Identifying fonts

I rec­om­mended in max­ims of page lay­out that you im­i­tate ty­pog­ra­phy you like, in­clud­ing font choices. But how do you iden­tify a font just by look­ing at it?

The tra­di­tional way is to prac­tice. Af­ter more than 20 years of study­ing fonts, I es­ti­mate that I can iden­tify about 300 dis­tinct fam­i­lies by sight. Com­pared to the more than 100,000 dig­i­tal fonts avail­able, that’s not many. But it cov­ers about 95% of the fonts used out in the world. So when I see a font, I usu­ally know what it is.

You, how­ever, are not at that point. There­fore, some tips to im­prove your font-spot­ting skills.

  1. In books, seek out colophons.
    A colophon is a note de­scrib­ing the print­ing and ty­pog­ra­phy of the book. Usu­ally the colophon ap­pears in the end­pa­pers. Some­times you’ll find them squeezed into the copy­right page at the front. A ba­sic colophon will iden­tify the fonts used. Bet­ter ones will also credit the de­sign­ers and ex­plain why the fonts were cho­sen. This book has a colophon (see the end cred­its) but it’s not strictly nec­es­sary be­cause … 

  2. On web­sites, read the CSS.
    Web jocks can use the HTML/CSS source in­spec­tor in any web browser to find out which fonts are be­ing used. (Hint: look for the font-fam­ily prop­erty.) The lazy and the cu­ri­ous might en­joy the What­Font ex­ten­sion for Chrome, which re­veals the font of any text on a web page—just point at it.

  3. For other printed mat­ter, try WhatThe­Font.
    WhatThe­Font—no re­la­tion to What­Font, above—is a clever ser­vice that lets you up­load a photo of type and mark the char­ac­ters therein. With those clues, WhatThe­Font tries to iden­tify the font al­go­rith­mi­cally. If you have a good photo, and the font is dis­tinc­tive, it works pretty well.

  4. Try Iden­ti­font.
    Iden­ti­font is like Wikipedia for fonts and font de­sign­ers. It in­cludes sev­eral tools for iden­ti­fy­ing fonts from their vis­i­ble characteristics.

  5. Ask a ty­pog­ra­pher.
    The eas­i­est way is to take a pic­ture and tweet it to­ward @Font_ID or @TypeID, who are both hard to stump.

  6. Study key char­ac­ters.
    Iden­ti­fy­ing fonts be­comes eas­ier as you learn what makes them dis­tinct. Some of this will come nat­u­rally with us­ing them. But every font has a few char­ac­ters with un­usual de­tails. If you no­tice and re­mem­ber those de­tails, you’ll be able to iden­tify more fonts. For ex­am­ple, it’s very hard to iden­tify fonts strictly by their punc­tu­a­tion char­ac­ters, which tend to be more alike than dif­fer­ent. But char­ac­ters like A, E, G, M, Q, R, S, a, e, f, g, r, s, t—and the am­per­sand, of course—usu­ally have easy-to-rec­og­nize differences.

by the way
  • Does ty­po­graphic hu­mor ex­ist? De­cide for your­self—stop by the LTypI photo col­lec­tion. LTypI stands forLack of Ty­po­graphic Imag­i­na­tion” and col­lects in­stances where de­sign­ers have cho­sen fonts that match the text in a per­haps too ob­vi­ous way. (Yes, of course I’m a contributor.)