. But for certain display fonts, the damage has been done.

Okay, you can stop reciting the alphabet backwards now, I think we have our answer. You’re either going to jail or getting set free. I forget what the green light means.

The many flavours of display fonts

There isn’t a rigid, official number of categories that display fonts fall into.

Depending on where you buy your fonts from, they tend to get grouped into broad genres such as:

  • Slab / wedge serif
  • Fat Face
  • Western
  • Script & brush
  • Art Nouveau & Deco
  • Blackletter
  • Inline
  • Stencil

I wrote this piece a while ago that shows some of the differences between them.

To demonstrate the inconsistencies with how fonts are grouped, look at how some of the biggest providers sort them:

What does this tell us? That we need to think beyond these categories. Some of the most useful display fonts I’ve stumbled across aren’t as easily labelled as the rootin’-tootin’ options you’ll find in the Western section.

Tips for using display fonts

Less is more

The whole point of a display font is to elevate your design and make a theme or phrase prominent.

This often means showing restraint. The urge is often there to set every piece of text in the layout to the display font, but look what happens when we do:

Compare this to the original below, and you’ll see that it feels oh so wrong:

Is this an extreme example? Yes. Do I have a point though? Also yes.

Pay attention to kerning

By kerning we mean the space between each letter in a word. This is often carefully defined by the type designer, and for most cases won’t need too much work to adjust.

But display fonts differ from this. They will be used in dramatically different environments, so the default kerning value is often in need of some TLC.

Compare these two headlines:

The default spacing is too tight for certain letters on the left. Let’s limber up and stretch those legs.

One last thing before you bury me back on the beach

A display font is a powerful thing, and overuse can dilute it faster than a bottle of Kia Ora you got on special offer.

Less is more. We want to use it for the odd word, phrase or number.

Focus on versatility. A good display font has characteristics that make it useful for a specific context, so look for ones that don’t need much crowbarring into place.

And don’t be afraid to pull them apart – type designers who craft display versions of their fonts know that they will often be manipulated. Embrace that.

And that’s where we come in. Our design team know the importance of hierarchy, balance, and the vital role that fonts play in your marketing materials. Email them at or call 0115 8965 300.

And while you do that, I’ll climb back into my hole and wait for the tide.

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