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March 01, 2012

Training Tip 22: Enhance Training Materials With Font Choices

Accurate, and engaging content is the key to computer slide shows. However, appearance counts, and counts big. Font choice is one subtle but important appearance factor. It's worth taking some time to understand the basics of font choices for slide shows, and how they compare to other tools ethics trainers use to help their audiences, including printed handouts, transparencies, slide shows and online presentations.

The first step in being able to intelligently select fonts for use in training materials is to understand the key distinctions between categories of fonts: serif vs. sans serif, and print vs. screen, and system vs. professional:

Serif vs. Sans Serif

Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, have small ornamentation at the ends of letter strokes, called "serifs," or "hinting." Sans serif fonts, like Arial, lack such ornamentation. Decorative fonts (including script) are a third category that will rarely be useful for lawyers. I have prepared a font chart illustrating the three basic types, serif, sans serif and decorative.

Trick Question: Which style is more legible, serif or sans serif?

Short Answer: It depends on the medium. In general, serif fonts are better for printed matter, like books or newspapers. Sans serif fonts are better for computer displays.

Rationale: Serif fonts are easier to read in big blocks of text. The serifs help readers recognize the shape of a word, rather than decoding each letter individually. Nearly all books are printed in serif fonts, for this reason.

The problem with serif fonts is that they are harder to read at low resolutions, like on computer monitors. For example, laser printer resolution starts at 300 d.p.i., and can go up to 1200 d.p.i. Times Roman, a serif font, works well at these resolutions. By contrast, computer monitors (and projectors) have much lower resolution. The resolutions are so low that the serifs do not show up. Therefore, sans serif fonts are generally your best choice for computer use, though a sans serif screen font (discussed in the next section) may be OK in some situations.

Sans serif fonts are also easier to recognize as single words. This is why serif fonts are used for traffic signs. Professional typographers tend to use sans serif fonts for headings, and serif fonts for text body.

Print Fonts vs. Screen Fonts

Recent decades have seen a new development: Fonts designed specifically for computer display, sometimes called "screen fonts" or "web fonts."  Verdana (sans serif) and Georgia (serif) are examples. They look better on a computer display. Many screen fonts (including Verdana and Georgia) don't look as good when printed on paper. 

System Fonts vs. Professional Grade Fonts

Compters come with a selection of built-in "system fonts," including the ubiquitous Times New Roman and Arial. Some of these are better choices than others. The most commonly used choices provide the comfort of familiarity, but they are often inferior to less common system fonts, or professional grade fonts available as an upgrade. Broadening your horizons is a way of subtly or not-so-subtly improving the quality of your instructional materials.

The Typography for Lawyers book and website both have good practical advice on font selection, including "naming names" of hackneyed fonts and better choices. At the website, look under the "Font Samples" menu choice. The book has much more detailed information.

Practical Advice

I make no claim to be a font expert, but suggest the following simple rules will suffice for presenting most ethics training materials effectively:

  1. Use serif fonts for large blocks of text.
  2. Use sans serif fonts for headings.
  3. Use a screen font (either serif or sans serif) for computer slide shows or websites.
  4. Rather than fall into the Times New Roman/Arial rut of using only the most common system fonts, follow the guidance of experienced professionals when making your font selectons.

Want more information about fonts?  The Typography for Lawyers website and related book are the best resources I've found on this topic.

Provide your suggestions and examples in the Comments section below. We welcome your ideas as to topics for future columns. Biographical information about our Training Tips columnist and the Training Tips archives are available.

Posted by J. Lawson in Training Tips | Permalink

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