Avoiding the font frenzy

You have access to tens of thousands of fonts. But you probably shouldn’t use more than a couple of them. Why?

Once, businesspeople communicated primarily using devices called typewriters. Most typewriters offered just one font, and the most popular model in offices, the IBM Selectric, used a font we know as Courier. Somehow, everyone managed to communicate effectively. Then came Mac and Windows, with their graphic user interfaces, as well as laser and inkjet printers. Given access to massive libraries of fonts, many users began to equate creativity with using as many fonts as possible.

But using several different fonts in a single document confuses the eyes and brain. Instead of providing a logical order to follow, it creates visual chaos. In addition, many of the fonts people see as particularly creative or cool actually tend to be difficult to read.

The simple fact is that the most readable typefaces are generally the ones many people consider to be boring. Fonts such as Times, Palatino, Century, Garamond, and Goudy are readable because they use a character design that’s familiar to the eye. They employ what are known as serifs, which are those tiny little feet at the bottom of letters, or on the edges of letters such as T. Pick up nearly any book in your office, and you’ll notice that the pages are set with a simple font that uses serifs. Publishers don’t do that because they lack creativity; they do it because they know it provides the greatest readability.

When you develop anything with more than a few words, your best choice will nearly always be one of those familiar serif fonts.

How large should your fonts be? Large enough to be readable. Most books are set in 11- or 12-point text, because that’s a familiar and comfortable size for the eyes. In most fonts and communications applications, 11-point type works well. Be careful about going with anything smaller than 10-point, especially if a large portion of your audience is older than age 45. (Readers older than that understand why; younger readers will learn when they get there.) If you’ve decided to use a font that doesn’t have serifs, like Calibri or Aptos (what’s known as a sans serif font), you’ll generally want to make the type a little larger.

You can improve readability of most fonts by increasing the spacing (what’s known as leading, because typesetters used to insert narrow sheets of lead between lines of type). A good rule of thumb is to use leading that’s about 25 percent more than your type size. For example, if you’re using 11-point type, try 14-point leading.

It’s a good idea to keep your font choice and size consistent throughout your document, although it’s okay to use a different font (or a different color) for headings and subheadings. You might use a regular font for the body text, an italicized font for subheadings, and a larger sans-serif font for headings. The differences will provide visual cues to the reader.

If you want to add emphasis to specific words or sentences, consider using boldface or underscoring instead of italics. They tend to command more attention, and are usually easier on the reader’s eyes. Other visual cues such as bullet points and bold lead-ins will guide the reader across the page, helping her access relevant information more quickly.

Be especially careful when using light-colored type with a dark background. That can be attractive, but only if it’s readable. Normally, sans-serif fonts are a better choice in these situations. No matter which type of font you choose, increase the size by a point or two, and your readers will be happier with the results.

In addition, make sure that there’s a clear contrast between the color of the type and its background. If the type color is too close to the background color, it will be much harder for readers — especially older readers — to distinguish it.

Finally, one way to make your font choices more effective is to make healthy use of white space. Resist the temptation to fill every square inch with type, your logo, or other images. Leaving white space around type makes it easier for readers to zero in on the most important parts of your message.