Catalog Design Handbook

3. Typography

One of the most fundamental decisions you must make in creating a catalog lies in choosing the typefaces that you’ll use to set the text content of your work. You may be accustomed to using the word “font” to refer to individual typefaces. Technically, a font consists of all the individual characters (letters, numbers, punctuation, accented characters, etc.) that are available in a typeface. The word “typeface” designates an individual typographic design.

You’re probably familiar with Helvetica and Times New Roman, both of which are typefaces.

A typeface family consists of a group of different widths and weights of an individual design.

A typical family includes regular and bold weights, an italicized regular weight, and a bold italic. Large typeface families may include thin, light, medium, semi-bold, extra bold, heavy, and black weights, each potentially with a matching italic. Some decorative typefaces include only one weight and lack italics altogether.

Note on prodalist: prodalist permits to use any True Type Font (TTF) installed on the designer’s computer. Most common fonts are indicated. When using less standard fonts, it is strongly recommended to either providing them along with the project, or to embed them in the pdf. In case of pro-printing, some agreement with the professional is mandatory at least the first time.

Serif typefaces

Serif typefaces incorporate small decorative strokes at the ends of the lines that make up the forms of individual letters. Although the origin of these designs is clear, the explanations of the reasons for their use are disputed. Serif typefaces first appeared in ancient Roman stone carving. Some experts assert that the serifs enabled carvers to tidy up the ends of carved strokes. Other explanations claim that the letters originated as painted brush strokes, and that carvers simply followed the tapered ends of the strokes themselves. Whatever the truth of the matter, serif typefaces possess enduring charm and beauty.

Serif typefaces come in four basic types.

  1. Old-style faces display significant uniformity among the thicknesses of strokes. The thinnest and thickest elements are very similar in width.
  2. Transitional typefaces contain greater variation in stroke thickness than you’ll see in a typical old-style face.
  3. Modern serif typefaces carry the thin-thick variation to greater extremes.
  4. Slab serifs use thick, often rectangular serifs that are as thick as the thickest strokes in the letterforms themselves.

Sans serif typefaces

Sans serif typefaces take their name from the fact that they lack the additional strokes that give serif typefaces their classification and their character. Like serif typefaces, sans serif faces exist in a quartet of basic types.

  1. Grotesque typefaces echo old-style serif faces in their lack of stroke-width variation.
  2. Neo-grotesque faces offer limited variation in stroke width, but they come in large families that include many weights and width.
  3. Geometric typefaces use geometric shapes as the basis for some of their letterforms. Their high readability at large sizes pairs with their less-readable appearance when set as body copy.
  4. Humanist typefaces display greater stroke-width variation than other types of sans serif typefaces.

Historically, serif typefaces have formed the first choices for long-form typesetting, such as the text of books and the product descriptions in catalogs. Onscreen, the legibility trophy goes to sans serif typefaces instead.

Other forms of typography

Along with serif and sans serif typefaces, the world of typography also includes script and other decorative options. These faces don’t work well for anything other than brief phrases or short headlines. They favor appearance over legibility. These options may work well for specialized use, but they don’t perform well on long-form text. The most useful way to integrate script typefaces into a catalog project can come in the form of customer testimonials, which you can typeset to simulate handwriting.

Catalog typeface selection

Choosing the typefaces for your catalog should involve some careful thought and experimentation. The following criteria can help you narrow your selection.

Company identity

Look at your logo. Does it contain type? A logo that largely consists of a typographic element or elements is called a word mark. When you select the typography for a catalog, remember that your brand and identity—you logo, that is—will appear on the work, and that the type you use in the catalog itself must harmonize with that logo. That doesn’t mean you must use the typeface from your logo throughout your catalog, just that the catalog should not use typefaces that clash with your corporate identity.

For example, if your logo uses a bold, industrial-looking sans serif typeface, you won’t want to set your catalog headlines in a flowing, graceful serif design. Typography creates a mood and sets an impression. The forceful, blunt look of the logo will be at odds with the accent typography, setting up a dissonant appearance. Look for an accent typeface that extends, rather than clashes with, your brand’s visual identity.

Output methods

Consider your output and delivery methods. Will your catalog ever appear on printed pages? If so, give some thought to using a serif typeface for body copy, or at least to selecting a sans serif face that offers good legibility.

Readability and fatigue

The truest test of the suitability of a typeface for catalog work comes when you set a long sample of text in the typeface and sit down to read the content, either on paper or on screen but preferably both. Is the text fatiguing to read? Do you find your eyes wandering off the paper because the type makes reading difficult? If you answer “yes” to either of these questions, you may need to reconsider your typeface selection.

Of course, reading fatigue also can stem from type that’s too small for the intended application, or from type that’s set with too little distance between the lines. That distance, called “leading,” takes its name from the days when typesetters worked with molten lead that was cast into the forms of individual letters or blocks of text, and small pieces of lead inserted between individual lines of text produced the regularized appearance of line of after line of verbal content. To verify whether or not a typeface works poorly on long-form text, test sample content with various sizes of letter forms and with varying amounts of leading.

Typeface families and typesetting flexibility

Think about the ways in which you’ll need to use your type, and verify that any typeface family you’re considering includes a wide enough range of widths and weights to accommodate all the styles and situations in which you need to use type. For example, you may need an ultra-bold condensed typeface for headlines, a regular/bold/italic/bold-italic combination for body copy with accented, emphasized words and subheads, and other weights for additional applications.

Obtaining font software

While you’re making typeface selections, consider using a typeface that you already possess, one that came with a piece of software that you installed on your computer (for example, Microsoft Office) or one that’s part of your computer operating system. If you don’t find what you want among the typefaces you already have, examine some of the seemingly infinite variety of typographic resources you can purchase from typeface merchants. Some merchants offer the work of a wide range of independent designers and multi-designer font foundries. Other merchants specialize in the work of one foundry or one design collective. You may be able to find the same typefaces at more than one merchant site, with better or higher pricing depending on where you look, so some research may save you money. In addition, many typeface merchants offer special sales that include deep discounts on attractive offerings.

Combining typefaces

Many designers use serif and sans serif typefaces together in the same catalog project. A serif typeface forms the body copy, with sans serif subheads, heads, and captions, or vice versa, depending on the delivery medium and the style of the catalog. The trick is to avoid using so many different typefaces that your work looks jumbled and the typographic variety begins to detract from the cohesion of the work.

Beware of “bargains”

You can find large numbers of free typefaces online. Some of these typefaces, such as many of those you can find at Google Fonts, offer high-quality work that’s truly suitable for any project, catalogs included. Other free typefaces are poorly designed, contain only partial character sets, and include errors in their programming that make them malfunction when printed.

The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” really can apply to type.

Using typographic styles

Once you select the typography for your catalog project, you need to establish a set of basic styles that will apply consistently to repeated text elements.

This styling process helps give your project a cohesive look and make it easier to read.

The page layout software that many designers use offers extensive type-style functionality, including both paragraph and character styles. As their name suggests, paragraph styles apply to entire paragraphs, pages, and chapters of typesetting projects. Character styles apply to small stretches of text, turning an emphasized word bold or changing the color of a single word in a headline. Each style contains an entire package of typesetting attributes that a designer can apply to selected text with a single mouse click or even using a special keyboard shortcut. Along with that quick-click convenience, styles offer the further advantage of being easy to change.

If you decide that you want all your body text slightly larger than you initially typeset it, you can edit the style and watch as all the type to which it applies changes instantaneously. This form of workflow efficiency validates every minute a designer spends in setting up styles.

Tip: Choose catalog typefaces that offer strong readability for longer stretches of text, and that harmonize with your company’s brand identity rather than clash with it. Choose large typeface families if you need multiple styles for different types of typographic accents, including headlines, subheads, pull quotes, captions, product specifications, diagram callouts, etc.

Tip: Avoid incorporating more than three typeface families in a single catalog project (one for body text, one for headlines and other accents, and one for brief promotional messages). You can make an exception to this rule if you plan to incorporate multiple customer testimonials and use an array of script typefaces to make them look like a variety of individuals’ handwriting.

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