The primary job of type is pretty simple: to get read. The most brilliantly written copy can’t persuade if nobody reads it.
Unfortunately, legibility often takes a back seat to “art” or “cool” or “attitude”, the sort of things designers should be doing at home in their spare time.
Unless there’s a very good reason (and I’d love to hear it) for using a hard to read typeface in a harder to read font, it’s better to go with the basics, which can be summarized as “what book publishers, newspapers and magazines use”:
• A serif typeface, roman (as opposed to, say, italic) for body copy
• A readable font size and style (e.g. not light, which is a typographic word for skinny) in upper and lower case
• Mostly narrow measure for body copy; letters and books are the exceptions – telegrams used to be an exception, too, but who gets telegrams anymore?
• Black type on a white or very light background
• Medium leading (space between the lines), pronounced ledding
• Minimal emphasizers such as bold, italic and underlined.
And that’s it.
Here’s an example of the best way to do it in this beautiful double page spread corporate ad from the mid 1980s.
The headline, author credit, the word “incomprehensibilities” and the company name are in sans serif. Everything else is in a serif face. The copy is big enough to read, has few emphasizers and it’s in narrow columns. Is it old school? Sure, but it’s old school in the timeless way that Converse sneakers, little black dress, button down oxford shirts and bourbon on the rocks are old school.
Even high end advertising has gotten away from the basics judging from ads in Harvard Business Review – the October, 2011 edition that happens to be on my desk at the moment.
I have no idea what IBM is talking about here and I’m not going to bother reading the body copy to find out; it’s in a wide, light, sans serif typeface and I’d have to force myself. Perhaps part of the problem is that the agency and the client don’t have to force themselves to read it because they already know what it says.
Do you know what ATS is? Me neither and it doesn’t matter because this ad is just ATS writing to itself in wide measure sans serif type.
The University of Michigan makes the wide measure sans serif concept even harder to read with white type on dark background (reverse type).
Ah, to heck with it. Magazines are chock full of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising that nobody will read. The advertisers might as well have just written in the middle of a blank page “We were going to put an ad here but nobody would have read it. Here’s our logo.”
What about online?
A year ago, I wondered out loud why nearly all online body copy is in wide measure sans serif type. An expert told me that early computers tended to lop off serifs, so sans serif became the default. Wide measure became the norm because of the way the pages scroll.
Nonetheless, I started using a serif face for long copy emails because it’s easier to read. Lois Geller’s blog at Forbes.com is in a serif face with a narrow measure: Why A Brand Matters. National Review Online is in a serif face. The 200+ books in my Kindle are all in one serif face or another. Serif body copy is easier to read even in an electronic format.
That leaves one final question: why can’t I get my own blog into a serif face? And the answer is “I don’t know, unless “WordPress won’t let you” is an answer.”