When you’re writing a blog post or a proposal, or even simply keeping notes, you’re making many conscious choices about how other people will view your writing. But do you realize that when you open a new document and select your font and size up in the left corner, you have already started to sell your writing before you even type your first word? That can be pretty cool or pretty scary depending on how you look at it. You wouldn’t want your proposal or résumé to get overlooked simply because it was illegible or immature-looking, now would you? As most designers know, there are millions of fonts to choose from, so it’s important to know what fonts to choose and when. But I’m not addressing designers in this post; I’m talking to the people who own a small business, give presentations, work with designers or want to learn something new, or anyone who wants to make their writing not only impactful, but also easy on the eyes.
There are essentially three styles of type and they all can be used for a wide array of communicating. They are: serif, sans serif and script. I’m going to focus on serif and sans serif (along with some of their subcategories) since these are the most common type styles most people use, and on when you should use them in your everyday writings.
Styles, History & Recommendations
Serif Type: Small decorative strokes are added to the end of a letter’s main strokes. Serifs improve readability by leading the eye along the line of type.
These typefaces traditionally have been the most widely used in the English language and were originally created around the late 15th century and modeled after the style of the Romans. However, most of the common serif typefaces we use today were designed after the mid-18th century and were influenced by earlier designs.
Recommended Serif Fonts: Baskerville, Caslon, Bodoni, Garamond, Mercury and Times
Recommended Use: Body copy or paragraph text
Slab Serif Type: Slab serifs are similar to serif typefaces in that they too include decorative strokes added to the end of a letter’s main stroke, but these strokes are typically much heavier (thicker), and are most commonly seen in headlines as opposed to paragraphs like regular serifs.
Slab serifs became popular in the 19th century for headlines in advertisements and are still used widely today to grab readers’ attention.
Recommended Slab Serif Fonts: Rockwall, Klinic, Museo Slab and Sentinel
Recommended Use: Headlines and large text callouts in books and articles
Sans Serif Type: A typeface that does not have any of the decorative strokes known as serifs. Sans serif typefaces give a clean appearance to your writing. There are several subcategories to this type style, the first of which are the grotesque and the neo-grotesque styles. Grotesque typefaces are early sans serifs from the early 19th and 20th centuries, and neo-grotesque styles directly evolved from them.
Recommended Sans Serif Fonts: Helvetica, Franklin Gothic, Univers and Eurostile
Recommended Use: Headlines and large text callouts in articles; small amounts of copy (typically not books)
Geometric Sans Serif Type: A subcategory of sans serif, these fonts are designed around simple geometric shapes. Strokes are almost always the same width, and the letters usually take the shape of a circle, square, rectangle or triangle. Geometric sans tend to be the least readable sans serif.
Recommended Geometric Sans Serif Fonts: Gotham, Futura, Verlag and Museo Sans
Recommended Use: Headlines and large text callouts in articles; résumés titles
Humanistic Sans Serif Type: Another subcategory of sans serif, these fonts are based on the proportions of old Roman letters. Strokes are almost always contrasting in width. Typographic experts claim that this style is the most easily read of all sans serif typefaces. This style of type is often the most similar to serif typefaces. You see this style every time you drive down a highway, due to its ease of readability.
Recommended Humanistic Sans Serif Fonts: Frutiger, Verdana, Whitney, Interstate and Gil Sans
Recommended Use: Headlines, body copy, résumés and paragraph copy
Make the Right Impression
I have only covered a few of the most common typefaces for you to use when you’re writing. There are lots of other styles and typefaces out there that are readily available and look cool and fun, but be careful about how you use them. One of the most common things I see is someone using Comic Sans (intended for informal, casual uses) in a résumé or email and then being upset when they didn’t get the job. All typefaces have a job; some are good at one specific thing while others can do so much. Always remember whom you are addressing and what you want your reader to take away.
Whether or not you think about it, typography changes the way we view information around us, and it is important for us as communicators to send the right message with our words. Not just in their meaning, but also in their appearance. Hopefully this information taught you something new and useful that will help you communicate more effectively!
There are millions of books out there if you would like to know more about typography. I recommend Thinking With Type for anyone who is interested in really understanding typography. Or, if you are just looking to spruce up your typography vocab to impress a coworker or communicate with an anal graphic designer, I recommend checking out Adobe’s glossary of typographic terms.