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Choosing a Font

Those with an interest in typography can find a bewildering array of Web pages that are ready to explain all the mysteries of fonts. And before there were Web pages, there were thick tomes that covered this arcane subject in lurid detail. If you have never poked your curious head around the corner and into this avenue of research, you may be taken aback by the passion you see displayed. You might not think matters such as which character shape is chosen could be so hotly debated. The sad truth is that once you delve into the topic, it is easy to find yourself pounding the table while insisting that your choices are the only reasonable ones—not that I speak from experience.

So we will keep it simple here. Those who like to divide things begin by dividing fonts into two groups. A serif font like Times New Roman or Book Antiqua has lines at the ends of letter strokes, usually parallel or at right angles to the base line of text. A sans serif font like Arial or Lucinda Sans does not. Figure 3 shows you an example of each: serif is on the left, sans serif is on the right.

Figure 3Figure 3 Compare serif and sans serif fonts.

Some people are absolutely convinced that a serif font is easier to read in printed text than a sans serif font because most early-grade reading texts were supposedly printed with serif fonts. I have never observed this reader preference for serif fonts, but perhaps it is because my test groups comprised people who worked in technology, where sans serif fonts are more common. On the other hand, I have seen in my own informal testing a reader preference for fonts that print a bit darker, such as Tahoma.

However, nearly all fonts of both types were created for print. If your work will be presented online, sans serif generally displays better, and you might want to select a font designed for online use. For one very fine discussion of the topic by specialists in the field (with no table pounding at all) see the Microsoft typography site.

For print, one common convention is to select a sans serif font (perhaps Arial, Helvetica, or Trebuchet) for headings while using serif fonts (such as Times New Roman or Book Antiqua) in about 12 point type for body text. If you are new to page design, this is a good place to start.

Keep in mind that the size of fonts can be deceptive. A 9-point Verdana, for example, is still (barely) readable for general printed text, but you must not expect this of other fonts. With fonts you haven't used before, test each one to ensure that your choices are easy to read in the medium in which they will be viewed.

One final point on fonts: I support the current design trend toward keeping the number of fonts to a minimum in your template to reduce visual confusion. As a result, I usually choose one font for body text and one for headings. I determine the size of my headings by estimating the number of heading levels I will need and then add one more, just in case. I make this lowest header level bold and about the same size as my body text. Then, for headings higher in the hierarchy, I pop up the point size, adding lines under or over as design requires. I try to limit heading levels to three wherever possible.

Where feasible, I use the heading font for headers and footers. Occasionally, a font will be difficult to read at the smaller sizes, so I select a third font for headers. You probably should not use more than three fonts in your template design—as soon as you do, someone will bring you a company logo with yet another font incorporated in it and insist that you add this creation to the header on each page. When you do it, you will notice that your eyes are in font overload (and they cross before you can actually read any text).

Once you have all the issues of font sorted out, you can turn to the matter of spacing. Styles in Word apply to whole paragraphs, so the space I'm talking about here is the kind above and below each paragraph. This area used to be called "leading" because actual layers of lead were used to widen the blank lines between typeset text. In some page-design texts you might still find it called that to distinguish it from spaces between words or characters.

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