Why Font Matters

Edward Ashton

Aesthetics and Functionality

Unless you have worked for a newspaper, publisher, or something similar—or taken a class or two from Dr. Bacha—you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about typefaces. For essays, most professors have students follow a standard style guide like MLA, which specifies using a “legible font” and recommends Times New Roman. This is good for uniformity, but not so good when writing for the public. A boring font can scare a potential reader away, but a busy font that distracts from the actual content can be just as bad.

The idea, then, is to find fonts that strike a perfect balance between aesthetics and functionality, and that fit the application in which they are being used. For instance, an invitation to a technology conference probably should not be written in exaggerated, flowery script. Likewise, a wedding invitation would not look right set in a monotype font like Courier New. This demonstrates the ever-important requirement that a writer must know his or her audience. As this article from the BBC illustrates, the wrong font can cause strong negative reactions, so writers and designers must use caution and choose wisely.

Obviously, whether a font is attractive or not is a subjective matter. For instance, here is a list of “ten iconic fonts and why you should never use them”. One cannot help but notice that Papyrus, which caused so much dismay to Avatar viewers, is on the list. The article is a bit iconoclastic as well, since it names Helvetica, a font so popular it is on every subway station sign in New York City (among many other places). As you can see from this list of famous brand names, it is literally everywhere.

Which Font for Which Purpose?

On the other hand, some fonts are panned almost universally, with perhaps the most common offender being the aptly named Comic Sans. Consider the following topic for an (imaginary) academic thesis:

Chronic Inhalation of Helium, and its Effects on Human Brain Tissue

Or the following example of an advertisement for an equipment rental company:

Birthday Parties for Children! Moon Bounce Rentals, Snowcones, and More!

Neither of these are very effective at conveying the overall emotion that they intended to impart to the reader. Computer code isn’t so good for advertising moon bounce and snowcone machines. On the other hand, this news headline is much more believable:

New Economic Reports Point Toward Recovery

Another important consideration is the difference between heading text and body text. A big consideration is whether a font has serifs—small lines at the endpoints of letters—or not. The difference is illustrated below. One common rule is that serif fonts are better for body text, and sans-serif fonts are better for headings. This was especially true when writing for print media, but with digital media becoming more and more dominant, this is not necessarily the case anymore. A look at many websites will show that they use sans-serif fonts for both headings and body text.

In short, font matters a great deal. It plays a large role in dictating the mood of a piece of writing, which is transmitted to the reader, even if the reader doesn’t know it. So when writing for any audience, make sure to consider your typeface—and what message that typeface might be sending.




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