Welcome to (or back to) Tech Tools, a regular column of The Idaho Librarian devoted to informal discussion of practical technologies. As always, I welcome your comments, ideas, and feedback on this post or other technologies you would like featured in this column.
Microsoft Word 2013 includes 67 fonts, which seems like enough for any one person in a lifetime. But that number doesn’t even scratch the surface – in 2012 there were over 90,000 typefaces available for download, and that number is growing daily (Yves). It’s amazing to me that there could possibly be 90 variations of a single, recognizable letter of the alphabet, much less 90,000.
What is one supposed to do with all of these fonts? How does one pick? Why does it matter? These are the questions that I attempt to address in this column.
There are several terms that mean something different in the typographic world than they do in common use. Below is a brief glossary of the most important. For the sake of brevity, these definitions refer to contemporary use, and do not include historical references.
Font – A collection of symbols (usually letters, numbers, and punctuation) that are used to render type. Technically, a font includes only one style, i.e. Arial Black.
Font family – A package of styles that is available for a given font. For example, the Calibri font family includes 6 styles – light, light italic, regular, italic, bold, and bold italic.
Font Style – A font style refers to a variation such as bold, italic, heavy, or light. Some fonts come in so many styles it makes my head spin, while others may only come in 1 or 2.
A font is what you use, and typeface is what you see. – Norbert Florendo, Font or Typeface?
Point size – The size of the characters as well as the space around the characters. If you’ve ever noticed that some fonts appear larger than others at the same point size and wondered (as I have) why, now you know.
Text – The words themselves and the structure of a series of words in order. Sometimes used as shorthand for body text, which is the text of the main body of a work, excluding elements such as the table of contents.
Typeface – The design elements (style and shape) of a collection of symbols that comprise a font. This is an important distinction to typographers.
Typography is the visual component of the written word. – Matthew Butterick, Butterick’s Practical Typography
Typography – “The practice of creating, selecting, and arranging or setting type” (Rosendorf).
What font is used on the Absolut Vodka bottles? I don’t know. But I can tell you that the name “Absolut” is set in the typeface Futura Extra Bold Condensed. – Allan Haley, They’re Not Fonts!
In common usage, font and type are often used interchangeably, and the word font is used to describe an entire font family. Unless otherwise specified, I’ll use this convention.
Why do Fonts Matter?
Make no mistake, your choice of type fonts is as important (if not as meaningful) as the content of your work.
Attention is the reader’s gift to you. That gift is precious. And finite. And should you fail to be a respectful steward of that gift—most commonly, by boring or exasperating your reader—it will be promptly revoked. – Matthew Butterick, Butterick’s Practical Typography
Font choice impacts your readers ability to focus on your writing in the following ways:
- Fonts can give (or not give) structural cues about a document. These cues help readers find their place on the page and form a cognitive map of the information (Higgenbotham; Queen).
- Fonts indicate the relative importance of portions or sections of the content within a document. (Higgenbotham).
- The shape of the letters themselves (and the white space surrounding them) impact reading speed, comprehension, and attention (Santa Maria).
Our ability to recognize words is affected by the shapes they form. All-caps text forms blocky shapes with little distinction, while mixed-case text forms irregular shapes that help us better identify each word. – Jason Santa Maria, How We Read
On an aesthetic level, your font choices have an immediate visceral impact on viewers. You have about 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression (Levy, 2008), and whether you do or not effects readers’ perceptions of the credibility, value and usability of your content (David).
In addition to this split-second first impression, viewers also experience
emotional responses based on aesthetics. Not only does this matter in terms of how your patrons feel about the library, it can have an impact on reading comprehension. This is because, while a pleasant aesthetic experience increases focus, an unpleasant one splits the readers’ attention between content and the negative emotional experience (Levy).
Finally, consistent use of good font choices in marketing materials enhances brand recognition and keeps readers from becoming confused by materials that are visually diverse yet related (David; Higgenbotham).
Types of Type
There are many ways of classifying fonts, but for our purposes, we’ll talk about four broad categories:
Serif (or seriffed) fonts have a small extra stroke at the ends of each letter. Most books use serif fonts because they flow nicely in large blocks of text.
Sans Serif fonts don’t include these extra strokes. Though the adage that sans-serif fonts are best for on-screen reading has been called into question (Cousins), many of them are optimized for digital publishing.
Script fonts are designed to look like calligraphy or handwriting and come in two types: formal and casual.
Decorative (or display) fonts are unique fonts that are most often used in advertising, . Most decorative fonts look best when used for just a few words, and at larger sizes.
Sometimes fonts overlap categories, such as in the two examples below:
Another way to look at font design is to consider personality (also called voice). You may have heard that fonts have personalities and presumed that this was a colorful figure of speech. Actually, believe it or not, people research this, and it’s
true – people associate fonts with personality characteristics. For example, one study grouped fonts into several personality categories, including directness,
gentleness, and cheerfulness (Li and Suen). Side note: I find these categories to be really weird, do you?
In addition to correlating fonts to personality traits, researchers in the field of visual rhetoric also try to identify the design features that lend a font its specific personality (Mackiewicz).
While this line of inquiry is interesting, it is probably not necessary to learn how to analyze typeface anatomy in order to choose a font that suits your purpose. If you think about it, these studies focus on perceptions that we already have. Therefore, in many cases, font selection is intuitive.
If you aren’t convinced, try the quick “Spot the Voice” test offered by typography expert Even Sorken in his article The Voices of Type. You’ll have to scroll down just a bit to see the quiz. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
When thinking about a typeface’s voice, its categorization/classification is not important. Instead, we need to know if the type is cheerful or dour. Is it relaxed or in a hurry? Is the type serious or frivolous? Luxurious or downmarket? Young or old? Fragile or robust? – Eben Sorken, The Voices of Type
Done? Great! I’m sure you passed the test with flying colors, but just in case, the next section offers some more concrete font-selection advice.
Consider your audience. Older adults will need a more legible font in a larger point size; teenagers may like something a bit flashy, and little kids – I have no idea, you tell me.
Save decorative fonts for titles, headers, and similar brief passages of text that you want to draw attention to.
Be consistent – use the same size, font, and style for headers of the same level, for example.
Don’t use all capital letters, as they’re harder to read. Also, I had a colleague once who used all caps to type emails, and IT SEEMED LIKE HE WAS YELLING ALL THE TIME.
When using more than one font, they should be quite different in form. For example, if you choose a sans-serif font for a title, select a serif font for the body text.
Except under extraordinary circumstances, two fonts is enough.
This column barely scratched the surface of what there is to know about typography, typefaces, and fonts. If you’re interested in the topic, or would like to explore, below are some resources that you may enjoy.
Finding & installing fonts
So the 67 fonts already installed on your computer aren’t enough, hunh? Me either. You can get free fonts from many sites. Fortunately, Creativebloq has a list of 36 Sites to Download Free Fonts.
Need help? Stephanie Evergreen of Evergreen Data has posted excellent instructions for both PC and Mac in her post titled Finding Fonts & Passing them On.
Tools for font afficionados
Flipping Typical is a website that displays your fonts in a browser window. Type text into the input area at the top of the screen, and you can compare how it looks in various typefaces.
Similar to Flipping Typical, but create a free account and use the Font Viewer to organize and rate your fonts.
Fonts in Use – You know how fonts are on signs, packaging, advertising, billboards, everywhere? This website tells you what they are.
Fontology – A typography workbook with a very nice glossary.
I Love Typography – A great blog with interesting and informative articles.
Professional Web Typography – If you’re composing for Web display, things are a bit different. This free online book has the details.
Typedia – An online encyclopedia of typography.
Typography Deconstructed – A very good reference for type anatomy.
David, Alicia, and Peyton R. Glore. “The impact of design and aesthetics on usability, credibility, and learning in an online environment.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 13.4 (2010).
Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D., and Vaughan, E. “Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of Disfluency on Educational Outcomes.” Cognition, 118.1 (2011): 111-115. Print.
Higgenbotham, Daniel. Clean Up Your Mess: A Guide to Visual Design for Everyone. 2011. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Li, Y, and C.Y Suen. “Typeface Personality Traits and Their Design Characteristics.”Acm International Conference Proceeding Series. (2010): 231-238. Print.
Mackiewicz, Jo. “How To Use Five Letterforms To Gauge A Typeface’s Personality: A Research-Driven Method.” Journal Of Technical Writing & Communication 35.3 (2005): 291-315. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Queen, Matt. “How Much do Fonts Matter Really? (Hint: A Lot).” Creativelive blog. 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Rosendorf, Theodore. The Typographic Desk Reference: TDR. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 2009. Print.
Santa Maria, Jason. “How We Read.” A List Apart. 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Yue, Carole L., Alan D. Castel, and Robert A. Bjork. “When disfluency is—and is not—a desirable difficulty: The influence of typeface clarity on metacognitive judgments and memory.” Memory & Cognition 41.2 (2013): 229-241. Print.
Yves, Peters. “Bold & Justified: The Typographic Universe in Just One ideographic.” The Font Feed. 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.