Lindsay Pack

As an extension of a science fair project, a 14-year-old from Pittsburgh recently determined that the U.S. government could save $234 million annually just by changing the font used in official government documents from Times New Roman to Garamond. While I was impressed by the teen’s finding, the communications professional (and admitted typophile) in me also relished the fact that his discovery got people talking about a topic near and dear to my heart: the importance of choosing the right font.

Although saving money is perhaps a more tangible benefit, font also has the power to make or break the entire meaning of a document. Just ask Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who was publicly lambasted for his use of Comic Sans in an otherwise well-structured and articulate letter to LeBron James regarding the basketball player’s infamous departure to Miami. Why was Gilbert’s choice flawed? Comic Sans is a font that was initially designed for kids. In serving that purpose, it has come to embody a childish, less serious quality, which made Gilbert’s writing come across that way as well.

Font is clearly not just for decoration; used in the wrong context for the wrong purpose, it can impede an audience’s understanding of the intended message. Consider the following signs:


Source: Butterick’s Practical Typography

While the font used in the sign on the left is legible and would be completely appropriate for, say, a wedding invitation, its functionality for that purpose is in large part what makes it unsuccessful for use in a road sign. Good typography—including appropriate font choice, spacing, and size—reinforces the meaning of the text. In other words, because a road sign is meant to be direct and read quickly in all different types of conditions, the no-nonsense sans serif font used in the sign on the right is more successful.

Although “good typography” may seem to be more subjective than science-based, there is some evidence that we inherently recognize it when we see it. A study on the aesthetics of reading by Microsoft and MIT found that when participants were asked to read text with either good or bad typography, the participants who viewed good typography performed better on cognitive tasks and were in more positive moods than those subjected to bad typography.

So the next time you’re sending an email, publishing a report, or posting something on the web, think about the fonts you’re using. Ask yourself, “have I seen this in another context that might conflict with the purpose of my piece?” If you’re not sure, ask a friend or coworker and gauge their reaction.

And, unless your target audience is under the age of 10, never, ever, EVER use Comic Sans.