Before I start droning on about the power of fonts and how they influence the way we see words, let’s get one thing clear: a font is not a typeface. A font is a family of typefaces with similar characteristics, whilst a typeface is just a single member of that family. If that helps.
Our exposure to typography has never been greater, and nor has the choice of styles available to those using them. And that’s most of us, one way or another. Hundreds of thousands of fonts vie for our attention from the moment we wake up in the digital world of information and marketing.
The seemingly arbitrary decision to choose one font over another can make the difference between engaged and disengaged. We may not recognise it, but we have relationships with type styles that have developed throughout our lives. The books that taught us to read, the credits on our favourite film, the nutritional information on the packet of fish fingers, a handwritten note on a Christmas card – all of them contribute to the way we consume and relate to words.
So how do we group styles of type? There are a number of groups, but the two key ones are serif and sans serif.
The serif style derives from the way type was written and cut in days gone by, with characteristic extended features that give them their distinctive look. This style is often easier to read than sans serif fonts because the individual letters are easier for the brain to identify quickly as you scan a page.
However, sans serif fonts, with their cleaner more contemporary shapes, can be better for those learning to read, as their simplified shapes can help with recognition. Sans serif fonts are also generally seen as the best style for digital screens, where fine resolution is limited and the subtle detail of serif fonts may suffer.
With all this and more to bear in mind, picking the right font for the task, whether it be in a presentation, an email, a newsletter or an ad, is a tricky process. It might seem common sense to select a contemporary sans serif font to represent a technology business, but if that technology is trying to make a statement about how simple it is to use, maybe a fun or childish font might work better. And if that technology is unusually quiet, probably best to avoid bold sans serif fonts that shout loudly.
And of course we need to make sure that the beautifully crafted typographic masterpiece we concoct is best suited for its intended reader. Most over 40s won’t thank us for sticking the word Shampoo in a stunning 8-point font onto a bottle, as they sit in the bath without their glasses. I know I don’t. My typography tutor always said “If in doubt, make it smaller”, a mantra I preached and adopted slavishly. Until my 40’s.
Fonts have the ability to turn words into experiences, but they can also make them inaccessible. They can make the ordinary, extraordinary, or vice versa. But they truly have the power to clarify the complex.