Fonts - Why Do They Matter, And What's The Difference?

aybe you overheard (either in real life or online) a passionate debate about font faces. Maybe someone commented on the font you used for a project. Maybe your boss insists on a font, and gets angry when you don’t use it.

No matter – this article will explain everything you need to know about fonts!

What Is A Font?

Let’s start by defining our terms. A “font” is a collection of letters with a certain style. Each font has its own style. If we were talking about handwriting, block print and cursive would be two different “fonts.”

Most people know about Wing Dings, if only because they selected it by accident once! Wing Dings is a font (although not a very useful one). Your computer probably has a number of different fonts that you can play with.

Default Fonts

If you work at a computer, you stare at fonts all day long without realizing it. Until recently, the default font for Word on Microsoft Windows was Times New Roman. The default font for Excel on Windows was Arial. With Vista, the default font for every Microsoft program is Calibri. There’s nothing wrong with default fonts, but because they are so common, people often heap them with scorn.

You have probably already noticed how words in an Excel spreadsheet look considerably different from words in Word! This leads us to our first font terms.

Sans Serif versus Serif Fonts

Arial is a “sans serif” font. Times New Roman is a “serif” font. Serifs are those little flourishes, the little bits of flair on the letters.

Look at the first capital S for each font – the serifs are the vertical bits at the top and bottom of the S. Compare the lower-case I in the word “serif.” The Arial lower-case I is just a straight line. The Times New Roman lower-case I has a foot, and a little wedge at the top.

Serif fonts are considered warmer, more friendly, and easier to read in print. Sans serif fonts are official, cold, and easier to read when small or on a computer screen.

Can you see why Microsoft would have assigned Arial to Excel, and Times New Roman to Word?

Best And Worst Choices

Best Sans Serif Font

If you have the option, Helvetica is probably the best choice you can make.  This goes for everything from advertising copy to in-house email messages.  Helvetica is considered “THE” font, ever since it was developed in Switzerland in the late 1950s.  It is even the subject of a wonderful documentary.

Helvetica is the little black dress of fonts – you can’t go wrong!

Unfortunately, Helvetica is not a free font for Windows users.  (It does come bundled with Apple computers by default.)

For the most part, Arial will serve you well as a Microsoft sans serif font. If you need something a little bit nicer, use Gill Sans or Trebuchet.

Worst Sans Serif Font

The worst sans serif choice you can make, bar none, is Comic Sans.  Comic Sans is the most hated font of all time, and with good reason.  Aside from being outright ugly, Comic Sans is a half-hearted attempt to make your words look friendly.

Why shouldn’t you use Comic Sans? Ask yourself, “Would I write this in crayon, or in baby talk?” If the answer is “No,” then Comic Sans is the wrong font.

The best way to make your words friendly is to use friendly words! Writing a passive aggressive or snide email in Comic Sans won’t fool anyone.  My favorite quote about Comic Sans is that it “makes every inter-office email look like a bake sale.” 

Comic Sans is unattractive, useless, and entirely inappropriate for office use. Or public consumption of any sort, really.

Best Serif Font

Personally, I have a fondness for Garamond.  Garamond is under-used, which means that your use of it will stand out – but not TOO much.  Georgia is a similar font, but I feel like Georgia is trying too hard.

Worst Serif Font

Aside from some “novelty” fonts like Papyrus and Curlz MT (both of which everyone is heartily sick of, thank you) the only serif font that you should avoid is Times New Roman. A colleague once scoffed that “Nothing says “I don’t know how to use my computer” like a letter written in Times New Roman.”  Times New Roman’s ubiquity is its undoing – familiarity breeds contempt, after all.

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Comments 3 comments

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

Good stuff. Thanks!

Chevy 6 years ago

Q: Can you see why Microsoft would have assigned Arial to Excel, and Times New Roman to Word?

A: Yep purely because Micro$atan is the ultimate control freak, cannot be changed and I rue the day Gates's Evil Empire invaded Macs...

timothy82rodrigu profile image

timothy82rodrigu 6 years ago

Great page! I'm a big fan of the "ban comic sans" movement. I have a little sign over my desk that says that.

I just linked to your page from my Hub about logo design as an example of what classic fonts look like. Keep up the great work!

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