5 Tips for Working with Fonts

March 16, 2009 | Design Basics

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Most small business owners find themselves creating their own proposals, presentations, reports and memos. They don’t have the time or the money to have a designer available to create everything. Here are few tips to use fonts wisely so your materials still look professional.

  1. Limit the number of fonts. That long list of typefaces that comes up when you go to choose a font can be mesmerizing. However, stick to one or two only. You can still use the bold and italics within each typeface. A few combinations that are tried & true are: a serif face for long running type and a sans serif for headlines; a sans serif for body copy and a fun, decorative font for headlines; serif type for the main copy and serif type for sidebars. Even better, just choose one typeface for the entire piece and only change the size and weight.
  2. Don’t underline anything other than a link. Underlined text is now universally used to show that text is a hyperlink, and it is confusing to use it for anything else. There was a time (way back when there were typewriters with no italics) that people underlined items that were supposed to be italic. Now, I still occasionally see the underline for emphasis. People read underlines as links, and if they don’t link, then they think something is broken.
  3. Pay attention to the type size. Many people use the defaults when working in programs like Word or Powerpoint. However, keep in mind the final application. If the Word document is going to be printed, you may be able to use a smaller typeface than the default. Also, when possible, tailor your powerpoint slides to their final application–are they going to projected in a large room, or are they going to be printed out. Again, if they are primarily going to printed and handed out you can decrease the size of the fonts throughout.
  4. Be consistent with your typestyling. Don’t switch around a lot between centered and flush left and justified. Always use the same font, size, weight, and color for all your subheads. Use stylesheets, but don’t necessarily use the default settings. Set up a sample page and then override & save your settings.
  5. Use high quality fonts. I know, you’ve got hundreds of free fonts installed on your machine. But on some computers 100% of them are poor quality. You probably only own a handful of higher quality fonts. Since you’re limiting yourself to just a few fonts anyway (see point #1), just turn off the rest. You’ll  want to keep the web-safe fonts installed (Geneva, Verdana, Arial, Times, Georgia, etc.), and then just a few others. If you work with a designer who has picked out some typefaces for your other materials find out the names of those fonts and purchase them. Yes, actually spend $50 – 200 to buy professionally designed fonts. If you’re looking through your list some better ones to consider: Caslon, Garamond, Bembo, Minion, Myriad, Futura and Univers.

Wondering about some of the fonts on your computer? Let me know, and I’ll give you an opinion on whether they are worth using.


  1. Lisa Plimpton | March 18, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Hi Emily, Great post–very helpful! The only font I have from your list is Garamond. I usually use Times New Roman for reports, but sometimes choose Book Antiqua and/or Tahoma if I’m trying to make something look catchy. What do you think?
    P.S. A pet peeve: I hate justified text!

  2. Emily Brackett | March 18, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Lisa, good to hear from you! Times New Roman is one of those ubiquitous fonts that’s good, but really not great. I think you’ll find if you set a document in Garamond and compare it to the Times it will look less cramped and just more “easy on the eyes”. Book Antiqua is a windows-only system font that is (supposed to be) comparable to Palatino for the Mac. That should mean it’s good for running copy, although a bit light so you don’t want to go too small with it.

    Tahoma is a sans serif with a tall x-height and fairly wide shape to the letters. This means it’s still very readable at small points sizes. As a large headline type you will begin to see the subtle flares of the serif, which could, indeed, make something look a bit more catchy.

    And I agree, justified type is hard to make look good. One of the reasons for this is that a program like Word does not have the capabilities to deal with the type in the same way a professional design program does. A program like InDesign can read additional data from the typeface itself and also has sophisticated formulas for adjusting the word and letterspacing within justified type. You’ll notice that justified type within a book (typeset using a professional program) will look much better than justified type coming from Word.

    Thanks for stopping by and come back soon!

  3. Kelly Battaglia | May 27, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Hi, Em –

    I just read about a book called Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works – http://tinyurl.com/qr5abl – and your blog on this topic came to mind.

  4. Emily Brackett | May 27, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Kelly, That book is an all time favorite. Erik Spiekermann is a favorite designer and typographer. It’s great to see that others, outside of the small graphic design field, are reading it too.


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