Your brand is the first representation of your company that customers see, so it makes sense that it should make a good first impression; or, perhaps more importantly, an accurate one. Branding specialists will highlight consistency and fluidity between your website design, product photos, color schemes, and written content, to provide customers with a general feel for your company before they even speak to a representative therein. But there’s another big piece of branding that often goes unnoticed, in spite of its ubiquity and effect on how customers perceive your brand: your choice of typefaces.
If you have experience with typography, you’re already familiar with x-height, counter size, and stroke thickness. If not, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. What is the difference between serif and sans serif, anyway? What qualifies as a font, versus a typeface? And why is Comic Sans so universally despised? Let’s start by clarifying the definitions of some words we’re going to be using regularly.
Font vs. Typeface
To begin, a typeface is what most people would think of as a “font.” The word typeface encompasses the general shape of the characters, whether they are serif or sans serif (to be discussed later), and how they fit together in text. Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, and Georgia are all typefaces. A font is something a little more specific, which involves the weight of a typeface (whether it has been bolded, italicized, or underlined), the point size of the typeface, and other changes that can be made. For example, the typeface Times New Roman in 12 points and bolded is a font.
Legibility vs. Readability
Typefaces cannot be discussed without addressing the difference between legibility and readability. While many typefaces may be legible, or able to be read in general, they may lack in readability. Defined as the ability of a typeface to be read for an extended period of time– in a body of text, for example– without causing fatigue. You’ve probably experienced certain typefaces that make you want to stop reading halfway through an article or paper; while those typefaces may be legible, they have a very low readability. This is why some brands’ complex logo typefaces appear in headers in their content, but their body typefaces tend to be more generic, like Times New Roman or Helvetica.
Serif vs. Sans Serif
Now, the differences between Times New Roman and Helvetica are many, but the major distinction is this: Times is a serif typeface, meaning it has flourishes that finish each character, whereas Helvetica is a sans serif, which means it lacks those flourishes. It has been widely debated among typographers whether serif or sans serif typefaces possess more inherent readability. Generally, it’s agreed that because serif flourishes push characters further apart in a word, they’re easier to read in a body of text, even if at smaller point sizes the flourishes can prove a detriment to a typeface’s legibility.
Sans serif typefaces, on the other hand, are easier to read at smaller sizes and are often viewed as being more stylish and contemporary, where serifs are more academic. Oftentimes article content on blogs is produced with titles and headers in a sans serif, with a fair amount of space between the characters, while the body text is smaller and written in a serif face.
Why Does It Matter?
All of this may seem like jargon that your company would normally pay a graphic designer or a branding specialist to understand and utilize. After all, is it really necessary that you are able to explain that the reason you don’t like Comic Sans is its wild variation in stroke weight or the fact that its kerning is unpleasant to your eyes? Perhaps not, but an important point stands: Comic Sans, while it may be the worst typeface for branding, makes you feel some kind of way. Being forced to read an article written in Comic Sans makes you immediately notice the font of the article with disdain, but it isn’t just that. As you look down your nose (understandably) at the source’s choice of font, you also feel some amount of disdain toward the article and publication itself, regardless of how you feel about the content you’re reading.
As a company or even just as an individual, you should be hopeful that your branding will produce the feelings in your customers that you want it to. There’s much to be said for the fluidity of your website or brochures, but what it comes down to is how your customer feels when they’re reading your content. Think of which fonts make you feel certain ways. If you’re a recent college graduate, 12pt Times New Roman font will call you back to paper-writing and procrastination, stress and the trials of academia. If you’re used to reading a particular website every day for news or entertainment, the font used on that website may have become more comfortable to your eyes. Whatever you prefer, take a look at what you like and dislike reading, and think about why you might have developed those preferences. Then take a moment to consider what you want your brand to feel like, and try to find a typeface that gives you that same feeling. You’ll be impressed with how accurate you can be.
Lastly, while every company wants its fonts to create a good, accurate impression for customers, there is something to be said for transparency. Typographers describe typefaces and fonts that can be easily read without being too distracting in themselves as being “transparent,” or letting the content show through without interrupting. While any font will give your content a certain feel, that impression should remain in the background to allow content to shine. This is why we don’t commonly use Comic Sans or Papyrus for bodies of text; the reader would find him or herself thinking more about our choice of font than about the content. The font should never be a wall or curtain that the reader has to get through before getting to the content. Rather, it should be a window.
Typography is essentially an art form, and it lends itself readily to artistic minds. After all, there’s no better way to make a brand pop than by featuring a one-of-a-kind hand lettered typeface created by an artist just for your company. Flashy use of typefaces causes customers to say, “I recognize that! Where have I seen that before?” in a way that simple clipart logos never could. But catching a reader’s eye is only half of the equation; if your main content doesn’t feature a transparent font, you may lose your reader before you can even make your pitch. Your company’s choice of typefaces and fonts matters immensely, so it goes without saying that you should take care to make the right choice!