If you're conscientious, you probably think carefully about the words you choose in an e-mail message or a formal report. Making yourself understood helps get your message across, and it helps your readers benefit from what you're saying.
Many people, however, don't think twice about the way their words, specifically the letters, look on screen or paper. The particular form that letters take depends on the font you choose, and the art of choosing the right font is called typography.
The meaning of the word "font" has changed over the years, and in today's digital world it's largely synonymous with "typeface," meaning a stylistically coordinated set of letters, numbers and punctuation marks.
Typography has been around longer than personal computers, but PCs opened up typographic possibilities to the masses.
When desktop publishing was introduced in 1985, the surfeit of font choices led many people to create documents that resembled ransom notes written by an inspired 10-year-old. The opposite extreme is to always use the same font, which isn't much different from always wearing the same clothes. People make judgments about you and your writing because of the font you choose, just as people draw conclusions from your wardrobe.
The two most popular fonts today are Times New Roman and Arial. The former is a serif font, with small designs at the ends of letter strokes, and the latter is a sans-serif font, which lacks those designs. Sans-serif fonts, which are starker and bolder, are often used for titles and headlines; serif fonts aid legibility and are often used for the body of works.
People typically choose among the default fonts that come installed with word-processing programs, but you can also buy fonts separately. And there are thousands available. You can also visit Web sites where generous designers make fonts available to download for free, such as 1001 Free Fonts, at www.1001freefonts.com.
Choosing a font that is appropriate for your work is like choosing what clothes to wear to work, a formal party, a gathering of friends or a workout at the gym. You should aim for both image and utility.
A study by the Software Usability Research Laboratory at Wichita State University sheds light on this. Researchers analyzed 20 commonly used fonts by asking more than 500 people what images the fonts projected. For example, the study found the best font for projecting flexibility is Kristen, assertiveness is Impact, practicality is Georgia and creativity is Gigi. But there are two sides to a coin (or font): Kristen also projects instability and rebelliousness; Impact connotes rudeness and unattractiveness; and Gigi suggests impracticality and passivity.
Some people use Courier New because it's a monospaced font: Each letter takes up the same amount of horizontal space, just like a manual typewriter's font. It's useful if you need to align numbers in a column. But Courier New can project conformity, unimaginativeness and dullness, according to the Wichita State researchers. A better monospaced font choice is Consolas.
Times New Roman is a versatile, all-around font with an interesting history. It was commissioned by the British newspaper The Times in 1931, hence its name. Microsoft has included it in every copy of Windows since version 3.1, and it's the default font in many Windows programs. On the Apple Macintosh, it's called Times, and it's also the default for many Mac programs. In 2004, the U.S. State Department in 2004 mandated that all diplomatic documents use Times New Roman instead of previously mandated Courier New. But if you use Times New Roman reflexively, also consider Georgia, which is less stiff but equally legible.
Even though the Wichita State study looked at only 20 fonts, reading the results, at http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/81/PersonalityofFonts.htm,
gives you a feel for why type talks.
Fonts can be fun, but don't overdo it. One rule of thumb: Use a maximum of three different fonts per page. You should use minimally the varying font sizes. Too much variety can be jarring to the eye.
Avoid long stretches of text in italic, bold and uppercase, which can be more difficult to read than regular upright type. Similarly make sure there's enough contrast between the letters and their background.
Black on white is easier to read than white on black, and both are easier to read than green on blue. The most legible combination is black on cream.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.reidgoldsborough.com.