Fonts You Need to Stop Using

A curated list of terrible typography

My goal with this post is to curate a list of the worst, most overused fonts, one or two at a time. Because font crimes are no laughing matter no matter how Comic they may be.

Why Good Fonts Go Bad

Fonts can become overused (and by extension, hated) for a number of reasons, but there are three attributes that often contribute to their epidemic nature. Novelty, versatility and Accessibility. A font’s novelty, its unique sense of fun or visual invention, its eye-catchiness (fancy industry term), can drive its rampant adoption. Its range of applications (perceived or valid) will also contribute to widespread use, as fonts that lend themselves to a variety of contexts and occasions will naturally be chosen more often.

 

The other and perhaps most significant driving factor is the ubiquity of “system fonts”. What’s that, you ask? System fonts are those pre-loaded onto computer operating systems like Windows and Mac OS. This makes them overwhelmingly widespread and accessible to everyone. Unless you’ve manually downloaded the font you’re using, chances are it’s a system font. All it takes is for a few of these to have a bit more visual oomph than the others and bam, that font starts showing up EVERYWHERE.

 

It’s usually some combination these factors, in particular visual distinction and availability that leads to font fatigue. Typefaces like Helvetica, Times New Roman, and more recently Open Sans have been used with comparable frequency to any font on this list, but they avoid the same level of infamy because they walk a fine line between originality and anonymity. These fonts do still occasionally appear on “worst font” lists but I disagree that they’re anywhere near as problematic as others. Overused, yes. A problem, not so much. They have just enough character to make them interesting without loudly betraying themselves with excessive visual flourish. Meanwhile, interesting looking but slightly more recognizable fonts like Exo have become tedious more quickly.

 

A similar phenomenon is occurring in the field of web design. As graphic designers gravitate to a limited number of Web Font libraries, clear favorites such as Lobster find sudden favor and subsequent revile.

 

Roles also factor in. Concerning overuse, most of the worst offenders, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Brush Script, Impact etc. each satisfy a particular stylistic niche. Comic Sans is fun, Papyrus, exotic, Brush Script on the other hand is fancy and perfect for invitations, and Impact is the stereotype of bold, in your face headlines. Versatile though some may be, they none the less each fall into their own category, and meet a specific design requirement. It’s not a leap to assume that they became system fonts for this very reason.

 

“Bad” fonts may be poorly designed, but not necessarily. Though some are truly ugly, when considered in a vacuum many of them are great typefaces. More often then not they’re aesthetically pleasing, or at the very least successfully invoke the lowest common denominator of qaulities. It’s because of this mass appeal, their flexibility, and omnipresence, that they quickly become go-to fonts and thus oversaturate the typography landscape.

 

The criteria for avoiding these fonts isn’t their cosmetic value or lack thereof but the monotony attributed by overuse and the creative bankruptcy now associated with their appearance. Using any of the fonts on this list can damage your creative and professional credibility.

 

How to Avoid Them

Avoiding system fonts reduces your risk of using something too familiar. There are a number of font foundries that offer mostly free fonts. “Free” usually just means “for personal use” however, which is why a lot of developers lean heavily on Google Fonts. Google Fonts is a great repository of open source, no strings attached, free fonts. It even provides usage statistics if you want to get a sense of how popular a font is. If you’re stuck with system fonts though, this is a great reference.

 

And now without further preamble…

Fonts you Need to Stop Using:

 

Comic Sans

Comic Sans

Let’s start with one that doesn’t even need an introduction. Comic Sans MS is the grand mamajam of overused fonts. It’s so painfully common it’s become a running joke even among non-designers. Released in 1995 by Microsoft, this “casual script” font has been a staple of Windows and Mac OS X since its inception. Appearing on virtually every computer after its introduction, it’s been at everyone’s fingertips for over 20 years. Since then its misuse has become so rampant that now there are multiple websites dedicated to addressing the social ill that is Comic Sans.

 

Why is it bad?

There’s just something about the casual appeal of its doughy little characters that has caught the eye of just about everyone who’s ever had to quickly pick a font. It wouldn’t be so bad if a majority of people were using it for their third grader’s birthday invitations. It’s a perfectly good font in the right context. However, Comic Sans continues to defy logic and taste, appearing on everything from company logos and advertisements to corporate signage.

 

Now the reason this represents a slight (sarcasm) lapse in judgement should be evident the minute you lay eyes on this adorable little menace. But just to be clear, the problem is this: Comic Sans was literally designed for children…and it looks like it. It doesn’t belong anywhere near the professional or corporate space. The word “Comic” should be a serious red flag for anyone considering using it on anything intended for people over the age of 9. Its overuse wouldn’t be so egregious if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s so woefully inappropriate for a majority of its applications.

 

I think its biggest crime is just being too likable. The reasons for its epidemic popularity have been irrelevant for years, however. The problem now is that it’s so common; it has become the antithesis of any sense of originality it might have once represented. It’s the typographical equivalent of saying “think outside the box”. Its usage is a declaration of mediocrity that speaks even louder than the message its misshapen little letters are arranged to convey.

 

Good Alternatives

You want to use fonts that respect your audience’s maturity level. Unless your target demographic watches Spongebob and drinks from sippy cups, stay away from goofy fonts. There’s a difference between fun and juvenile.

 

Farsan – Comic Sans’ cleaner, italic cousin.

Bad Script – Eschews its sloppiness in favor of whimsical elegance.

Patrick Hand SC – Nearly its doppelgänger if you don’t mind all caps.

School Bell – Another very close, even more juvenile, alternative. It’s like Comic Sans little brother.

Caveat Brush – A really great comic font.

Margarine – Very close, with a ragged edge, like chalk or crown.

 

Papyrus font

Papyrus

Second perhaps only to Comic Sans in its infamy, Papyrus is the poster font of exotic antiquity. Its ambiguous ethnicity makes it an attractive choice to imply a distant land, culture, or time. Lending itself to anything from the wild west to ancient Rome or Egypt, at different times it’s Asian, Arabian, Native American or Indian (Get it? Cultural confusion. See what I did with that last one?).

 

Appearing at once both brushed and chiseled, it can suggest a Caribbean island or a Gaelic inscription. Yet to spite its generous compatibility it remains culturally agnostic. An elusive, chameleon typeface, its transient quality is actually kind of impressive. But as I mentioned in the introduction, versatility plays a huge role in font popularity and consequent overuse.

 

Why is it bad?

When describing how extremely average Papyrus is, I like to point out how it was used as the title font of Avatar, a movie that also gained overwhelming popularity while being composed almost entirely of narrative and filmic cliches (it was either that or Trajan I guess, but we’ll get to that). Papyrus, like the hit film, capitalizes on being the lowest common denominator.

 

Nowadays it feels less like an authentic marriage of historic and cultural influences than a cheap simulation of them. It’s the kitchsy tourist trap of typography, a cliche of “romantic adventure” and someone’s idea of what “exotic” looks like. Ironically, it’s become a parody of itself in this regard.

 

To be fair, the font does possess some fleeting characteristics of early Humanist (Venetian) and calligraphy scripts. Taken on its own merits though, it’s just sort of…okay. Lowercase letters have a nice uniformity but a compressed x height combined with elongated ascenders and descenders create a distracting flow. Uppercase letters on the other hand, are stingy and disproportionate, with unbalanced, angular bowls and pinched features.

 

A certain amount of irregularity is expected from this type of font, but in this case it’s a bit much. The other characteristic of obnoxious type faces, we discussed, is that they stand out a little too much, and this is certainly the case with Papyrus, even more so than Comic Sans.

 

Good Alternatives

Typefaces designed to capture one culture in the language of another walk a fine line between impression and parody. For this reason they’re probably the toughest to pick out, and it’s good to be self aware when doing so.

 

Trade Winds – If you’re leaning more towards fun than authentic. Has a swashbuckling ruggedness.

Jolly Lodger – Takes Trade Wind’s sense of boyish adventure even further. Very fun, less historic.

Jim Nightshade – For something more dignified. Affects a comparatively weathered penmanship and decent versatility.

IM Fell English SC – Similar to Jim Nightshade. A bit more colonial.

Piedra – Thicker, more uniform, and a bit more fun, Piedra has that familiar ragged edge.

 

Brush script font

Brush Script MT

Another decent little font ultimately doomed to infamy by its inclusion on just about every computer ever built is Brush Script. Created in 1942 it’s a classic of the hand painted style, balancing elegance, and readability in a way few cursive/decorative fonts do.

 

It has a nice even weight, flow, and character uniformity. It’s sophisticated enough for a wedding invitation but has enough pizazz for a sales flyer or team logo. It’s fancy without being stuffy, likable without sacrificing a sense of occasion. It’s cultured, fun, festive and sporty all at the same time.

 

Why is it bad?

Since it isn’t really a bad typeface I won’t belabor the point. It’s a beautiful, versatile, system font, and thereby, overused. Excessively, painfully, Brush Script is without a doubt one of the most overused fonts of all time, frequently appearing on lists right alongside the other usual suspects, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Bradley Hand…

 

I’d say it’s one of the more unfortunate casualties of the system font epidemic though. Unlike Comic Sans or Papyrus, which I could do without anyway, versatile script fonts tend to be rare. Most veer too far to one side or the other on the fancy/fun scale to offer any real range. In my experience, a majority have obvious, tiresome features that distract the eye or trespass into adjacent spaces. Many commit the worst crime a typeface is capable of being just too tedious or difficult to read, even for display fonts.

 

Brush Script is a call back to another era. As a typographic antique it’s been suggested that its only acceptable use now would be to deliberately evoke the vintage period from which it came. Otherwise steer clear.

 

Good Alternatives

 

Dancing Script – Thinner, even in bold but very close to Brush Script’s look and feel.

Yesteryear – Brush Script’s ribbon cursive counterpart, and possibly its best alternative.

Courgette – Less cursive, less “brush”, but a lovely font of similar weight, elegance, and balanced flow.

Pacifico – Similar weight and feel, but more fun than formal, and it’s a bit wonky so limited use is better here.

Damion – More carefree, has a similar sporty quality.

Yellowtail – Similar to Damion, just a bit more restrained.

 

bradley hand font

Bradley Hand

Combining the characteristics of swift brush strokes, hand penmanship, and weathered antiquity, Bradley Hand is an almost perfect blend of Papyrus and Comic Sans. I’m not a fan. It’s nothing personal but Bradley should have kept his hand to himself.

 

Created in 1995 and based (unsurprisingly) on the handwriting of its creator, Bradley Hand was designed at a time when a departure from traditional serif and san-serif fonts on personal computers would still have been a novelty. I remember a time when typing in something that resembled actual handwriting was amusing. Which makes us sound like simpletons, but the early nineties where simpler times for computer folk.

 

Why is it bad?

Unlike a lot of the fonts on this list I don’t consider Bradley Hand to be a particularly appealing one. It’s an okay typeface, but the mishmash of thin, rugged, irregularity just sort of fails to capture anything in particular.

 

It’s not formal enough to be a legitimate script font, it’s too insubstantial to hold its own as a header, and too uneven to work for copy. It’s not script, it’s scrawl; a ragged hodgepodge of the most uncooperative characteristics. To be fair this is common among the handwritten subgenre of fonts. Like most typefaces within that group it finds its only, limited, utility therein.

 

It works if you need to simulate a signature, or an old note, scratched out on parchment, but for more practical uses it’s pretty useless. Again my apologies to Bradley. You’re probably a wonderful person. Your handwriting, like mine however, is rubbish.

 

I imagine it’s that gimmick of making something look authentic, that makes it appealing to the masses. But it’s an obvious and therefore cheap trick. Much like Papyrus, its effect is a flimsy counterfeit. Character repetition always betrays a font as a font and any illusion of penmanship mostly dispelled.

 

Handwritten fonts need to be employed self-awarely, in order to avoid the cliche. They have a place, usually in a playful context that embraces the farce. But attempting to force authenticity or be taken seriously while using one, undermines the artistic (and professional) integrity of whatever it’s applied to.

 

Handwritten fonts are sometimes used on junk mail to infer the personal attention of a penned letter. As though it isn’t blatantly obvious it’s printed and not written. Am I supposed to be touched an obviously phony gesture? Psuedo sincerity is a clumsy tactic and insulting to your audience’s intelligence.

 

It’s why using a handwritten font indiscriminately can actually feel more disingenuous than a more traditional one. You’re not fooling anyone but yourself. If you’re audience is already onboard with the farce then that’s different, which is why self-awareness and context matter.

 

Good Alternatives

There is no shortage of handwritten fonts but ones with Bradley Hand’s unique “qualities” are rare. Choosing the right one will depend more on the type of effect you’re looking for.

 

Homemade Apple - Cursive, but similarly scrawled and ragged.

Reenie Beanie - Loose, casual, hurried. Like a quickly penned letter.

Shadows Into Light - Not an ideal match, but a good choice if you’re going for “casual handwriting”.

Nothing You Could Do - “Hastily written” but ideally legible.

 

Impact font

Impact

I love the irony of this font’s name. Because that’s exactly what it had up until about 1996 when Microsoft included it as part of their Core fonts for the Web pack. Since then it’s been the go-to font when you have something so important to say that you need to smack your audience upside the head with it. Needless to say its integrity and effectiveness have rapidly declined as a result of overexposure.

 

On most people’s short list of overused fonts, and one of those few well known outside of the design community, Impact is a staple of headers, sales fliers and marketing pitches. It’s bold, highly visible, and practically forces your audience to read it.
Like other fonts on this list it fills a niche. It’s the boilerplate solution when looking for a typeface with impending weight and immediacy. But attention is not the same thing as interest and while design that screams in your face succeeds initially, the clumsy belligerence of such an approach lacks persuasion.

 

Why is it bad?

Impact has become synonymous with flashy, cheap marketing and the gimmicky mentality and tactics associated with it. Almost completely devoid of finesse, it reeks of desperation, screaming its message with the clownish disrepute of an obnoxious used car salesman.

 

It’s the starburst sale sticker of fonts, briefly arresting but ultimately just more generic marketing noise. Informed consumers have adjusted to loud, artless sales ploys, and over time learned to unconsciously recognize and tune them out.
That’s the problem with impact. Though successful in momentarily capturing its audience’s fleeting attention, it’s become such a cliche it just blends in with rest, failing to stand out among other similarly cheesy tactics. It’s bold but easy to ignore, loud but ultimately forgettable.

 

Good Alternatives

Bold headline fonts have their place if used carefully. The main reason Impact fails in this capacity is it’s just too well known to feel authentic anymore. Try something new.

 

Anton – A perfect substitute for its weight and power. Use mostly in all-caps to avoid it’s odd capital and lowercase heights.

Oswald – Another similar, but more interesting alternative. It also has weight options.

Fjalla One – Thinner but a bit more versatile overall.

 

Lobster font

Lobster

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that among the over-used fonts of the masses, there’s a subcategory more exclusive to designers. Though lesser known to the general public, a handful of fonts have reached critical mass because of their professional appeal and inclusion in popular font libraries.

 

Web font catalogues like Google fonts & Adobe Typekit are valuable resources for developers and designers, but in some ways they run the same risks as system fonts. As the design community congregates around a limited pool of fonts, favorites quickly become popular annoyances.

 

I’m not sure exactly when Pablo Impallari created Lobster, but it seems to have appeared only within the last several years, making its accelerated rise to infamy, and inclusion on this list, all the more impressive. It’s a beautiful, but woefully over-used typeface.

 

It suggests an italic, cursive form without sacrificing readability. It’s clean and organized with a sumptuous, lilting flow. It’s the perfect dessert font. It’s indulgent without the exhaustive decadence of most cursive typefaces.

 

The tragedy of Lobster is that, like Brush Script, it’s a victim of its own genius (Impallari took advantage of OpenType font capabilities to include multiple, contextual character designs that accommodate adjacent letters). Combining a variety of appealing characteristics, it fulfills a plethora of design criteria, lending itself to an impressive range of applications.

 

 

Why is it bad?

Of the more designer-centric fonts, Lobster (and a handful of its different incarnations) is by far the most done-to-death of them all. Again, this is a case of clever type design creating a monster of almost Comic proportions. The fact that some designers have rallied with collective pitchforks and torches to fan the flames of its demise speaks volumes.

 

It’s extremely popular for logos and headings. But its distinct blend of pillowy curves and swooshy embellishments make it stick out like a fancy ligature on a geometric sans-serif (Sorry, typography humor). It’s really really obvious.

 

In fact Lobster may be one of the most recognizable fonts out there. Anyone familiar with it can spot it a mile away. It’s so glaringly obvious when it shows up that it’s hard to respect the creative integrity of whatever it’s being used for.

 

Note: Avoid the fonts Pattaya and Galada as well, as they’re pretty much just Lobster in disguise.

 

Good Alternatives

Lobster’s a tough font to substitute as the rare combination of its many qualities is part of the reason it’s so popular to begin with. Context and style may need to be considered with greater specificity to achieve the look that you’re going for.

 

Oleo Script - Maybe the next closest thing, Oleo isn’t quite as fluid but shares a similar weight and readability.

Lemonda - A range of weights and clean pacing invoke a similar plush whimsy.

Sansita One – Like Lemonada, a bit more playful but also smooth and very legible.

Pacifico - More irregular but similarly thick. Depending on the style you’re going for, this one might get you there.

 

http://bydavidlange.com
by David Lange

David Lange is a freelance web designer and brand consultant living in Shelbyville Ky. A multi-disciplinary designer, illustrator, and artist, he has a myriad of experience and insights into the world of web and branding. He's currently focused on helping small businesses understand and harness the web.