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Conventional wisdom says to avoid overused fonts, because they start to lose their flair, and then your work ceases to stand out from the crowd, or adopts unwanted connotations. But what if an overused font works perfectly for your design? (Which is usually the case, seeing as their versatility is what makes them popular in the first place.) Should you try to find a replacement based simply on principle? Or is it OK so long as it's truly a good fit and not just being used because it's popular?

Additionally, does precluding a popular font mean that you shouldn't choose any that are similar? For instance, League Gothic is very popular right now. Does purposely not using that mean that we should also avoid all narrow, gothic typefaces for headlines, until the hype dies down? Or is it only matter of: avoid narrow, gothic typefaces for, say, "splash" pages and text logos, where League Gothic makes frequent appearances?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The problem with conventional wisdom is that it can blind you to its exceptions. A particular typeface becomes a cliche (which is what "overused" really means) through careless use and abuse. Like any cliche, though, it can still be used in an original and appropriate way to good effect and, like any cliche, it can also be a shorthand to communicate an entire genre, period, or mood.

Trajan, a beautiful face, became so associated with movie (especially horror movie) titles that it has almost no impact in that context any more. But it's still a valuable typeface in many other situations, or even for the right kind of movie (a Roman epic, say).

Nothing destroys a typeface's reputation quite so thoroughly as blundering overuse by clueless, enthusiastic amateurs. That's been the fate of just about any typeface that ships with Mac or Windows or Office (especially the standard weights of Helvetica, Times in any form, Arial, Papyrus, Comic Sans, Apple/Zapf Chancery and the non-OpenType Zapfino). They are all usable in the right context, even Papyrus and Comic Sans, but you have to pick your way carefully and use them very appropriately. The new crop, like Calibri and Segoe, will go the same way in a few years.

Fashion also has a pathological effect on perfectly healthy typefaces. Look back at the history of advertising and signage and you'll see particular faces done to death by designers at different times: Slab Serifs in the 19th Century, Avant Garde Gothic in the 1980s, Futura, currently in vogue for movies. That doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't use them.

So, no, you should not avoid a particular face just because it's been used heavily. But you probably should avoid overused typefaces in the contexts they've been overdone in unless you have a good reason. Don't use Didot or Bodoni for that new glossy fashion mag you're art directing, for example.

Sometimes you have to use the "expected" face just because it's, well, expected. Designers still use Helvetica for a great deal of corporate identity work, not because it's original or even attractive (unless you happen to like Helvetica), but because no other typeface says "corporate reliability" to your average consumer quite so readily. And there are times when "being original" definitely isn't wanted: no movie poster or DVD jacket would be complete without its block of Univers Light Ultracondensed, and you'd be a fool to try something radically different just because you didn't want to be unoriginal.

My advice is always to take each project as a fresh start and treat it as itself. Don't use or avoid particular colors, layouts or typefaces just because they've been used a million times. Use what is right for that project.

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As long as it's not Papyrus and you're not designing a movie poster with a big blue guy's face on it, I think you should go for it. Not everything has to have flair; sometimes it just has to work.

(Frankly, the opposite problem annoys me more: I knew one designer who did everything in Helvetica Neue and Janson Text. That's it. Brochure, ad, banner ad, newsletter, annual report, fact sheet, magazine, didn't matter — everything was Helvetica and Janson. His visuals were very nice, but it was like he had no other fonts loaded.)

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(Yeah, that Papyrus was a bit of a shocker, but it was so appropriate for the context that it took me several looks to realize that it was, indeed, good old Papyrus.) –  Alan Gilbertson Nov 12 '11 at 9:38

For text faces, it's not really a big deal. For display faces, it's less specifically a particular typeface and more of a certain style trend, of which the type plays a part.

League Gothic is a great face, but also free, which adds another level of popularity. Free fonts can be as good as any commercial one, but odds are that they are in much more widespread use.

In the end, it really doesn't matter as long as the type is appropriate for what you are doing in the context of the particular market you are going after and are in.

All that said, if the client is looking for a bit of exclusivity, investing in unique type is as wise as is investing in quality photography (as opposed to cheap stock art).

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+1 for introducing me to League Gothic :p –  Johannes Nov 12 '11 at 20:16

It's a balance, not a one-or-the-other situation. If your goal is to stand out, then using the most popular font will not help. However, you also have to consider that the font works nicely in your design. Those two things are conflicting, and it is up to the designer to decide how much of each to allow.

(I'm assuming the font is a prominent feature in the design)

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