Why is Your Font Choice Important?
There are some obvious and some subtle differences between fonts. As well as setting the mood of the copy, fonts can have significant effects on legibility.
This article will classify fonts in several different ways and compare the effects that each have on legibility.
Serif vs. Sans-serif Fonts
Start a word processor and type a letter “h.” Change it to a large size (72 points) and use Times or Times New Roman font. Notice the three small cross strokes at the ends of the strokes. These are called serif. Fonts that provide these are serif fonts. Fonts that do not are sans-serif fonts. (Sans is the French word for “without.”)
Now, change the font to Arial, Helvetica or Verdana. These are all sans-serif fonts. Notice that the three small cross strokes have disappeared.
Serif fonts, all things being equal, are easier to read.
The reason is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for your brain to recognize quickly. Without the serif, the brain spends more time identifying a letter because its shape is less distinct.
However, an important proviso must be made. On the low-resolution of a computer screen, very small serif text (9 points or less) might actually be harder to read than corresponding sans-serif because the more complex shapes of serif characters cannot be accurately drawn in sizes this small.
Deciding whether to use a serif or sans-serif font is a personal choice and no hard-and-fast rules apply. Even though serif fonts are usually easier to read, you might prefer a sans-serif font for a particular document if you feel that it sets an appropriate mood. Sans-serif fonts are often thought to look more modern.
A commonly-followed convention is to use a serif font for the body text of your document and a sans-serif font for the headings.
Fixed-width and Variable-width Fonts
In some fonts, every character is the same width; in others, the characters are of different widths. Not surprisingly, these fonts are termed “fixed-width” and “variable-width,” respectively.
Start a word document. Type half a dozen lowercase “l”s, and then on the next line, type half a dozen lowercase “w”s. In most fonts the “w”s will be much wider. Such fonts are variable-width.
Now select the two lines of characters and set the font to Courier or Courier New. Notice that both lines are now the same length. Courier is a fixed-width font.
It should be no surprise that variable-width fonts look more natural and are easier to read. Fixed-width fonts such as Courier have limited applications:
Computer programmers use fixed-width fonts in order to neatly align their code. Fixed-width fonts are used to produce tables that are neatly tabulated into fixed-width columns.
As an exercise, go through the fonts on your computer and find five variable-width, serif fonts that suit your eye. Choose among these for the body copy of your documents.
Now find five variable-width, sans-serif fonts. Use these for your headings, captions, headers and footers.
Armed with these simple ways of classifying fonts, you should now have an easy time of choosing suitable fonts for all occasions.