A typewriter with the words "something worth reading" typed onto paper.

The hardest decision in writing, I find, is choosing the right font. Should you start with a Times New Roman, the reliable choice? Perhaps you want to suggest that this text is not serious, so you’ll use Comic Sans. Our font choice informs our readers of emotion and tone, it denotes the legibility and readability of our typed text and guides their expectations of our writing.

Typeface Design – Height

Every font can be measured and compared by looking at the foundation components of the typeface.

  1. Baseline: The foundation line that text is aligned to.
  2. X-height: The expected height of lowercase letters measured from the baseline.
  3. Ascender: The expected height of lowercase letters extended above the X-height.
  4. Descender: The expected depth of lowercase letters extended below the baseline.
A sentence that is being measured against the four components.
The four components of letter design are baseline, X-height, ascender and descender.

You may have noticed that uppercase letters use the same structure. The expected height of your uppercase letters is equivalent to the expected height of your lowercase with ascenders. The same can be said with descenders too, although in some fonts the letter “Q” does not adhere to this convention.

In this image, all fonts are the same size, the only difference is the capitalisation of the font.

Components of uppercase and lowercase letters.

Did you know that the terms “lowercase” and “uppercase” originate from where each letter was stored when it was not being used in the printing process? The small metal cast of each individual letter was stored in a case above or below the printing workstation. Since lowercase letters were used with more frequency. They were kept within easy access, in the lower letters case.

Typeface Design – Weighting

The weight of a font is the measurement of character thickness. Heavyweight fonts are built using thick lines and lightweight fonts with thin lines. The weight of a character does not impact its size in regards to the four height components, well, in truth it does, but the differences are negligible with most fonts. However, the overall words and sentences will need more space on the page when the weight of a font is increased.

  • The alphabet typed out four times, each with an increasing font weight.
  • The letter "a" with guidelines to measure its weight
  • The letter "a" with guidelines to measure its weight, the shaded areas indicated width gain.

Typeface Design – Types of font

Serif fonts

The Letter A with the bottom serifs colour in.
Letter “A” with coloured serifs

A serif is a small line or dash that is attached to the entry and exit points of glyphs. Serif fonts can affect the legibility and readability of text. While a strong serif can negatively impact the accessibility and readability of text. Text with weak serifs can help with character recognition and therefore positively impact accessibility. Serif fonts can have varying weights within individual letters. The Serif font family can be further divided into sub-groups, Old-Style, Transitional, Didone and Slab serif.

Sans-serif fonts

Sans-serif fonts contain no serifs and have even weighting throughout the whole character. These fonts are increasingly common as the text we type is shared digitally. The need for serifs that help character recognition is mitigated by having a clear digital display. Similarly, Sans serif fonts can also be divided into smaller groupings, grotesque, neo-grotesque, humanistic and geometric. Each of the groups has subtle differences such as the “O” being oval or circular in shape, or the shape of the tittle, (the dot above the “I”), is square or circular shaped.

Script fonts

Script fonts are uncommonly used in academic writing but I thought it would be a shame not to mention the Script family. These fonts are elaborate in their design with exaggerated serifs, intentional ligatures and kerning. Script fonts are intended to mimic handwriting. As expected character recognition and legibility is not the forte of Script fonts.

Coca Cola Font used in a sentence to showcase its font ligatures.
Script font showing distinctive characteristic

Font psychology – Trait alignment

Fonts can also represent an action or feeling. When we see a particular font, we instantly recognise the general traits and align these to our preexisting connotations on a particular trait. Every time we read the printed text we are anthropomorphising the typeset used. For example, let’s look at three traits.

  • Angle of the typeface
  • Ligatures connecting the lettering
  • Weighting of the font

The angle of a font is very important as it can be manipulated to create a sense of motion. Compare the two texts below. One is slanted forward to represent a forward motion, this is great for texts that contain active verbs. The other is slanted backwards, this represents a backwards motion. Which can help to create a relaxed message using a laidback font.

Motion can be suggested simply with a slanting of a text, we can equally use fonts to convey emotions. For example, using a font that has condensed text symbolises a sense of strength and impact, which can lead a reader to feel motivated.

For this reason, condensed text is commonly used in fitness marketing, particularly with bolded text. The same effect can be seen with technology companies preferring sans serif fonts. This is because of their universal approach to their intended global audience. This makes readers feel welcome and reassured. Interestingly, the slanted text is also used in technology company logos as here it represents that they are forward-thinking, an implied intellectual motion perhaps.

You can also use script fonts with intentional ligatures to highlight romance and unity. This is because the characters in the text seem to be connected and in a certain description, intimate. This could explain why Coca-cola’s seasonal marketing campaigns are centred on being together with others.

Font psychology – Associative concepts

A Futura typeset poster.
The Futura font

Associative concepts are extremely powerful in instigating emotions for readers. Typically we link fonts to experiences that we have had. If a font activates an emotional response we begin to associate the emotion with the font.

The typeface Fraktur was used during the Second World War by the German Nazi Party as its senior leaders resented the use of Roman numerals, this font, as expected is incredibly emotive with many suggesting this is an evil font. This resulted in the font being banned and replaced with a set of neutral fonts; one of which was the Futura font. Futura is a geometric typeset. It was famously used to engrave the Apollo 11 plague. Ask yourself, does this font incite feelings of progression, accomplishment or intelligence instead of wickedness? Let me know in the comments section.

The desire for fonts to be comfortable to read has led to the uprising of humanistic fonts. These fonts use rounded or part rounded character shapes with the sharp angles of a neo-grotesque font. Humanistic fonts were designed to be satisfying as humans prefer rounded objects as they imply comfort and are less threatening. The sharp angles in humanistic fonts add high levels of character clarity and aid quick character identification. This is all without the use of serifs. Interestingly, studies have shown that there is no significant difference in reading comprehension between sans-serif and serif fonts. You could argue that font selection is an emotional decision rather than a design judgment.

Font psychology – Family traits

Font NameFont FamilySans-Serif or Serif?Straight edged characters or rounded?Condensed expanded or monospaced?Expected emotional connotationsHistorical or famous application?Approved by the British Dyslexia Association?
Franklin GothicGrotesqueSans-SerifStraightMid-ExpandedHonesty, factual and business-minded.The original Star Wars opening crawl & Historical shop signs.Yes
HelveticaNeo-grotesqueSans-serifStraightExpandedClarity and neutrality Informational signs and EU warning labels Yes
Times New RomanTransitional SerifRoundedMid-CondensedFormal and comfortingCommissioned for use by The Times NewspaperNo
RobotoNeo-grotesque Sans-serifRounded tittles and straight letter caps.CondensedApproachable and relaxingCreated by Google for Andriod 4.0Yes
ArialNeo-grotesqueSans-serifStraightMid-ExpandedTechnological and clearIBM created this font to bypass paying the Helvetica licensing fees in their computing systems. Yes
CalibriHumanisticSans-SerifPart-rounded ExpandedNeutrality, passiveThe default font for Microsoft desktop applications.Yes
CourierSlab SerifSerifStraightMono-SpacedDignity, prestige and stabilityScreenplays and scripts are traditionally typed using CourierNo
Comic SansScriptSans-serifRoundedExpandedComedy, unprofessionalism and childlikeDesigned for a Microsoft Comic Chat and since has become one of the most recognised fonts in the world. Yes
GaramondOld-styleSerifRoundedMid-condensedRomance, intimacy and prideThought to be designed as far back as 1510, originally based on Roman Numerals.No
Comparing the differences of some of the commonly used typefaces.

Font Accessibility

You should be sure to choose a typeset that meets the expected requirements for your audience. Font accessibility will dictate the readability of your typed text for all readers.

  • Use Sans serif fonts, as letters can appear less crowded due to their even weighting.
  • Font size should be 12-14 point or 14+ for math characters. Some dyslexic readers may request a larger text.
  • Larger internal spacing in a glyph spacing improves readability, although if letter spacing is excessive it can reduce readability.
  • Larger line spacing improves readability: 1.5 line spacing is optimal for most documents.
  • Avoid underlining and italics as this can make the text appear to run together and cause crowding, instead use bold for emphasis.
  • Avoid text in uppercase / capital letters and small caps, which can be less familiar to the reader and harder to read.
  • Your font colour must have high contrast with the background, Matthew has a great blogpost on insufficient colour contrast.

Resources & Further Reading

Fonts – An introduction to Typography

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