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I'm not a graphic designer by trade, and my design work has been limited to posters and flyers for social activism, as well as scientific on-screen presentations and a couple of conference posters.

One of the issues I always struggle with is the choice of font families (individual or in combination) for those kinds of materials. I have a relatively large (in my opinion) set of font files on my PC - over 4,000 of them; and even if they're only, say, 1,000 families - that's still a huge number. I know very well that a lot of them are weird joke fonts, a lot are really variants of each other which are not represented as such for whatever technical/historical reasons; a lot are Hebrew and a few are Arabic rather than Latin or multi-script (my native language is Hebrew) - but that still leaves something like 300-500 font families. And what that means is that I do endless scrolling and estimating which font seems to look the part - where most options are entirely irrelevant.

Now, I've noticed that people who are well-versed with type design don't "go over a list" in their heads - they tell you things like "Oh, if I want a very legible sans-serif than take Frutiger; or Open Sans if you need it to be free." Or "Oh, this looks like Trade Gothic Bold Extended" (i.e. they can "reverse-lookup" an appearance to a font family name).

I know I'm not going to be a typography expert, but how can I build up a sort of a structured or categorized knowledge of the 'sea' of font families - available to me or generally noteworthy ones? I mean, other than simply Google and reading some article for every one of the families I have installed, and hoping that it sticks?

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  • First learn the terms which define typography variations. (Here's a decent link for that - and another- or Google search for "basic typography terminology") In order to actually identify any typeface, you need to understand exactly what defines that type face... its serifs or lack there of, its counters, its descenders, ascenders, tails, terminals, kerning, bowls, etc. Knowing what to look for is half the battle, if not more. This is how people can identify any typeface - by a unique aspect (most often found in characters such as lowercase a, g, q, etc.)

  • From there it's really more a matter of usage and familiarity. The same way you may recognize a quote from your favorite movie, because you've seen it 50 times, if you use a typeface a great deal, you will become familiar with that typeface's serifs, descenders, ascenders, counters, tails, etc. now that you know what to look for. No one learns exactly what makes Frutiger Frutiger. They learn what serifs look like and then after seeing a unique serif on a typeface, then identify the typeface as Frutiger and therefore learn that Frutiger has those serifs - making it possible to immediately know what Frutiger looks like by just looking at a serif.

  • In terms of application, or when to use what within a design, you need to understand the psychology which is conveyed by certain aspects of typography. Things such as "serifs appear more friendly and make readability easier in print" and "serifs can make readability harder in smaller sizes on the web." Or... "small typography with large counters increases legibility" or.. "bold sans-serif type tends to convey a sense of being 'official' or 'institutionalism'." (Here's a decent infographic regarding the psychology of a typeface -- it's subjective, like color psychology, so I may not absolutely agree with everything here, but I can't state anything is "wrong" either.)

  • As far as someone telling you when to use a specific typeface or what specifically would "look good" there --- that's all just opinion and then a reference to some typeface they are familiar with. There are no rules where this is concerned. Many designers have a stable of 5-10 typefaces they tend to use regularly. So, they are familiar with those typefaces and will often suggest what they are familiar with. That doesn't mean they are correct. (I'm not casting any aspersion here -- I do this as well.) For example, when I hear someone suggest Open Sans for a printed piece... I know they are familiar with web fonts, because Open Sans is wonderful on a web site (like GD.SE) because it was designed for web usage, but it often fails in print design in my opinion.

With all the above you can quickly determine that based on what you wish to achieve or convey in a design using a sans-serif font may be best, so you can ignore all typefaces which are serifs or scripts. Or you may decide you need something highly legible at a very small size, so you'll want to use a serif typeface with larger counters.

This is all done similar to how if you are creating something you want to appear "professional, corporate, secure, and dependable" there may be a tendency to instinctively know (or "feel") that using fluorescent, loud, vibrant, colors would be a contradiction to the message you are trying to convey. After familiarity with the psychology behind typography there's the same tendency to instinctively know that using a script or display face may be an equally poor choice. Or if creating a piece for a child's toy... the exact opposite of these choices may be the best path to pursue.

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