Choosing & Using Type
By Daniel Will-Harris
Type. In your lifetime you've seen billions of letters
and millions of words, yet you might never have consciously
noticed the typefaces you read.
Type is important because it's an unconscious persuader.
It attracts attention, sets the style and tone of a document,
colors how readers interpret the words, and defines the feeling
of the page--usually without the reader recognizing a particular
TYPE IS YOUR PERSONALITY ON PAPER. Change your typeface
and you go from casual to formal, silly to serious, staid to stylish,
old fashioned to modern.
TYPE IS IMAGE. You'd dress your best if you were going
to an important meeting, and your documents need to be well-dressed,
too. Type can reinforce your image as a company or an individual.
If you use it consistently enough, people will start to associate
you with certain typefaces. They might find themselves thinking
of you when they see that typeface, without knowing why.
TYPE IS POWER. Type has an effect on you even if
you don't consciously notice it. You can use this power to your
advantage to attract attention, strengthen your message, and improve
your image, or you can overlook it and work against yourself saying
one message with your text while conveying another with your font.
TYPE IS COMMUNICATION. Communication means relaying information
about our logic and emotions to others. The better you learn to
communicate, the better others will know you, and the better you'll
know yourself because logic, emotion, and about 98-percent water
are what you're made of.
TYPE IS IMPORTANT. The right typeface can encourage people
to read your message. The wrong typeface or bad typography can
make your message go unread.
The two most important things to remember...
There are entire books about using type (I've written several).
People spend their whole lives studying the practice. But here's
what it's all about:
Type is on the page to serve the text. It should make the
words easy to read and provide a suitable background. Type
should not overpower the text.
Type can be beautiful and decorative--but if type calls undue
attention to itself or makes it more difficult to read the text--then
it becomes self-conscious and distracting--like bad movie direction.
Of course, some people will love this and tell you how brilliant
you are--but they won't read the text. So what's the point?
There are no good and bad typefaces, there are
appropriate and inappropriate typefaces. Think about
your reader and the feeling you want to convey, then choose a
typeface that fits.
Simplistic? Maybe so. But if everyone followed these two rules,
you would have read more things in your life, and understood better
what you did read.
Type Psych 101
The most common question I'm asked (besides "if you were
a tree, what kind would you be (the answer, of course, is "Pecan")
is "What font should I use?"
And the answer is "It all depends." The most
important point you need to realize about type is that it's emotional.
No, it's not going to get all weepy after watching Out Of Africa
unless you printed it on an ink-jet printer and you're watching
the movie in a convertible at a drive-in on a rainy night.
Type is emotional on a subliminal level because
of the connotations it conveys. Here's the best example I can
give (I've tried thousands of them and everyone seems to
understand this one): Helvetica is the typeface used on IRS forms.
Now, how do you think you're going to feel when you read
something set in Helvetica? You may not consciously realize
that it's the same typeface the IRS uses, you may not even know
it's Helvetica. You may be under the impression that "Helvetica"
is the name of a small imported sports car from Hell, or you may
even know that Helvetica means "Swiss" in some foreign language (Latin).
But none of that matters. What matters is that you've seen
that typeface before, and not under the most pleasant circumstances.
Naturally, this little example only works in countries where Helvetica
is used for tax forms. In Switzerland, where virtually everything
is set in Helvetica (and tax forms end up looking like catalogs
for both lingerie and heavy equipment--the kind you're not supposed
to drive, or wear, after taking most over-the-counter cold remedies),
then it won't have the same connotations that it has in the U.S.A.
If your business is one that needs to be taken seriously, such
as banking, don't choose a whimsical typeface such as University
Roman or you'll lose credibility. If you have a fun business,
such as a party service, don't use a serious typeface such as
Helvetica or you'll come across as boring.
With that in mind, we get to the key to choosing the best
typeface for the job: finding the most appropriate
typeface. Not the prettiest, not the most space-efficient, but
the most appropriate.
If you're planning on getting a tattoo like Cher or Roseanne,
I suggest you forgo the cliché butterfly or heart and instead
use the words "Most Appropriate." Aha, but what typeface
will you use? Why, the most appropriate, of course.
If the absolutely most important thing about your document is
that it has to be easy to read by anyone of any age with any kind
of eyesight under any kind of lighting conditions, than the typeface
you choose must fit those criteria and you'll probably end up
with something that has a large x-height such as Cheltenham, Melior,
or Serifa. If the most important thing is that it looks traditional,
then you'll choose a typeface such as Centaur, Bembo, Bodoni,
Galliard, Palatino, or Weiss. If you want something casual and
friendly, you'll choose something like Cheltenham, Souvenir, or
How do you tell which font is Formal or Informal? Check
out Esperfonto. Or look at it and decide
for yourself. Hand out samples to readers and ask them what it
reminds them of. Your particular readership may just love
Helvetica, especially if they're tax accountants. So, you see,
Helvetica really does have a place--when you want to scare
people or look cold and heartless.
Here's the same text for a hotel set in different typefaces-notice
what different feelings are conveyed, just by using different
Think about your reader and the feeling you want to convey, then
choose a typeface that fits If you aren't sure which typefaces
are appropriate, visit Esperfonto. Esperfonto
is an interactive system that helps you choose the most appropriate
typeface for you particular job. Tell it if your piece is formal
or casual, and then choose from a number of impressions.
Esperfonto will then provide you with a list of typefaces that
fit your needs. If you don't know what the faces look like, Esperfonto
even provides on-screen samples.
Click here to see more dramatic examples of how different typefaces evoke different feelings.
The least you need to know to get the most out of type
Typographers would like you to believe that type is one of life's
great mysteries. They say things like, "You can't use it
correctly without years of experience," or "It's complicated
and if you do it wrong you'll look like an idiot." These
people are not unlike Parisians who make fun of you if you even
try to speak French but don't do it perfectly.
Type doesn't have to be intimidating if you think about it like
this: You've been looking at type for years. You've been
reading it since you were a kid. You know what it
looks like. It's obvious when it's hard to read.
At least 80% of typography is common sense (this is not
just some random number grabbed out of the air; it's a random
number plucked from my brain). Sure, there are a few things
you learned in school that you need to unlearn, but overall,
the basics of good type are just that, basic.
We'll start with the rules. Yes, yes, I know, you hate
rules, but these are really short, simple rules--no dates, no
capital cities, just a few simple things to remember. You don't
even have to remember them if you don't want to, just put them
up on the wall and check them once in a while.
- Body text should be between 10 and 12 point, with 11 point
best for printing to 300 dot-per-inch printers. Use the same typeface,
typesize, and leading for all your body copy.
- Use enough leading (or line-spacing). Always add at least
1 or 2 points to the type size. Example: If you're using 10 point
type, use 12 point leading. Automatic line height will do this
for you--never use less than this or your text will be cramped
and hard to read.
- Don't make your lines too short or too long. Optimum size:
Over 30 characters and under 70 characters.
- Make paragraph beginnings clear. Use either an indent
or block style for paragraphs. Don't use both. Don't use neither,
- Use only one space after a period, not two.
- Don't justify text unless you have to. If you justify text
you must use hyphenation.
- Don't underline anything, especially not headlines
or subheads since lines separate them from the text with which
- Use italics instead of underlines.
- Don't set long blocks of text in italics, bold, or all caps
because they're harder to read.
- Leave more space above headlines and subheads than below them,
and avoid setting them in all caps. Use subheads liberally to
help readers find what they're looking for.