Fascinating Facts about Fonts and how to Choose the Right One
Last Update: Nov 3, 2020
Digital advice from analog origin (3)
Why is English read from left to right and from top to bottom? That’s because of the origin of our texts. Most people are right-handed and writing with material like ink that smudges easily makes it logical to write from left to right.
The Egyptians did not have a fixed direction for their texts. They didn't use letters, but hieroglyphs (pictograms, little images). The orientation of the heads of depicted animals indicated the reading direction.
In classical times letters were carved out of stone with a hammer and chisel. This technique doesn’t require making the letters from left to right. In really old Greek texts there is no fixed reading direction. But it was inconvenient not to know the reading direction.
For our computer screens it doesn't matter what the reading direction is, but we had been used to reading from left to right for centuries and then placing the lines from top to bottom.
The (very short) history of print
The first books were handwritten and meticulously copied by monks in the convents. A time-consuming activity.
A quicker method was woodblock printing, when a whole page was cut in a block of wood. Imagine the horror when it turned out there was a typo somewhere in the text! Once cut and used the piece of wood was redundant.
The movable-type printing solved that problem. Each letter was a separate little block of metal, usually of lead, that could be reused several times and swapped in case of errors.
The letter terminology derives from the lead letters. Body height, X-height, Cap height, baseline, leading (line-height), point size. The technique had its limitations. For instance, you couldn’t put letters too narrow next to each other, neither use a negative leading.
The benefit of restrictions
Those analog limitations don’t exist in the digital world of text. But as my famous fellow countryman Johan Cruijff said: ‘every disadvantage has its advantage’, which I often translate into ‘every advantage has its disadvantage’.
People get into trouble if choices are unlimited. This can either mean they don’t want to make a choice, as a demonstration host in the supermarket will find out. Giving the choice from 28 kinds of instant soup generates less interest than limiting the choice to 4.
Or it leads to an abundance of chosen options. Very noticeable in amateur video edits: each image transition has a different effect.
Unsurprisingly, I am a big fan of the German saying 'In die Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister' (The master shows himself in the limitation).
Classification of letter fonts
- Serif, sometimes with an additional subdivision to Slab Serif. Examples are Times New Roman, Garamond, Didot, Georgia, Roboto Slab, Egyptienne, Rockwell;
- Sans serif. Helvetica, Arial, Droid Sans, Univers, Frutiger;
- Script. Balloon, Zapfino, Chalkboard;
- Decorative. Stencil, Cooper Black, Bauhaus;
- Symbol. Wingdings, Zapf Dingbats.
In fact there are more divisions and subdivisions, but let’s keep it limited. :)
Does a letter have a character?
Your handwriting says something about you, doesn’t it. In my time (sorry, I really sound old now, LOL) it was common to write a cover letter and not type it so that your handwriting was your first entry.
You can look at print letters the same way.
When I designed a logotype for a construction firm I chose a robust Slab Serif. For a female solo entrepreneur a friendly and rounded letter was more obvious. A copywriter was given a Script letter or a monospace like Courier. For a toy store Comic Sans was appropriate.
That's the first choice you have to make when choosing a font: does the font match what you are doing. It is not about your own taste, but about what your target audience expects.
The downside of just meeting your audience's expectations is the uniformity. So the trick is to know what those expectations are and what your competitors are doing and then deviate just enough. The tightrope of the right balance.
Your blog is read on screen
Choose a letter that is properly drawn and has a clear appearance on the screen. Fonts that are optimized for display on screen are for instance Tahoma, Verdana, Georgia.
Be consistent in your choice. You can choose different font families for body text and headings. Just make sure the characters of those letters are in line with each other. And if you do, stick to one type for the body text and one type for the headings.
An unexpected reason for your choice
Research shows that when the text of tutorials is easy to read, people rate the task as easy, beautiful, good, and true (Research by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz).
So if you want the visitor of your website to respond to a call to action, put it in an easy-to-read font. Are you explaining something about a topic that people usually consider to be very complicated, use an easy to read letter.
The opposite can also be used to your advantage. If you want to show off your expert status as a cook and give the impression that the dish on your menu is complicated to make and takes a lot of time to finish, then use a complicated font!
My other blogs on what we can learn from using traditional resources in contemporary design:
Let me know if you have any questions about this topic. I’ll be happy to answer!
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