Are you stuck in the land of using the same five fonts over and over again? Get ready to break out of the same-old, same-old and up your decorating game with these typography tips from expert printers and designers.
“Typography’s power rests in the emotional memory of human beings,” says Pat Achilles, a veteran illustrator and graphic designer based in Doylestown, PA. “Letter shapes can express strength, nostalgia, love, sorrow, propriety and confusion—the gamut of emotions, all based on established lettering styles that people associate with the places and feelings they’ve encountered with that typeface before.”
The most successful T-shirt designers understand (and power-ize) fonts and typography hierarchy for their clients. “A good graphic starts with a good font,” says Craig Mertens, general manager at Graphics Flow. “The easiest way to wreck a design is poor font usage. Apparel-centric fonts that model retail fashion trends are critical. You can’t just slap a desktop publishing font into a T-shirt design and expect it to look good. Font selection is critical.”
Here’s what you need to know to up your typography game.
The Big Impact of a Font’s a Real Thing
If you’re creating a statement graphic or logo to print on a T-shirt, choosing the right font or fonts has a lot to do with getting your client’s message seen, read and remembered. “Typography matters when it comes to design,” says Marshall Atkinson, business coach at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab. “Whether you choose serif, sans serif, distressed or gothic fonts, they all say something different with the same words.”
“Fonts have a ‘feel’ and you need to determine what your client wants their customer to feel and remember.”
Carolyn Cagle, Strikke Knits Embroidery
Achilles points out that designers can evoke feelings or raise memories in viewers with font choice. “Using great colors and design assures that your message is seen,” she says. “Using easily readable typefaces assures that the text is read and understood. And choosing the right typeface assures it’ll grab that perfect emotional memory and make a connection with the viewer that they remember.”
Like Mertens, Carolyn Cagle, owner of Strikke Knits Embroidery, says that typography matters so much in the feel of a design, that it can make or break the entire artistic message. Here are three of her core recommendations:
1. Size matters. If the type is too tiny, then people have to stand in the wearer’s personal space to read the message. Conversely, if the font’s too large, it can wrap around areas of the body that distort the text and convey an entirely different image in the interpretation. “I always suggest that decorators print out what their clients want and put it on the wall about 6 feet away,” she says. “Can you read it? Are certain words emphasized that perhaps shouldn’t be?”
“A good graphic starts with a good font. The easiest way to wreck a design is poor font usage. Apparel-centric fonts that model retail fashion trends are critical. You can’t just slap a desktop publishing font into a T-shirt design and expect it to look good.”
Craig Mertens, Graphics Flow
2. Think twice about “fancy fonts.” “The current trend is a lot of swirls and free form lettering like those board signs about coffee,” Cagle says. “They’re beautiful, but if you’re in a venue that calls for product recognition or statements specifically pointed at an audience, your font should be able to convey this quickly and simply.”
3. Fonts evoke “the feels,” so tap into those. “Determine what your client wants their customer to feel,” Cagle says. “If your client wants to be remembered, ask them how they want to portray their message: friendly, commanding, professional, important, humorous or something else?”
Atkinson reminds decorators to always start with your client’s brand guidelines, since they might have preferred fonts. “That way, you can use a font family, where you have one font in six or more different weights,” he says.
So Many Fonts, So Little Time
When a designer or decorator consults with a client, they’re often torn between presenting font choices to the client or choosing one after hearing the client’s vision.
“Typography’s power rests in the emotional memory of human beings. Letter shapes can express strength, nostalgia, love, sorrow, propriety or confusion—the gamut of emotions, all based on established lettering styles people associate with the places and feelings they’ve encountered with that typeface before.” Pat Achilles, Illustrator and Graphic Designer
Mertens advises not presenting a page of fonts to a client. “I’d show designs that showcase font usage,” he says. “It really isn’t possible to evaluate a font out of context. Once your client sees the initial design, then you can present alternative fonts if the current font set doesn’t meet their expectations. I advocate a holistic approach with fonts, design elements, and overall design composition.”
For Achilles, it depends on how design-savvy and experienced the client is—not every businessperson who wants a T-shirt design has an eye for what works visually. However, she does have a dozen go-to typefaces that she loves because of their perfect readability.
“I often plug those go-to fonts into initial mockups if the client is inexperienced in design, because readability is primary, and inexperienced clients can get overwhelmed with fancy typefaces,” Achilles says. “If the client already has a good design sense, I use specifically-chosen typefaces for their mockups and let their reactions guide the final design.”
Cagle recommends asking your client to send you images of three items, like signs, ads, decals or logos, that contain fonts they like. “You can use that as a base to show them three fonts, and then branch off into another three to fit their feel,” she says.
“Typography matters when it comes to design. Whether you choose serif, sans serif, distressed or gothic fonts, they all say something different with the same words.” Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting
Michelle Baker, owner and designer at Michelle Baker Design in Skillman, NJ, also never shows a client 10 or more fonts for any project, so they don’t get overwhelmed. At the most, she presents three to five. “I have go-to fonts for most print projects,” she says. “For T-shirt designs that require a more unique font to tell a story, I wait to hear about my client’s vision before searching through my library.”
Tip: After doing graphic design for more than 30 years in the textile industry, Cagle says less is always more. If you give a client too many choices, you’ll end up with too many back-and-forths and edits. “Your client is in that indecisive place because you gave them too many choices,” she says. “It’s your job to climb into their head and put their ideas on paper for them.”
Atkinson tends to never use more than two different fonts in a design. “For example, you can use a handwritten script, brushstroke or display font as a headline, and then use your main font in different weights everywhere else,” he says. “This tells the viewer what’s important. If you use a third font, then the design intent goes out the window.”
When Baker looks at the copy for a project she’s working on, she figures out what’s important or what she wants to bring attention to, by using a larger point size, a bold typeface, or specific colors or accents. Like Atkinson, she sticks to two typefaces. “It’s even better if you can keep it to the same font family and use condensed, extended and standard versions to create your hierarchy,” she says. “Using any more fonts than that gets too busy and makes the design look cluttered.
The Best Ways to Approach Typography
1. Take visual cues from the artwork. Achilles says that if the final design includes graphics, she makes sure the typography harmonizes with it—or, if the desired effect is a visual punch, contrasts appropriately to it. “If there’s no artwork then the grouping of words itself has to form a ‘shape’ that I design by size, placement and color,” she says.
2. Stick to two levels of hierarchy, unless you need to make an exception. Like Atkinson, Achilles usually designs using no more than two levels of hierarchy: a main idea and a subhead. “I stick to the rule of two typefaces at most for a standard design—unless the whole point of the idea is to be eclectic, chaotic or ransom-note-ish,” she says. “Generally, I choose one serif and one sans serif face.”
3. Show the client an as-close-to-done proof. “If the design will be on a T-shirt, print it out the exact size it’ll be, and place it on the shirt color it’ll be printed on, so your client can visualize it completely,” Achilles says. “Similarly, if you need to resize the image or logo for a business card, make sure the client sees all the comps reduced to a 2” x 3.5” size.”
4. Avoid unreadable fonts. “A ‘cool’ font doesn’t provide any visual value if you can’t read the copy, especially in small sizes,” Mertens says. “Also, mixing multiple serif or sans serif fonts within a design will compete with each other, rather than complement, for instance, like a block font and a script font. Two similar sans serif fonts in a design will also look out of place, so you should avoid that pairing.”
5. Don’t start with the font. “Good designers design,” Atkinson says. “The font is just a design tool. If you’re starting with the font, you’re doing it backward. It all comes down to up-front planning.”
“Fonts have a ‘feel’ and you need to determine what your client wants their customer to feel and remember.” Carolyn Cagle, Strikke Knits Embroidery
“Fonts have a ‘feel’ and you need to determine what your client wants their customer to feel and remember.” Carolyn Cagle, Strikke Knits Embroidery
Atkinson goes a little old school when he plots out designs. “There’s no idea key on your keyboard,” he quips. He draws out a quick sketch to figure out the design composition, before searching for fonts.
“Good design basics are a universal language in how we read,” Atkinson says. “That’s why visual hierarchy matters. Don’t make the design fit the font. If you have lots of chaos with your type arrangement, hard for the viewer to absorb.”
6. Kerning, kerning, kerning. “Kerning is one of the biggest problems for new designers,” Cagle says. “You need to learn how to adjust the spacing between different letters for the right visual effect.”
7. Pay attention to punctuation. Hope you can see a difference here: Time to eat, Grandma! or Time to eat Grandma!
8. Pay attention to spelling. Cagle remembers a job she printed years ago with a flub: 200 shirts that said, “Happy Brithday!” “The design went through four people and didn’t get caught till we were down to the final 12 shirts, but at least it didn’t go to the client this way,” she says.
Today’s Top Fonts
Here are a few current font trends to keep your eye on:
1. Script fonts. “A current trend is handwritten script fonts,” Mertens says. “ These are definitely in the ‘cute’ category and a spinoff from the home decor industry.”
Cagle has used these elaborate, flourish-filled fonts in three-word statements or in large formats since they’re ‘busy-to-the-eye’ fonts. “They convey a feeling of happiness and light-heartedness,” she says.
Achilles has also seen an uptick in demand for these fonts: “In addition to T-shirts, I’ve illustrated a number of children’s books and book covers, and right now hand lettering and calligraphy is a big force in that corner of the market,” she says. “Script fonts give a personalized vibe, a veracity to the story as if the book’s plot is taken right out of the author’s or brand’s handwritten diary.”
2. Serif fonts. “Banks and legal firms value stability and confidence so they most often use traditional, solid-looking serif typefaces,” Achilles says.
For businesses, Cagle has been using serif fonts as single word or letter images. “However, using a very bold sans serif font and inserting images inside of them results in a great screen-printed image,” she says.
3. Graphic Old English, Celtic or medieval-style fonts. “These are huge with micro breweries and tattoo artists,” Cagle says. “We’re also creating a lot of single words in Celtic typefaces paired with graphic wood block images or Celtic knots.”
4. Retro fonts. “Typefaces that communicate the ‘70s or ‘80s vibe are in,” Mertens says. “Another popular style in that vein are comic book fonts that emulate the fonts used in the logos for the Marvel and DC universes.”
5. Relaxed, relatable fonts. Service industries can use a wide variety of typefaces but they are usually more relaxed and relatable faces since these companies deal directly with customers and want to project friendliness and broad appeal. “I’ve designed T-shirts for a theater company that teaches children and teen improv troupes,” Achilles says. “Those designs are always fun and bouncy, mimicking the students’ humor and energy.”
6. Block athletic typefaces. “These fonts are always timeless,” Mertens says.
What to Do Today
Remember, good typography is so important in any design. “That’s the difference between a design that looks professional and one that looks like it was put together in Word or PowerPoint,” Baker says.
That includes keeping all these points to create a readable, attractive design:
- Using typefaces consistently and correctly
- Paying attention to proper kerning (that’s the spacing between letters) and leading (that’s the spaces between lines of text)
- Using font sizes to establish a visual hierarchy.
Review some of your more recent font-heavy T-shirt designs with a critical eye, and see where you can make improvements to future designs. “If you’ve chosen the wrong font, it can be distracting, or even worse illegible, and can cause a person to not buy or wear that shirt,” Baker says. “At the end of the day, you have to know the brand you’re selling to, the message they’re trying to convey, and who’s wearing the T-shirt, so you can choose your typeface accordingly.”
Print on demand and direct-to-consumer fulfillment is a shift that many decorators made during COVID-19. “You should consider any equipment that has a quick setup and can produce one piece at a time in a profitable manner,” says Alison Banholzer, owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse. “This includes DTG, sublimation, HTV, DTF and more, so these processes can lend themselves very well to POD and direct to consumer fulfillment.”
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Laurie is part of the marketing team for the leading supplier in the industry, alphabroder. During her free time, Laurie likes to ride horses, sail and spend time with her husband and her two children. Reach her at Lprestine@alphabroder.com
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