Design Dilemmas 2, Fonts

Confronted By a Fantasia of Fonts?

You’ve completed your research for a writing project.  You’re through composing and editing the text.  What a relief!  But if you’re in control of printing and/or publishing the finished work, you’re probably facing several decisions about its appearance.  While there are clear differences in design for hardcopy and electronic publishing, you may find that layout is not an issue—if your text is being dropped into a predetermined format, as in an existing website or magazine. 

Whether or not this is the case, you may need to select and apply the fonts that will present your message to the world If you have written a piece of fiction, you may be facing fewer considerations.  In this scenario, the sections of your piece may not exceed a title page, table of contents, preface, prologue, chapters, epilogue, and acknowledgements.  If so, a single font family may be ideal for the entire work—with variations in italics, all-caps and bold face. 

But if your piece is non-fiction, you may have additional elements, such as:  An Introduction, Afterword, and Appendices; Glossary and Index; Graphs and Charts; and, Photographs, Pictures, and Illustrations.  While simplicity in visual elements is ideal in any reading material, you will want to ensure your presentation has a positive impact on the readerAnd this may require the use of more than one font family.

Your first consideration in font families is the choice between serif typefaces [historically referred to as Roman typefaces by typographers] and sans-serif [Gothic] typefaces.  Unfamiliar with the term serif?  You’re not alone.  A serif is a small tic or line placed on the ends of letter strokes.  To compare these two categories of typefaces, let’s examine the differences between the classic Times New Roman and Arial font families.  While the former looks fancier with its little tics, the latter is straighter and bolder. 

But before you declare the cleaner look of Arial ideal for all purposes in our modern world, consider the issue of eye fatigue.  When we stare at the same kind of image [i.e. a uniformly straight font] for very long, our eyes become tired…and when that happens, your audience may lose interest in the message you have worked so hard to produce.  Therefore, consider using a mix of two or three font families that will make the various parts of your work pop.  Not only will this lessen the chance of your reader becoming tired, it may increase the likelihood that he or she will remember your key points. 

In general, for both print and electronic purposes, sans-serif font families are ideal for section titling, and sub-categories or menu labels.  This bold lettering says, “Stop and Pay Attention to Me.”  Although you may not be able to lessen the number of words used in a title, if you limit menu labels for website and other electronic publishing to one to three words, they will be memorable.  Conversely, for the body of your text, you may want a serifed typeface, that allows the letters and words to flow from one to the next, while minimizing eye strain. 

Before moving on, let me clarify that I am NOT suggesting you go wild, using a wide mixture of font styles and treatments in hopes of looking artistic.  While I have suggested using three font families, in most cases, two of those would be non-serifed fonts for titling and menu labels.  Titling might be in classic Arial [in bold], while the labels of menus might feature a smaller and tighter font such as Arial Narrow.  For wide, easy-to-read text, I prefer Palatino Linotype rather than the Times New Roman that most computers will default to, if the specified font is not loaded. 

There are many details to the history of the design and use of fonts that reach beyond the scope of this discussion.  One is the mathematics of font spacing, which you may find mentioned in your own research of the topic of fonts.  Simply stated, a monospaced, fixed-pitch-or fixed-width font is non-proportional, meaning that each letter and character occupies the same amount of horizontal space.  This is in contrast to a variable-width font, in which the space between letters and characters depends on the actual space a letter requires.  Since an “I” requires less space than an “E,” a variable width font may be helpful if you have a limited amount of width. 

Let me also make a few comments on the judicious use of italics.  While some design specialists are allergic to any use of them, I think italics are appropriate in some cases:  Differentiating a slogan from the name and contact information of an individual or corporate entity; emphasizing a word or phrase within a large body of text; replacing quotation marks to indicate dialogue or a character’s inner thoughts.  For me, I base my decision on using fonts on one key issue, How effective will this form of highlighting be?  The answer often rests in examining the length of verbiage surrounding the text you propose to italicize.  The overuse of any element reduces its effectiveness.

A similar evaluation should help you in determining when to use a bold font.  Consider business cards that offer every letter and character in bold…Without a variety of shapes, color and emphasis, the reader is likely to be indifferent rather than impressed.

In closing the book on fonts for today, let me say that your ultimate choices will depend on your individual taste and style.  To help you refine the process of choosing fonts, I recommend you collect a number of business cards (and maybe a couple of brochures) and consider the elements that appeal to you.  Spread the printing samples out on a neutral background and ask yourself, “What does the text style say about the featured person or business?”

~  Is the presentation organized and easy to read?
~  Do I relate to the person or business?  Do I trust their message?
~  Does the message reflect current standards for the industry or genre?

If you find yourself responding negatively to the sample materials, envision how you might improve both the message AND its delivery.  As to your own work, ask yourself two questions.  “Is my proposed use of fonts going to accomplish my goal of impressing the reader with my message?”  And, “What will my choices in fonts and other design elements tell readers about me?” 

My signature font family is Peignot For titling and limited amounts of text, I often use a mix of the Peignot and Arial Narrow fonts [see the logo at the top of this post].  By embellishing these non-serifed fonts with varied treatments of sizing, texture, and color, I hope to announce that I’m progressive in perspective yet respectful of elements of classic design.  Do you think I have accomplished my goal?

Wishing you the best in your creative endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, author, consultant, and motivational speaker

Discussion of art is available at the following blogs:
Authors Design Dilemmas 1, April 2015
Confronted by a Fantasia of Fonts, May 2015
Rainbows of Color, May 2015
Winning Logos & Slogans, October 2015
Quality Book Production, February 2016
Harmonizing Branding Elements, August 2016
Book Promotion and Evolving Art, January 2017
Balancing Text and Space, February 2018
Successful Cover Art, December 2018

To learn more about the award-winning Natalie Seachrist Hawaiian Mysteries, including Murders of Conveyance [Winner, Fiction Adventure-Drama, 2019 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards] and other projects, please drop in at my author’s website You’ll even find Island Recipes that might inspire your culinary creativity.

For more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit: Imaginings Wordpower and Design Consultation.

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