Designers will typically have a list of favorite fonts that they will use for all their projects. These favorite fonts can then be seen repeated throughout their body of work. Some claim that this is a guideline to follow if you want to be a great designer. How did this start and why are so many designers following this philosophy?
A Brief History about the 5 Font Rule
Sometimes designers may slip into it naturally. They find a font they really like for its functionality, readability, elegance, simplicity, etc. They find themselves using that particular typeface over and over. It can also be a conscience decision, because they saw the famously repeated quote from the famous designer Massimo Vignelli.
"In the new computer age, the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones and trash the rest." -Massimo Vignelli
Massimo made his statement back in 1991 and over 30 years later designers and bloggers are still quoting and following Massimo's philosophy about typeface usage. He's not entirely wrong. There is validity to this philosophy even to this day. Too many fonts out in the world does cause a certain kind of "visual pollution". When the goal of a designer is to bring beauty into an ugly world, this philosophy has an appeal to it. But the 5 font rule isn't just some philosophy about art and design. Over the years it has been used to justify both convenience and profitablility.
Convenience and Profitability
Picking out a set of 5 fonts you love that can be used repetitively for all your projects is also very convenient from a designer and business worldview.
• Only 5 fonts to choose from for all your projects.
• No more looking through font collections (easy to choose).
• Lower cost for licensing typefaces.
• Guaranteed quality of fonts.
• Familiar, safe, proven.
It's a much simpler workflow for all your projects, and quality is guaranteed for your font selections since you're using them all the time (you know them intimately). If you limit your creative process to just a few fonts you can maximize your earning potential by reducing the amount of time you spend experimenting with different typefaces.
An Ideal of Elegance and Style
Once you adhere to Massimo's philosophy and commit to not adding any pollution into the visual world, you'll be only be adding beauty into the world. Always using the same typefaces for your projects begins to impart a certain style to your own brand as a designer. Your current and potential clients will know what to expect when it comes to the look and feel of your design capabilities. The 5 typefaces you choose, after all, can end up defining you as a designer.
A New Way (It's Time to Move Forward)
Being 30 years since the quote appeared, it's time for a change in thinking. There are times and places to be strict with the use of the 5 font rule, and there are times that it should be abandoned all together.
Laziness and Stagnation
The 5 font rule can be a great way to get complacent with design. After all once you find the 5 fonts that "define you", it will be difficult to explore a different visual world. You're stuck with those 5 and your work will stagnate. This type of thinking, that you can only allow yourself to use only 5 fonts for the entirety of your career, is the opposite of what creativity is about. It's limiting, boring, and does not allow for a new way of looking at things. Being on the cutting edge of design means you are willing to take risks and do new things to propel your work to new heights. Re-invent yourself, reinvigorate your clients, explore new ways to visually express yourself. If your'e not able to expand your horizons because you force yourself to hide behind only 5 fonts, your'e missing out on a whole world of sight.
Confining yourself to only a few fonts can also enable laziness. Rather than looking towards other fonts that may have an interesting voice and form, a "go-to" is created. It's comfortable, conventional, yet also uncreative and passive in the way a design or concept comes together. The repetitive nature of using the same font's over and over just creates art that is stagnant and has nothing new to say about a subject.
Best Interest of the Client
Let's face it, using your favorite fonts as a designer is not always in the nest interest of the client. The message that your client has, the brand they have developed over the years, the voice they want to convey to their audience, does not always line up with the fonts that you chosen to stick with. There needs to be some variation for specific use cases. The brand you create for your client is not your brand, but your client's brand.
A Hybrid Approach
We can take the 5 font rule and use its basic principle to a brand. This is not something new. Brands stick to only a few typefaces for their own branding. So when a designer chooses those fonts, they shouldn't impart their personal preferences onto the brand. They instead should do what's best for the brand and the voice of the brand. If a designer sticks to only 5 fonts then every brand they create will look the same. That seems clear.
This whole time we've been talking about fonts from the top of the hierarchy. We didn't really discuss the concept of just a few fonts on a per project basis. This is a very important distinction. When looking at font selection for a project like a poster, I am very much on board with the rule of only a couple fonts. Too many fonts causes a disconnect in communication on a single project level. This I whole heartedly agree about "visual pollution" in that case.
That said, a new system needs to be considered. Simply apply the 5 font rule to any brand, but don't limit those 5 fonts to all the brands you work with, or to every project you work on. There needs to be some rule breaking that is done in order to stay fresh and allow the expression of emotion through each design. Every font has a voice, a tone, a volume, an expression. What are you trying to convey, and are the 5 fonts your limiting yourself to able to express what you need it to? Consider these in your design choices, and if you need to, break the rules and add a few extra "situational typefaces" to your brand or design arsenal.