Discover legacy content from, preserved for your reference.

Please update your browser. Why?

Fonts for Editorial

May 31, 2016 by David Sudweeks

In Beatrice Warde’s famous crystal goblet essay, she argues that the role of type is to invisibly convey its message, to carry the words’ meaning, and otherwise disappear. And I think it’s clear what she’s saying is that the typography ought not distract the reader from the text, but this “long-winded and fragrant metaphor,” finds its limits outside of “quietly set book-pages.” Editorial design operates under different constraints. Yes, minimize distraction while reading, but a number of other practical concerns peculiar to editorial work define the look and function of editorial faces.

First let me say I realize that editorial design is a big topic that covers multiple overlapping (and exclusive) design disciplines, but just to be clear, we’re talking about periodically published journals, newspapers and magazines.

On deadline

Time is the first and greatest constraint in the editorial world. That means you’re working within a template filled with stories and other content of variable size, constantly determining what merits the most prominent placement and how much each bit gets. Typefaces have to be flexible in such environments in order to fit those diverse spaces and still say their part. This is true of headline faces, as well as those used at text sizes to set the body and other small elements, like captions.

The other side of editorial design—is designing the system I describe above. The main objective here is to balance its flexibility with enough structural rigidity to give the publication as a whole a consistent and recognizable voice.

Typographic range

Flexibility is about maximizing possibility while minimizing the number of moving parts. A great place to start is with a full-featured text face that allows a range of expression in only a few styles. For example, with small caps and a proper italic you can create multiple levels of hierarchy without even varying the type in size or weight. This lets you reserve changes in weight (such as bold) for additional markers or levels of hierarchy. The two examples immediately below are set in Gerard Unger’s Neue Swift.

[Pona](/families/pona), from [Jordi Embodas](/designers/jordi-embodas) shown in both Display and text cuts, offers a more lyrical option for text and headline use.
Pona, from Jordi Embodas shown in both Display and text cuts, offers a more lyrical option for text and headline use.

Fitting narrow, justified columns

News work tends to prefer narrow columns, which up until the 1970s or so were always justified (set flush against both left and right margins). So it makes sense that narrow text faces were developed to more economically pack in the copy, but also give typographers more options when determining where a line should break, and which words should be hyphenated. As you look through this list of modern alternatives to standard newspaper faces, you may note how each is generally robust, but also, just a bit on the narrow side.

Working at a range of sizes

Typefaces like Matthew Carter’s Miller were designed as commissions grew for new type families that worked in text, but also in a range of weights and widths for setting headlines, subheads, and big display stuff.

The designs relate across their various optical sizes, which allows for easy recognition, but also reinforces the identity of the publication. When a family spans multiple optical sizes, styles made to work at larger sizes generally have higher contrast, finer details, and are more tightly fit and spaced. Those made for text sizes are more robust and have a looser fit. As I’ve covered here before, Nick Shinn’s Pratt Nova, below, is one such design that covers a range of optical sizes and editorial uses.

It would also be neglectful of me not to mention the work of Dino dos Santos, whose DSType Foundry carries many great examples of type systems for editorial, that span multiple optical sizes, like Acta Display, Headline, and Acta (Text) above. Also see its companion sans, Acto.

Serif and sans

One of the easiest ways of guiding the reader through an edition of a magazine or newspaper is by establishing separate roles, each with a distinct typographic voice. Most often the serif sets the content itself, while the sans is tasked with marking each piece and directing the reader accordingly. In my series I look at faces that work well with each other and suggest uses in which they’d be particularly well suited. In case you wondered, the sans prominently featured at the top of this article is Tomáš Brousil’s Monopol.

Different kinds of editorial typefaces

There is of course more than sans and serif at work in editorial. Often large feature stories and some recurring sections of a paper or magazine (these are called departments) use type or lettering in arresting, illustrative ways. Lately there’s been a lot of casual script in this space, but also highly stylized formal scripts, blackletter, and more conceptual display faces. I recommend a look at the work of Gareth Hague for more great designs like his Sabre, shown above. At the other end of the spectrum are purpose-built faces made to do amazing things, like clearly set the tiny financial text on stock pages. In the 1990s, Tobias Frere-Jones famously created Retina for the Wall Street Journal. Ermin Međedović’s Lipa Agate is similarly suited to small sizes and challenging print environments, and its characters maintain the same width whether set in the lightest or heaviest weight.

Keep it interesting

If you’re working in editorial every day, or it’s your job to design an editorial system for a news team or magazine staff, I’ll close with this piece of advice: Read everything, and always leave room for fun in the final workflow. Reading it holds clues for type selection, where to put emphasis, and where to break the story (both its placement and where the column-breaks go). And fun—along with great writing, a great composition, not just on the cover—makes a design worth producing, looking at, buying and reading. Experiment with ways to adapt the design, incorporating new typefaces, new illustrators and photographers, or just new ways of using negative space. Taking one’s work seriously in this regard can be scary, but it’s a proven way out of the all-too-common designer malaise.

See related fontlists