Tip of the month from
Selection of fonts
Updated 5 August 1998 (Adobe
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Tip of the month is edited by Peter
Ring, PRC (Peter Ring Consultants, Denmark)
- consultants on how to write
user friendly manuals
If you have corrections, better texts or suggestions for improvements,
please let me know.
Which font to use where is one
of the top FAQs from technical writers. I will here make a summary of my
experiences, added some wisdom from my teachers within the graphic arts.
There is no general eternal truth
about which font to choose for a certain purpose. It is a compromise based
on a lot of considerations:
Let's take a look at these factors
- What fonts are the readers
most used to read.
- The output media (paper,
screen, fax, ...)
- The background.
- General printing space considerations.
- Font size.
- The type of message (technical,
- If used on-line: availability
on the users computer.
- Company/organisation policy.
- Graphical design considerations.
Which font type?
But there are a large number of considerations, which may lead to other choices.
- Variable width fonts are
easier to read than fixed width fonts. The reason is, that with variable
width the individual characters differ more from each other.
- A wide font is easier
to read than a narrow font - within reasonable limits!
- A serif type font is
in principle (high-resolution media, same user preference, same training
in reading the font, etc.) Easier to read than a non-serif type font,
because the individual characters differ more from each other.
- If you absolutely want to
make a text almost unreadable, use UPPERCASE LETTERS or C
APITALS. The reason is,
that upper case letters are more alike than lower case letters. Upper-case-only
texts are for very short sentences, only, max. 10 characters or so, e.g.
The type of message
My teachers within the graphical
arts has taught me the following rule-of-thumb:
- For technical/scientific
texts, talking to the rational side of the readers, use a non-serif
font like Arial or Helvetica. This will be the case with most technical
- For texts talking to the
readers emotions, use a serif type of font like Times Roman. This
is e.g. the case with advertising texts, incl. sales letters.
- For general texts
(e.g. newspapers) the general rules wins, and unless the output media (resolution,
etc.) or background favours non-serif types, use a serif type text.
- For forms, tables
, etc., Where there is a fixed text length in characters to be observed,
or where it is important that the letters are placed over each other in a
controlled way, use a fixed width font like Courier. In all
other cases, use a variable width font.
Within reasonable limits,
the higher the small lowercase letter is compared to the under- and over-length,
the smaller font size will still be readable. That's why e.g. a 9 point Times
Roman is comparable in readability with an 8 point Helvetica.
- Which fonts are the readers
most used to read?
A well-known font is easier to read than less known or unknown font. By reading
a text with a certain font, you are trained to read that font quickly. Minor
differences like the difference between Arial and Helvetica has no importance
at all for the readability. My teachers within the graphical arts has taught
me the following rules-of-thumb:
- Technically oriented readers
like engineers are most used to read technical texts because of general
acceptance of the "Type of message
" rules above. They are consequently reading a non-serif type text faster
than a serif text.
- Humanistic oriented readers
are most used to read newspapers or emotionally oriented texts. They are
consequently reading a serif type text faster than a non-serif text.
- Commonly used fonts are
faster and easier to read than special fonts. Especially the creative
fonts are often difficult to read. Consequently use a font within or close
to one of common font type families like Times, Helvetica, Courier or Schoolbook.
- The output media:
- On high resolution media,
serif type fonts are basically faster and easier to read than non-serif fonts
. See "Basically
" above. But this point is less important than which fonts the readers are
most used to read.
- On low resolution media
like fax or screen, the much smaller resolution (d.p.i.) of a screen
makes non-serif fonts much more readable, especially those with a fixed stroke
width, like Arial or Helvetica.
- The background:
- When using a bright text
on a dark background, preferably use a bold, fixed stroke width, non-serif
type because thin lines disappears on a dark background.
- The same rule is valid if
using a "watermark" background, or a greytone background printed by means
of little black dots (screen). Generally, watermarks disturbs the reading.
- Printing space considerations:
we all want to be able to put as much text as possible in as little space
as possible without loosing readability. This is especially the case with
technical publications, where the users' ability to survey the subject is
of greatest importance, but generally there are important economical considerations,
- Serif type texts takes up
more space than an equivalent non-serif font because the serifs demands extra
space between the vertical strokes.
Different fonts has different relationships between
- the size of a small lowercase
letter like an "a",
- the over-length, e.g. the
height difference between a "k" and an "a",
- and the under-length, e.g.
the height difference between a "g" and an "a".
- Letter width: basically within
reasonable limits, wider letters are easier to read but also takes up more
space. However, in some cases you can go down a point in size with a wider-letter
font and still make it equally readable.
- The space between the letters
has normally been optimised by the font designer, and the readers are most
used to the standard spacing. Compressing (or widening!) this space will
consequently in most cases reduce the readability.
- The more space between the
lines (normally expressed in points, too) the better, until double spacing.
Example of how to state it: a Helvetica 8/9 point is a 8 point Helvetica
with 1 point (extra) spacing between the lines.
- The font size (point).
Basically, the larger the font, the better readability until the line length
becomes too short (less than 30 to 35 characters). But the font size needed
also depends on a number of factors:
- The font type selected. See
"Dfferent font has ...
- The readers (young, old,
more or less visually impaired, ...). Younger people can read e.g. an 8 point
Helvetica (Ariel, etc.) or 9 point Times without problems. Old people need
e.g. an 11 point Helvetica or 12 point Times.
- The heading, etc. level.
As a rule of thumb, a point size factor of 1.4 is suitable between heading
levels. Bold text adds typically .5 to 1 "heading level", depending of how
bold the bold font is compared to the normal text font.
If used on-line: availability on the user's computer.
If a computer is asked to display
a font, it don't know, one out of two things may happen:
It is consequently a good idea
to ensure that the font is available on the user's computer. There are three
ways to do that:
- It will protest and ask for
the requested font.
- It will more or less automatically
replace the unknown font with another font to alert the user about the problem
but still make the information available. Very often the replacement font
is a courier type.
When using Adobe Acrobat
, special attention should be made to the "Distiller/Job options" menu, "Font
embedding" tabsheet. If you check the "Subset fonts below", the font will
be embedded with a prefix to the font name, i.e. a name which can not exist
on the destination system. And so your embedded font will be used instead
of the printers local version. For further details, see the Adobe Acrobat
"Help" file, chapter 5, "Font embedding".
- Use a font, which everybody
has got. In the Windows environment, that is TrueType fonts like Ariel (close
to Helvetica), Times New Roman and Courier New, and "system fonts" like MS
Serif and MS Sans Serif. The system fonts are available in certain sizes,
only, e.g. 8, 10, 12, 14, 18, 24 point.
- Embed the font within the
document, when saving the document. In many programmes, there is a clickable
option for embedding the font when saving a file. This makes sure, that the
receiver can at least read the document properly.
- Include the font, together
with a suitable installation procedure executable file and/or description.
If you do so, make sure you don't infringe any copyrights!
Most larger and many small companies
has got a graphical line to be followed. In many cases, this includes which
fonts to be used where. These rules must of course be followed.
If the fonts chosen are rare
or specially designed for the company, there are special considerations to
- The fonts must be easily
available internally, e.g. Downloadable from the internal network.
- When working with external
printers and free-lancers, make sure they get the font(s) to be used.
- Don't use them for on-line
versions of your documents, unless you have made sure, the users can access
the font type, see "If used on-line
Graphical design considerations.
Less important for technical communication.
Of course the font should fit to the general graphical design, but the other
points above are more important, and the graphical design must be adapted
to the result of the readability, etc. considerations, and not the other
If you disagree
with these ideas - or have other relevant points, experiences, or ideas +/-,
please e-mail me
for new "Tip of the month" subjects are very welcome, too!
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