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TECHNOLOGY: Typefaces.

THE best thing about writing this column is that I get to learn a lot of new things. In fact, I just spent the better part of a day brushing up on typefaces, fonts, and so on. The reason type is such an important issue is illustrated in the three examples to the right. The first is set in Helvetica, the second in Times New Roman, and the third in a typeface I use for my personal work, so I am not going to mention its name. I like having my own special typeface.

The material used in the three iterations to the right is from the first page of my vita. Since I am a professor, I want my vita to look scholarly, conservative, and maybe even a little stuffy, since it will mostly be read by my peers. I also want it to be easy for a reader to skim, since few people ever read one of these documents carefully. I also do not like the oversized numbers in Helvetica and Times. Incidentally, I changed the dates in the above example; no need to let the world know how old I am.

There are many ways to select an appropriate typeface for whatever you are trying to communicate to your intended audience. To select mine, I started by looking at some well-crafted scholarly books by authors like Edward Tufte of Yale. He writes for a scholarly audience -- the same kind of audience that I want for my vita. After finding a few books I admired, I read the fine print to see what typefaces were used in their production. I selected one of these typefaces and ordered it for about $35. Maybe imitation really is the highest form of flattery.

Although the terms typeface, typeface family, typeface classification, font, and font family are often misused, they do have different meanings. A typeface is a particular design of type, such as the examples at the opening of this column. A typeface family is a group of typefaces that have a similar design heritage or style, say, from original work done by a particular Italian master designer. A typeface classification, on the other hand, would be a group of typefaces that share certain characteristics, such as having serifs or being sans serif. (Serif typefaces have chiseled ends like the letters in Times New Roman, which is used for my second example and which most of you have on your computers, or Garamond, which is what this column is set in. Sans serif means without serifs, like the letters in Helvetica used in my first example.) A font is a particular version of a typeface, such as Helvetica Bold or Helvetica Italic. All the Helvetica fonts as a group are considered a font family. Different fonts are suitable for different uses. For example, extra-bold fonts are used for printing such things as signs and book covers. They are designed to display well as bold characters; they are not just made bold by a word processor.

All this being said, for most computer users these days who are not graphic designers, the term "font" has become interchangeable with and often replaces the term "typeface."

Since there are over 40,000 fonts, how does one go about picking just the right one for a particular project? First, consider your goals. My goal was to make my vita look scholarly, but distinctive. If your goal is to design an eye-catching sign, you obviously need a bold, flashy font that looks good when blown up. If you are designing a book, you need a font that is easy to read and does not tire the eye.

The second thing to consider when selecting a font is your audience. Children, teenagers, adults, seniors, teachers, and professors are all quite different audiences. For example, if you are writing for teenagers, you might want an edgy, if not punky, font. Some people call these kinds of fonts "grunge type."

The third thing to consider is the kind of communication you are creating. Signs, labels, and subheadings are often done in a plain sans serif font. Text is usually done in a serif font since these fonts are generally easier to read. Highly stylized communications, such as wedding announcements, are often done in a font that mimics script or calligraphy.

The fourth thing to consider in choosing a font is the affective nature of a font. You might say that every font has a personality. I think my font is introverted and antique, but stylish. Of course, you might totally disagree. Since my wife is a first-grade teacher, she is always looking for what I call "cutesy" fonts. There aren't many cutesy fonts on my computer, so when she uses it, she usually grumbles.

Last night, I asked the graduate students in a class of mine what fonts they liked to use. Most said they just used Helvetica and Times New Roman. Only a few of them had a font they liked to use when writing things for their students. I also asked them if they ever considered buying a font. They pretty much thought the idea was ridiculous. No doubt most of them drive stylish cars that cost a lot of money, but writing in a clunky font didn't seem to bother them a bit.

If you are like my students and think buying a font or two is ridiculous, there are still a few things you can do in using the fonts that came with your computer. First, use sans serif fonts like Arial, Verdana, and Lucinda Grande for signs, PowerPoint headings, titles, outlines, and so on. Use serif fonts like Palatino, Times, and Souvenir for paragraphs and text in general. Unfortunately, most computers have a lot of sans serif fonts and very few good serif fonts.

Second, try never to use a font with a place name like New York or Chicago. Most of these were not created by true type designers. And they don't scale well.

Third, you need to find and know the name of at least one monospaced font. Most computer fonts are proportional spaced, which means that letters like "i" get a half a space, letters like "n" get a whole space, and letters like "w" get a space and a half. If you use a proportional-spaced font to write an addition problem for your class, the numerals will never line up, and the problem will look terrible. Instead, use a monospaced font like Geneva.

Fourth, for all-purpose writing, use either a 12- or 10-point font size. Most graphic designers think using large type is like shouting. (The same could be said for writing in all caps.)

By now you can probably tell that I am trying to convince you to give more thought to the fonts you use. You might even enjoy learning more about typography. AGFA-Monotype is a large maker and distributor of fonts that has a great website filled with interesting information ( The same is true of the International Typeface Corporation site ( Both companies have monthly online newsletters that are informative and interesting. Personally, I like distinctive, classic typefaces, and both sites have links to collections of these typefaces. At the AGFA site, this collection is under Find Fonts: Hidden Gems. At the ITC site, the link is ITC Classics.

"Type trading cards" are a recent development. Some of the major type vendors have settled on a standard trading card size of 4 x 6. Each month both AGFA and ITC issue new, two-sided, color trading cards featuring two of their fonts. If you purchase "Avery Laser Printer Postcards #5389," you can print these attractive type trading cards. Then, whenever you are starting a new project, you can look at the trading cards to get your creative juices flowing and get some ideas about font selection and use and layout.

By the way, if you buy a typeface, you often get an alternative set of numerals and a set of symbols. Here are the numerals and symbols from my typeface. Pretty fancy wouldn't you say?

(Set in another font in printed version) 0123456789, 2004


(See KAPPAN for Table)

ROYAL VAN HORN is a professor of education at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville (e-mail:; website:
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Author:Van Horn, Royal
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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