Clients and those outside of design understandably have difficulty not only distinguishing typefaces from one another but also recognizing or appreciating the value in typography. If two typefaces look similar, shouldn’t you just default to the one that is cheaper or you’re more familiar with? I’m writing this as an easily digestible response (void of any fancy type lingo or terminology) to the following questions:
“This looks like Times New Roman, can we just use that instead?”
“This looks like Helvetica, can we just use that instead?”
The difficulty in not only buying fonts but also searching for them is that you mostly only see the surface. Imagine you’re buying a car and you’re looking at two identical ones, how would you know which is the better option? You’d have to look at the specs of each car. What’s their gas mileage, what features are included in it, what’s their horsepower, do they have the same amount of storage, and so on.
Would you buy either one of the cars without looking at the specs or looking beyond its exterior? Could you imagine buying either one of the cars just to find out it doesn’t even come with an engine in it?
While that may sound silly, if you don’t know any better, you could very well find yourself in that sort of situation. The same often happens with fonts—characters you need aren’t included, language support is minimal or nonexistent, spacing is horrendous, and more.
When you’re buying a font, you’re not just buying the way the characters look. You’re buying the space between letters. You’re buying the kerning pairs. You’re buying the intentionally designed ligatures that allow letters to tuck into each other or even merge in unison as an ensemble of balanced spacing and color. You’re buying the relationships between weights and styles.
But the only way to know about these things is if you, the designer, take the time to look into what the font offers and evaluate if it meets the needs of your client. The problem still stands though, typefaces often share similar characteristics or look alike, so why resist the defaults?
Serif, sans-serif, script—these are simple categories of typography which focus on the generalizations of their character. Stating serif alone doesn’t tell you much about the typeface itself—a slab serif will greatly differ from an old style serif.
To suggest any two serifs are alike purely because they’re serif faces is, in a similar sense, like suggesting all fruit is the same. Even typefaces of the same classification or appear identical aren’t necessarily interchangeable just as a honeycrisp apple differs from a golden delicious apple or a gala apple. They may all be fruit, and they’re all apples, but they are not one and the same.
My sassy response to “Why can’t we just use Times New Roman or Helvetica, they’re trustworthy and proven to work” would be, why don’t you just follow the same business structure and plan as your competitors, aren’t those also trusted and proven to work? If you truly believe in your clients and are working towards their success, you must be willing to ask them the hard questions.
Just imagine if we all drove the same cars or if the 7,500 varieties of apples were reduced to just two options. How bland would life be? Variation serves not only as a point of enjoyment, but also function. Ensuring we’re developing brand identities that veer away from the defaults keeps markets from dissolving into a homogenous mess.
As designers, we’re the farmers of our trade. We must have a clear grasp of the seasons, predict the success of our crops, tend to them, understand their subtleties, and be able to show our clients around the farm. Learn to tell which fruit is ripe simply by holding it in your hand, and keep your clients from eating the rotten ones.