How To Use Fonts (And Why You Should Care)
Communication, both face-to-face and in writing, occurs on two levels: verbal and non-verbal. To achieve maximum impact, it is essential that this dual communication consistently corresponds. Think about it. Would you find a snickering salesperson persuasive? Would you find a monotone motivational speaker inspiring? No. Not any more than you find your state Congressperson sincere. Why? Because communication is more than just words. Because, quite simply, presentation matters. In writing, size does matter. And spacing. And color. And everything else.
Presentation is crucial to all forms of communication—most of all when dealing with written communication. Unlike information conveyed personally, a written message is static. It must speak for itself. Expert communicators know that superb content is not enough. They know that to achieve truly effective communication one must pay equal attention to how the content is presented. Contrarily, untrained communicators don’t realize that style can, and often does, override substance—and corporate trash-cans nationwide brim with the ridiculed remains of their ransom-note-like resumes. So how can you enhance the quality of your presentation? Well, just like Coach used to tell you—put in your mouthpiece and start with the basics. And basically, the fundamental element of written communication is font.
But what exactly, you might ask, is font? Put technically, font is the interface between your ideas and your readers. Put simply, font is the style of your typeface. Is it big, bold, crisp, underlined, or colored? Is it spaced well? Is it even legible? These are all important questions—questions that any conscientious document creator must answer and act on. But why are font decisions so critical?
When utilized well, a font or font mix accomplishes four things: 1) focuses attention, 2) enhances readability, 3) sets a tone, and 4) projects an image. Font is your first line of defense against reader apathy—and your first chance to really capture an audience, create a positive and lasting impression, and encourage continued interest. Remember, though, while font can (and should) be used for good, it can also be used for bad…impressions that is. Every day, writers discover that font choice is an excellent opportunity to make a mockery of their work. This in mind, effective font should be chosen both carefully and strategically. To assist, presented here is a brief digest of useful font guidelines.
1. WATCH YOUR CASE
As per tradition, for typical documents you should use upper and lower case text for the body of your work. Avoid using all upper or lower case text anywhere in your document, as both can be difficult to read. As for headings and titles, use upper case lettering whenever prescribed or necessary.
2. SIZE DOES MATTER
Generally accepted writing guidelines for typical documents prescribe the use of 10-12 point font for the body, 14-48 point font for primary headings, and one-half of the primary heading point size for secondary headings. A warning though: font on your computer screen may appear larger than it actually is. If you err, err on the large side. Remember, if your text is too small to read, it simply won’t get read.
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Simplicity is a virtue in writing. Keep this in mind when choosing a font or font mix. Remember, your font is supposed to enhance your message, not sabotage it. Unless it is truly warranted, tend toward simple, inconspicuous fonts like Times New Roman or Arial. Also, these fonts, among others, are TrueType—this means that what you see on the screen is exactly what you will see on the page.
4. BE CONSISTENT…
Font is a privilege, not a right. So don’t abuse it by using three or four different styles in the same document. As a rule, never use more than two fonts in the same piece. Like the saying goes: three fonts is a crowd—on your reader’s attention. So once you choose a font, be committed and use it throughout. Your readers will thank you.
5. …YET USE VARIETY WHEN NEEDED
Although, in general, font use should be consistent throughout a project, variety is sometimes needed to break the monotony. One good way to infuse diversity into a document is via the use of italicized, bold, or underlined text. These highlighting tools, as well as many others, are properly used to signal importance, emphasis, even inflection (see paragraph one). But remember, use them sparingly or don’t use them at all.
6. ABOVE ALL ELSE: MATCH YOUR MEDIUM
The goal of every project is different; as is the intended audience, the resources available, and so on. Accordingly, there isn’t one best font. Rather, it is the characteristics of your project that determine which font is superior. Remember, these are just guidelines, not gospel. If you need uppercase text, use it. A multicolored paragraph? Do it. Ultimately, the bottom line is: Does your presentation match your medium? If it does, bravo. If it doesn’t, it better.
Ten Tips to Improve Your Type
1. One space between sentences. Use only one space after periods, colons, exclamation points, question marks, quotation marks — any punctuation that separates sentences or thoughts. If you’re using two spaces, chances are you learned to type on a typewriter using monospaced type, where two spaces were needed to separate sentences properly. No more; you’re using proportionally spaced fonts on a computer now.
2. Periods and commas are always placed inside the quotation marks. Like “this,” never like “this”. Colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points go in or out, depending on whether thy belong to the material inside the quote or not. Logically, if they belong to the quoted material, they go inside the quote marks, and vice versa.
3. “Its” used as a possessive never has an apostrophe! With an apostrophe, “it’s” is a contraction meaning “it is” or “it has.” Always. Think of the possessives yours, hers, and his — they don’t use apostrophes so neither should its.
4. Don’t underline. Underlining is for typewriters; italic is for professional text. If you are wishing to emphasize a word or two and it’s not a book title, you can also use bold type, larger type, or a different font.
5. Very rarely (almost never) use all capital letters. All caps are much harder to read. We recognize words not only by their letter groups, but by their shapes. When words are in all caps, you can’t tell their shapes apart.
6. Never use the space bar to align text. If you want things to align, you must use tabs.
7. Avoid more than two hyphenations in a row. Avoid too many hyphenations in any paragraph. Never hyphenate a word in a heading. Break lines sensibly.
8. Serif type is more readable and is best for text. Sans serif type is more legible and is best used for headlines. Examples of serif type: Times New Roman, New Century Schoolbook; examples of sans serif (without serifs) type: Arial, Helvetica, Swiss.
9. Never combine more than two typefaces on the same page (unless you have a background in design and typography and know what you’re doing!). Never combine two serif fonts on the same page, and never combine two sans serif fonts on the same page.
10. Use italic and bold sparingly. Use them as you would a rich dessert — they’re fine occasionally, but easy to overdose on.