It's easy to see why calligraphy fonts are so popular right now; they are a simple way of achieving the look of pointed pen calligraphy without a) the time commitment of learning how to do it yourself, or b) the cost of having to pay someone to do it for you! However, not all calligraphy fonts are created equal. There are a lot of calligraphy fonts out there that aren't well-crafted, they don't fit together properly, or they don't have any special features to help mimic a handwritten script.
Here is a quick guide for what to look for when picking out a calligraphy font:
1. Alternative Glyphs
I think the beauty of real calligraphy is the slight variances and inconsistencies of the letterforms that remind you that it has been created by hand. For a calligraphy font to be successful it needs to be high-quality and contain plenty of alternative glyphs to try and recreate that aesthetic.
In typography terms the word 'glyph' roughly describes a character within a font, e.g. a numeral, a letter in the alphabet, or punctuation marks. So when you see a calligraphy font advertising 'alternative glyphs', that means that it contains lots of different versions of frequently used letters, or combinations of letters. You will be able to swap out different versions of letters to achieve a more custom look.
Bombshell by Emily Lime is a good example of a well-designed calligraphy font (see picture below), it has over 800 glyphs! I love the romantic, natural-looking flow of this font. The "run on" letter connections and alternative characters mean you can create a pretty unique and realistic calligraphic effect.
2. A Moving Baseline
Similar to alternative glyphs, a moving baseline is integral for helping you get that handwritten look. The baseline is the imaginary line upon which the majority of a line of text 'sits' on:
High-quality calligraphy fonts are designed to have an uneven baseline to mirror the natural and expressive rhythm of handwriting. For example, Asterism by Great Lakes Lettering (see image below) has a subtly moving baseline which helps create a realistic, hand-written effect.
On a side note, if you not already familiar with Molly Jacques (one of the founders of Great Lakes Lettering), I would definitely suggest looking her up. Her calligraphy styles are so beautiful, she's one of my favourite hand-lettering artists!
Who doesn't love a good swash? If you're not familiar with the term, a 'swash' in typography is a decorative flourish added to a glyph. Calligraphy is all about the swashes!
Here is an sample of the kind of swashes that you can find in Bombshell:
Another font that does swashes very well is Carolyna Pro Black by Emily Lime. As you can see from the image below, this font has some pretty large swashes even in the basic alphabet set, so combined with the alternative glyphs, this is a fun font to play with!
You can also add swashes at the beginning and ends of words or phrases. Both Bombshell and Carolyna Pro Black have this feature. Again, so fun to experiement with!
4. Make Sure it's Legible
Calligraphy fonts can be hard to read! They should be used sparingly: I suggest using them for display text rather than body text, and always at a large enough size. I would also recommend pairing them with a very legible secondary font. Remember that you might be able to read it, but not everyone can read calligraphy easily.
5. Don't Mess with the Tracking!
'Tracking' is the spacing between the letters of a word (see graphic below). One of my pet peeves is seeing a calligraphy font set at the wrong tracking! Calligraphy fonts are supposed to run on nicely joining letter to letter, they shouldn't be spaced out, or squashed up. Some free calligraphy fonts are not properly designed, make sure the one you have chosen to use has perfect tracking!
Where to Use Calligraphy Fonts
Calligraphy fonts are perfect for designs that have a shorter shelf-life, for example, stationery design, advertising, and digital design like social media posts and web banners. In other words, designs that need to look attractive, current and contemporary but aren't meant to last the test of time.
I am personally not a fan of using calligraphy fonts for logo design, unless it's really well done. There's nothing wrong with wanting your brand to be fashionable, but you have to be conscious of the fact that your trendy logo design may not stand the test of time. Calligraphy fonts may go out of fashion in a few years: you don't want to be stuck with an out-of-date logo. Something else to consider is that a lot of calligraphy fonts are now so popular and widely-used, that if you use them in your logo it will not be unique, and it might be in danger of looking cheap. If you love the idea of a hand-lettered logo, I would recommend investing in hiring a calligrapher or hand-lettering artist to create a custom design for you.