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.
In books, seek out colophons.
colophonis 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 …
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-familyproperty.) 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.
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.
Identifont is like Wikipedia for fonts and font designers. It includes several tools for identifying fonts from their visible characteristics.
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.
Does typographic humor exist? Decide for yourself—stop by the LTypI photo collection.
LTypI stands for “Lack 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.)