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Fonts 101: Don't Let Your Typeface Mess up Your Message

Arial. Helvetica. Times New Roman. Calibri. Like most business people, you've likely heard of these fonts, and maybe you've even selected them from your word processing or email menu. But did you know that the font you choose makes a difference in the effectiveness of your message? Well, it does. Here are some tips to help you pick the right typeface, and some guidance on mixing and using fonts. 


There are basically four types of fonts: serif, sans serif, script, and decorative. Most of the day-to-day fonts we use fall into the first two categories. They're distinguished by whether or not they have a "serif"-that extra flourish or line that falls, for example, at the top of a lowercase "b" or that lines the bottom edges of a capital "A." Serif fonts have those flourishes; sans serif fonts don't ("sans" = "without"). Script fonts look like cursive handwriting or calligraphy, and decorative fonts are specialty designs (think letters that look like they're made out of wood or typefaces with a 3-D effect). 


In your online materials and other digital mediums, sans serif fonts are best to use for longer paragraphs. They appear clearer and easier to read on screens. Also, make sure to use a larger font (14 points or so) on web text since the smaller fonts (11 and 12 point) that are suitable for print can be difficult to read on electronic devices. 


Script fonts should only be used in moderation and should be balanced with a simpler font. Never use script for your main text or long passages because it will be difficult to read. Instead, reserve it for headlines or other spots that call for a large font size, which allows better discernment of the letters. Specialty decorative fonts are best used sparingly and rarely . . . and with input from a graphic designer to ensure that your materials look professional. 


Generally, two font types on a page are enough, especially when you add in variations like font size (in headlines) and special uses like bolding and italics. If you use too many fonts, your page will look cluttered and readers will be confused about where to look. How do you select two fonts that pair well together? Rule number one is to use contrasting fonts: one serif and one sans serif. And rule number two is to make sure the fonts are different enough to be distinguishable.


Use boldface and italics lightly. Their purpose is to grab attention, and that only works if they are used sparingly. When an entire page is filled with special effects like this, readers don't know where to look to find the key points. Likewise, the use of all capital letters for emphasis should be confined to a single word, and be aware that some people dislike this style and perceive it as being "yelled" at. Reverse text-when you use white letters on a dark background-is another good attention grabber. But like the others, only use it to draw readers to a special area on the page, not for an entire page of text. Reverse text can be an effective style for a special offer or your call to action.


If you purchase a font, you can use it on your website and in your printed materials. But beware that if you download a free font, it could be a copyright violation to use it in produced materials (yes, your brochures and online presence), so read the license agreement carefully. 


Have a question about fonts? Looking for a professional design "eye" to help you pair fonts effectively and use them judiciously? Contact me with your questions and let me know how I can help. Email me at or call 608.592.6501. 


 608.669.4677        W10994 Eagle Drive, Lodi, WI 53555

Located 30 minutes north of Madison, WI, on beautiful Lake Wisconsin.

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