Finding the Right Clothes for Your Words
by Reid Goldsborough
If you’re conscientious, you think carefully about the words you choose, whether you’re writing an email message or something more formal. Making yourself clearly understood helps you get your message across and helps your readers benefit from what you’re saying.
Many people, however, don’t think twice about the way their words, and specifically their letters, look on screen or paper. The particular form that letters take involves the font you choose, and typography— the art of choosing the right font—has been around for far longer than personal computers. But PCs have opened up typographic possibilities to far more people.
When desktop publishing was introduced in 1985, the surfeit of font choices led many people to create documents that looked like ransom notes written by a terribly inspired 10-year-old. At the opposite extreme, some people always used the same font, which is a lot like always wearing the same clothes. People make judgments about you and what you’re writing as a result of the font you use, even if those judgments are subconscious.
What Certain Fonts Convey
The meaning of the word font has changed over the years; in the digital world it’s largely synonymous with typeface, denoting a stylistically coordinated set of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks.
The two most popular fonts today are Times New Roman and Arial, the former a serif font, with small designs at the ends of strokes within letters, and the latter a sans serif font, which lacks such designs. Sans serif fonts, which are starker and bolder, are more commonly used for titles and headlines, while serif fonts can aid legibility and are more commonly used for the body of works.
People typically choose among the fonts that their computer programs install for them. But you can also buy fonts separately; literally tens of thousands are available. You can also visit Web sites where generous designers make fonts available to download for free, including 1001 Free Fonts (1001freefonts.com).
Choosing which font makes the most sense for any given work is much like choosing what clothes to wear to work, a formal party, an informal gathering of friends, or a workout at the gym. You should aim for both image and utility.
A study by researchers at the Software Research Laboratory of Wichita State University sheds light on this. The researchers analyzed 20 of the more common fonts by asking more than 500 people their views about the images the fonts projected. Kristen was the best font for projecting flexibility; Impact was the best for projecting assertiveness; Georgia was best for projecting practicality; and Gigi was best for projecting creativity. But there are usually two sides to a coin: Kristen also projects instability and rebelliousness, Impact rudeness and unattractiveness, and Gigi impracticality and passivity.
Some people use Courier New because it’s a monospaced font, with each letter taking up the same amount of horizontal space, just as letters do with a typewriter. This may be useful if you need to align numbers in a column. But Courier New can project conformity, lack of imagination, and dullness, according to the researchers. A better choice for a monospaced font is Consolas.
Times New Roman is a versatile, all-around font with an interesting history. It was commissioned by the British newspaper The Times in 1931, hence its name. Microsoft has included it in every copy of Windows since version 3.1, and it’s the default font in many Windows programs. On the Mac it’s called Times, and it’s also the default in many Mac programs. The U.S. State Department in 2004 mandated that all U.S. diplomatic documents use Times New Roman instead of the previous Courier New. But if you use it reflexively, consider Georgia, which is less stiff but equally legible.
Even though the Wichita State study looked at only 20 fonts, its results can give you a good feel for why type talks (psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/81/PersonalityofFonts.htm).
Fonts can be fun, but don’t overdo them. Rules of thumb:
Use no more than three different fonts per page.
Minimize the use of varying font sizes and styles, such as italic, bold, and underline. Too much variety can be jarring to the eye.
Avoid long stretches of text in italic, bold, or uppercase, which can be more difficult to read than regular upright type (roman).
Make sure there’s enough contrast between the letters and their background.
Black on white is easier to read than white on black, and both are easier to read than green on blue. The most legible combination is black on cream.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.reidgoldsborough.com.