Skip to main content

Font Fanatic: Putting the Best Face Forward

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
July 2009 Issue
May 30, 2009

Font Fanatic: Putting the Best Face Forward

How words look on a page or screen can be as important as what they state.

Consider corporate logos and signs you see around town. The lettering conveys everything from how “serious” the message is to associations with specific eras. Personally, I love the clean precision of Art Deco lettering, which brings to mind elegance, the Roaring 20s, and a young Hollywood.

However, no matter how much I might like Art Deco, I would not prepare a business letter using the typefaces Broadway, Plaza, or Desdemona. These might look great on Agatha Christie or F. Scott Fitzgerald novel covers, but they are inappropriate for a letter to my university department chair.

Having a few hundred fonts installed on your computer does not mean you should try to use them all, especially within the same document. I’ve seen the results of font addiction and they aren’t attractive.

I admit to being a typographic snob who still wishes “font” and “face” hadn’t been made synonymous by computer software. At the same time, I’m glad technology has rendered such distinctions pointless.

My fascination with letterforms dates back to high school, when I first encountered various typesetting technologies. I was fortunate enough to see one of the last hot-metal type machines in use at specialized print shop in Exeter. A “font” was a specific typeface at a given size, weight, and effect. You couldn’t change fonts without a lot of effort. Search YouTube for “Linotype” to see how far we have come.

Desktop publishing has revolutionized how we create documents. We have evolved from blurry dot-matrix printers to high-resolution color laser printers. Selecting fonts is a matter of a drop-down menu in most applications. Microsoft and Apple include two dozen fonts with their basic operating systems, not counting the fonts shipped with Microsoft Office or Apple’s iLife and iWork suites.

Most computers have at least Times New Roman, Arial, and Courier New installed. Apple and Microsoft include the Monotype foundry’s version of these fonts. Yes, Times New Roman is a revised design of Times Roman, both of which were designed for London newspapers. These slight differences can change the position of words in a document, making it almost essential to match fonts if you want to share documents between computers.

Students frequently send me documents created using fonts I do not have installed. While Calibri and Cambria are nice fonts included with newer versions of Microsoft Office, the reality is that the university computers don’t have these fonts installed. As a result, student papers appear in Courier New.

The lesson: if you share files, use common fonts. Otherwise, you never know what the results might be. Some applications choose the closest font name, alphabetically. I’ve had Zapfino, a beautiful script font, turn into Zapf Dingbats. The result was a page with seemingly random symbols where headings had been.

It is wise to use Times New Roman or a similar typeface for the main text of printed business documents. These faces are called “serif” type because the letterforms include extra strokes known as serifs. The extra lines are decorative, but they also help differentiate letters. We are conditioned to associate “serious” texts, like books, with serif typefaces.

Typefaces like Arial or Helvetica are known as “sans serif,” meaning they lack the decorative strokes. The reason many applications now default to sans serif fonts is that they are easier to display on a screen. Serif text can appear blurry on small screens, like those of cell phones. If a document is meant primarily for screen, a sans serif font might be a good choice for the text.

If you don’t plan to share a file with others, or if you are certain every computer will have the same design application and fonts installed, I suggest experimenting with templates, themes, and style sheets. These professional designs are helpful starting points.

Despite owning thousands of commercial fonts, I like traditional typefaces. I often use Caslon, Garamond, or Palatino for text. For headings, I like Gill Sans and Myriad Pro.

Ornamental typefaces, also known as “display” faces because they were created for advertisements and posters, should be used sparingly. Ornamental fonts are best suited for short lines, not long blocks of text.

Always ask yourself: what message does this font send? Design is often a matter of first impressions.

There is a difference between “professional” fonts and most free or shareware fonts. Commercial foundries create fonts with full character sets, carefully tested letter spacing, and special letter combinations known as ligatures.

For great fonts at reasonable prices:

1) If you use Microsoft Windows, CorelDraw ships with more than 1000 professional fonts, primarily from Bitstream and Letraset. The same fonts are marketed by Bitstream as a $500 collection.

2) Nova Development’s Art Explosion, available for Windows and Apple OS X, includes 1800 AGFA and ITC fonts on a supplementary CD. The same font collection sells for $4000, while Art Explosion is under $100 at many retailers.

Web Sites for Font Fans: is a collection of both free and shareware  fonts. The site is organized by categories such as “Western” or “Holiday.” is the site of Monotype Corp, where they also market fonts from most major foundries including Adobe and Linotype. sorts commercial font samples from many vendors into categories similar to those of’s directory. features TypeNavigator, which finds fonts matching detailed criteria. is home to “What The Font?” You can upload a picture of a font and their system will attempt to identify a match.

Ascender: Any stroke that rises above the lowercase letter x.

Descender: Any stroke that is below the baseline of most letters. Lowercase g, j, q, and y have descending tails.

Kerning: The space between pairs of letters. Some letters need to “overlap” or there are odd visual gaps within words.

Leading: The space between lines of text. Thin strips of lead used to separate lines.

Ligature: A special combination of letters, printed as a single character.

Points: Fonts are measured in points. There are approximately 72 points per inch.

Sans Serif: Literally, without serifs. A smooth letterform, with minimal adornments.

Serif: A decorative stroke added to a basic letterform. Typefaces with serifs are called “serif” fonts, after these strokes.

Strokes: The lines and curves in a letterform. The term refers to calligraphy strokes.


Popular posts from this blog

What I Studied in Graduate School

Lower case ‘a’ from Adobe Caslon Pro, superposed onto some guides. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Asked to summarize my research projects...

Curiously, beyond the theses and dissertation, all my work is in economics of media and narrative. I ask what works and why when offering stories to audiences. What connects with an audience and can we model what audiences want from narratives? (Yes, you can model data on narratives and what "sells" and what wins awards and what nobody wants.)

Yet, my degree research projects all relate to design of writing spaces, as knowing what works is also key to knowing what could be "sold" to users.

MA: How poor LMS UI/UX design creates online spaces that hinder the writing process and teacher mentoring of students.

Also: The cost of LMS design and compliance with legal mandates for usability.

Ph.D: The experiences of special needs students in online settings, from commercial spaces to games to learning spaces and which spaces are best desig…

Comic Sans Is (Generally) Lousy: Letters and Reading Challenges

Specimen of the typeface Comic Sans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Personally, I support everyone being able to type and read in whatever typefaces individuals prefer. If you like Comic Sans, then change the font while you type or read online content. If you like Helvetica, use that.

The digital world is not print. You can change typefaces. You can change their sizes. You can change colors. There is no reason to argue over what you use to type or to read as long as I can use typefaces that I like.

Now, as a design researcher? I'll tell you that type matters a lot to both the biological act of reading and the psychological act of constructing meaning. Statistically, there are "better" and "worse" type for conveying messages. There are also typefaces that are more legible and more readable. Sometimes, legibility does not help readability, either, as a type with overly distinct letters (legibility) can hinder word shapes and decoding (readability).

One of the co…

MarsEdit and Blogging

MarsEdit (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Mailing posts to blogs, a practice I adopted in 2005, allows a blogger like me to store copies of draft posts within email. If Blogger, WordPress, or the blogging platform of the moment crashes or for some other reason eats my posts, at least I have the original drafts of most entries. I find having such a nicely organized archive convenient — much easier than remembering to archive posts from Blogger or WordPress to my computer.

With this post, I am testing MarsEdit from Red Sweater Software based on recent reviews, including an overview on 9to5Mac.

Composing posts an email offers a fast way to prepare draft blogs, but the email does not always work well if you want to include basic formatting, images, and links to online resources. Submitting to Blogger via Apple Mail often produced complex HTML with unnecessary font and paragraph formatting styles. Problems with rich text led me to convert blog entries to plaintext in Apple Mail and then format th…