Fonts have been a crucial component of written communications since the 15th century. Many Microsoft Word and Google Docs typefaces were historically used by printing presses, before being reinterpreted in digital form for today’s word processing packages.
Throughout the generations we have come to associate fonts with certain characteristics. From gender and personality to tone and perception, display fonts can convey a message in very different ways. And that’s important from a business perspective, since the typefaces used to populate our websites and corporate documents carry a significance we often overlook. Why do Volkswagen and IKEA use the 1920s Futura font, while the BBC and the Spanish Government rely on Gill Sans? Why have sans serif fonts largely replaced their serif ancestors, and who decided Comic Sans was a good idea?
Some fonts boast a lengthy history, which helps to imbue them with grandeur and tradition. Garamond was created by a medieval Parisian publisher, and was first used on a Latin textbook in 1548 AD. Modern audiences will be more familiar with it through its use in the Harry Potter and Hunger Games novels. Similarly, Baskerville was created by an English engraver in the early 1700s. Benjamin Franklin decreed that Baskerville should be used on American Government documents, preferring its clean design over the heavily stylized fonts previously used in official forms.
Early fonts were mostly serif, that is, with small lines distinguishing the end of each pen stroke. In an age of quills and inkwells, this literally drew a line under a letter and aided its identification. A serif font like Times New Roman is regarded as more traditional and formal than Futura’s sans-serif display font, even though both were developed in the 1920s. Most sans-serif typefaces date from the 20th century, including Helvetica (used by McDonalds and Microsoft) and Arial (commissioned by IBM, but now used by eBay and Amazon).
Pre-installed fonts display more quickly than bespoke designs. Amazon calculated that a 100ms delay in page loading time could cost them one per cent of sales, so choosing Arial as their preferred font makes perfect sense for minimizing rendering times once a page’s contents have downloaded. And though the Google Fonts package has been used to create 850 different typefaces from ABeeZee to Zilla Slab, Google’s search engine algorithm penalizes websites requiring a browser plugin or script to display text correctly.
Being able to read online content easily is crucial for driving sales and retaining audiences. Although serif fonts tend to reproduce better in printed publications, Helvetica is reportedly the most widely-used print font – a tribute to its clarity and distinctive character design. By contrast, monospace typewriter fonts are more difficult to read quickly, as every letter has the same width. The 1970s American Typewriter font is an elaborately serif design harking back to classic typewriter keys, and it’s still used in Apple’s various operating systems.
It’s recommended that display fonts should be at least 10 points in size, with a consistent level of character spacing (known in the print industry as kerning). This was a key factor behind Microsoft’s decision to use Calibri rather than Times New Roman as the default Word typeface, since Calibri’s design and kerning makes it easier to read on screen.
Font Perception and Personality
In business, perception is everything. A document with more than three typefaces is commonly regarded as cluttered, capital letters are used to denote shouting, and anything other than left alignment is eyed with suspicion. Bold or heavy fonts such as Impact are perceived to be male, whereas soft colors or curved fonts like Shelley infer feminine qualities. Hillary Clinton acknowledged her legal background by adopting New Baskerville Bold for her 2016 Presidential campaign; this font is popular within the US legal system as it has been proven to convey trustworthiness.
Some fonts are believed to have a distinct personality. Courier has an air of authority, and Geneva feels quite positive compared to Arial’s supposed neutrality. Because it crops up everywhere from the New York Subway system to NASA rockets, Helvetica is instructive yet reassuringly familiar. Conversely, the brightly colored Comic Sans typeface has been voted the most unpopular font in history, despite being a leading choice among web designers throughout the Nineties and early Noughties.
The choice of fonts is clearly far more significant than many people realize. Experiments have proved that Baskerville is more trustworthy than mainstream alternatives, and other studies concluded elaborate italicized fonts promise more skill or expertise than simple text. Helvetica and Arial are easier for dyslexics to read, while the latter joins Verdana and Times New Roman on the list of fonts capable of ensuring optimal reading speeds. Depending on whether your website is designed to promote premium items or maximize audience attention, experimenting with fonts at the beta testing stage of its design is absolutely crucial.
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