Fascinating Facts about Fonts and how to Choose the Right One

Last Update: Nov 3, 2020

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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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Recent Comments



This was absolutely fascinating.

Something that you mentioned (in terms of what we do here) that really resonated with me is that, "It's not about our own tastes, but what our target audience expects".

In fact, to be honest, that's marketing of any sorts, online or offline, in a nutshell.

I spend so much time looking at other aspects of my sites from a visitor/consumer perspective, but I've never actually given much thought to the font type.

Just reading some of your examples of Copywriters or Menus actually makes a huge amount of sense.

Loved it Hannie, this was a great read.


p.s. You can link internally to as many of your WA blog posts as you like. In fact, it's advisable. It prolongs engagement and adds value to our learning experience.

So, I'm now off to discover more about "above the fold".

You're right, Partha, a lot of tips on a specific subject is interchangeable with other disciplines, like marketing in general. :)

Thanks for the compliment AND for setting my mind at peace about the linking. :D


Nice post, Hannie!
Very interesting, especially from a historical perspective.

Great. Thanks Frank. :)

Wow, Hannie, very interesting- I do remember when your cover letter had to be handwritten! Thanks for the info on choosing the right font.

Good thing I am not the one that remembers that, Angelas :-D

That is very interesting, but you aren't allowed to put your web addresses in here

Not even the web addresses of posts here on WA, Geoffrey? Thanks for the warning, I am going to find out and if necessary will remove them. :)

The only place you can put them is the section in your profile for following on. I was told about it but can't see it in my profile. I put mine in a private message to someone and was told that that wasn't even allowed.

Tsk. What function does this blog have then? In that case we are better off putting valuable content on our own sides, aren't we?
Anyway, I have asked Kyle for clarification. I don't expect an answer soon, he'll be busy with the new form. But I'll let you know the result. And if I have to skip them, I will of course. :)

I got one deleted by Kyle recently and he told me that this area cannot be used like Facebook. Everything must relate to WA business. So he can't have one rule for one and not for another. But you just have to give it a twist to make it relate. I didn't realise people were putting the blogs from their website on here. If we all did that the system would crash.

I don't put my website blogs here, Geoffrey. I am just trying to add value to the platform by showing my expertise (I hope it's not seen as showing off :) )
But your remarks give me food for thought and I was thinking out loud. Or sort of.

No problem, I think I am just bruised for having my blog deleted. Just ignore me.

Of course I am not going to ignore you. We all have our frustrations and you have to vent sometimes, don't you!
Take care,


Thanks for being so gracious.

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