Archive: September 28th, 2008

MM: Fontastic

mangled2

How often do you think about the font you use?

I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately–mostly because I think they’re fun–but like all good things, they can be used well, or they can be used very, very badly.

Fonts, or typefaces, are the actual shapes of the letters you see on your screen, and there are multitudes, thousands of them, to choose from.

The trick is choosing wisely.

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but I wanted to point out two things you should keep in mind.

The Most Important Feature of a Font is Readability. 

As many fun, cool, creative, nifty, artistic fonts as there are out there, they’re no use to anyone at all if you can’t read them. You might be able to get away with a particularly artistic font for something like a logo or a blog header, but for the text on your web page?

Don’t make your readers have to work to read you. Whether it’s a website, a pdf, or an article in Word you are submitting to an editor for publication, think about whether that font is easy to read. Are the letters clear? Are the “e”s easy to pick out? Does the lowercase “a” look too much like a lowercase “s” or an “o”? Would you want to read pages of text in this font? Or would it make your eyes tired? Think about the difference between, say, Times New Roman and that blocky, Old English calligraphy. Comic Sans versus Arial or Helvetica. Some are just more friendly to the eyes than others … and as a writer, you cannot take that for granted.

And, of course, a font that you can’t read rather defeats the purpose, wouldn’t you agree?

Serif vs Sans Serif

Do you know the difference between Serif and Sans Serif? The way it was explained to me in a college lecture was that serifs dated back to ancient Rome, when stone carvers would chisel words into marble, finishing off each line with a little twist of the chisel, to make it look complete. So, any font (like Times Roman, Copperplate, Rockwell, Courier) that has that little extra touch or tweak to each line of the letter, is a Serif font.

Sans Serif, on the other hand, means “without serif”. (I don’t know much French, but I do know “sans”.) For Sans Serif fonts, a line is just a line, no extras, no furbelows. Fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Tahoma, Franklin Gothic, Myriad … all of these are simple, clean, basic.

The real difference–from a writing/design point of view–is that in a small font, serifs can make words harder to read, by using up too much white space and making the reader work harder. If you’re designing a form to be filled in, you can squeeze in more in a small space with Sans Serif. On the other hand, serif fonts are usually considered easier for large chunks of reading. If you pick up the nearest book, the odds are very high that it’s printed in a serif font. The theory is that the serifs help your eyes move from letter to letter, word to word.

Additionally, Sans Serif fonts are usually considered more “modern” because they have a cleaner look, no muss, no fuss. Serif fonts are more traditional. So, again, if you’re writing a hip, trendy blog, you might want to avoid using a font like Bookman. (Although, of course, using fonts on the internet opens up a whole other can of worms, because the only fonts you can be sure of using are ones that are on the readers’ computers … almost everyone has Times New Roman, but a font like Adobe Caslon Pro may only be on a handful. But, um, that’s another story.)

What it all boils down to is … take a minute to consider what fonts you use, and how you are using them. Because you don’t want to alienate your readers by choosing something hard on the eyes … not if you want them to continue being your readers!