Sunday, September 30, 2012

your input please: font

We have a small debate underway in my day job regarding font. Specifically, which should be our default or standard font for analyses, presentations, etc. This led me to the question: when it comes to font choices, where do best practices end and personal preferences begin?

I'm aware of some relevant research conducted by psychologists Song and Schwarz in 2008 at the University of MI at Ann Arbor, where they showed college students recipes for sushi and asked them to estimate 1) how long the recipe would take them to make and 2) how inclined they were to do so. The only thing that varied between the recipes was the font in which it was written. What they found in a nutshell was that the fussier the font, the more difficult the students judged the recipe and the less likely they were to want to attempt making it. For me, the translation for data visualization broadly is that the more complicated it looks, the less likely your audience is to take time with it.

But back to my specific question: if both fonts are straightforward to read (no legibility issues), how do you choose?

To try to answer this question, I initially planned on doing some research; I quickly grew impatient with this. My brief attempt in Google searches taught me that there is no shortage of font fodder on the internet. There are conflicting lists of the "best" fonts (example). Others have done much more research in this area than I care to (example). I was struck that there don't even seem to be consistent opinions on questions I thought would be easy (e.g. serif vs. sans serif... sans, obviously, right? not according to Wikipedia).

So rather than continue down this slightly frustrating path, I thought I'd pose the problem to you to see if any consensus in the form of the wisdom of crowds emerges. Here are the fonts we're considering:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
1234567890 (Calibri)

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

1234567890 (Open Sans)

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
1234567890 (Arial)

Specifically, when it comes to the open debate at work: my colleague and I are in agreement that Calibri should not be our default font. I think our reasoning when you boil it down is probably simply because we don't like it vs. anything scientific. Where we differ is on the question of Open Sans vs. Arial. I won't bias you by revealing which I prefer (though my sans serif comment and the text on this blog serve as a pretty big hint).

My questions to you are: If you were weighing in on this decision, what factors would you consider? Which font do you prefer? Why? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


  1. I'd say Arial.
    - wide-spread/availability is good
    - no compatibility issues/cross-media usage poses no problems
    - heavy-set (in the comparison above)
    - sans-serif (personal preference)

  2. Most studies are on longer pieces of text. If all you need are axis labels, numbers, and short annotations, you want a sans-serif font (which tends to be more readable and look less cluttered).

    And yes, font choice is 67% preference, 12% research, and 21% just giving up after having stared at dozens of fonts for way too long.

  3. Cole,

    One question to consider is once you have produced documents/ data/ how widely distributed is it and in what format.

    If you distribute documents in office formats I would say Arial is the way to go, as you are 99% sure the way you lay it out is the way it will appear. That's assuming people are reading on PC, etc.

    Once you get to mobile platforms, it becomes a whole other story.

    Another consideration I find is the readability of the font when it is kerned to fit into a tight space. That's why generally, I prefer Calibri over Arial, since Arial has a wider footprint for the same fontsize.

  4. Some other things to consider when selecting a font:

    Typographic Hierarchy:
    (eg a combination of FF Din and Bembo can be very nice)

    Font Rasterisation:

    Fonts for Financials:

    Axis Typography:

    Lots of other great tips:

  5. I'm partial to Calibri myself. No serifs, and just about the right amount of distinction from Arial.

  6. I agree with Johannes and would add that san serif also because its streamline appearance (sans serif) works well with the straight lines of bar/column charts particularly if their are visible grid lines. It also is easier on the eyes if the font size is small and stands up to reproduction better if the materials will be photocopied or faxed (yes, people still do that, lol).

  7. My vote is also for Arial, for the same reasons Johannes listed.

  8. I'd quickly eliminate Open Sans due to legibility and being too "fancy", since it's a serif font.

    For me it's a toss up between Arial and Calibri.

    The font examples in your post are not strictly comparable since the Arial font is larger than the Calibri font. For example in MS-Word when I enter the same phrase in either font, at the same font size, the size of each front is visually similar. In your post Arial looks bigger than Calibri which will impact the comparison.

    I'd go with Calibri since it looks more modern, and also because Arial is a very common font -- although this is a benefit it's also a detraction since text in Calibri looks a little more sophisticated and out of the ordinary.

  9. This is interesting as I've never really considered which fonts are better than others. I've always like a clean, legible font but never really considered the value of one clean font versus another clean font.

    From that standpoint, I'm enjoying reading the responses.

    However, one thing that I've always strongly suggested is remaining consistent with your font. If you choose Arial, stick with Arial, don't bounce back and forth. Doing so will often times lead to a misconception that the designer is attempting to promote or demote value to one area versus another when most likely they are not.

    I see this alot where multiple developers work on the same dashboard. Subtle differences like these are big difference makers.

  10. Just to make yourself extra nutty, don't forget about the environmental differences of toner usage and number of pages for the same document.

    I tend to go with Arial for same reasons as above.

  11. Some basic typography lessons: do not use too many fonts on the same page/image/slide. I have received presentations with multiple fonts on one slide for no apparent reason. It makes me shudder the same way pie charts do.

    For my presentations I typically stick to one font (Arial, Calibri) throughout and vary the size, color, and 'boldness' where applicable.

  12. I'm with Arial for the reasons Johannes stated too.

  13. Definitely a sans-serif for general business use. I wouldn't be so quick to discount Calibri. I was at a recent talk by a professor from the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) who believes that Calibri will quickly become the new standard font in the world. That may also mean you don't want to use it because everyone else will eventually do so. This review of the 6 C Fonts is very interesting. I know two people who use Georgia as their default. We have slowly migrated to Calibri as our default. There seem to be loads of people that really dislike Arial. I don't particularly care for it either, but there are several people here who absolutely hate it. I think we have to be careful not to labor over of shades of white. The general public probably wouldn't really care what font it is and may not even notice a difference. It's a great topic though and the timing is funny since it's part of my class material tonight!

  14. Personally, I think Arial is already overused, so I would avoid it. I am now straddling the PC and Mac worlds and do not like what Keynote does to my PowerPoint slides - but I digress. I would make sure the font selected was supported in both worlds so I could be certain they looked the SAME. After that, legibility and footprint matter. Of the three presented that you knocked down to two, I would have to choose Arial because I had issues using Open Sans. The one I use is Gill Sans.

  15. Readability and legibility are two different things. At a certain point, a "typeface" becomes readable by the masses. Legibility depends on many things, including size, familiarity, color and context. Is it a projected presentation or on an iPad? Is it on a billboard on the freeway or on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?

    There is no "best" typeface. One face that works in one presentation won't work well in another. To a great degree for presentations, though we avoid using type built into PowerPoint for the simple fact that it changes from one computer to another. And most default fonts are terrible excuses for quality typography. We set all of our presentations as graphics (no fonts to worry about), and begin using corporate brand fonts where applicable.

    After that, it's all personal taste. Designers are going to have a better grasp on what works and what doesn't, but for the layman, KISS. Verdana is a safe bet, and it's not Arial. Any of the tall X-height sans serif fonts are safe bets (they look larger even though they aren't).

    And to a great degree... it doesn't matter. Your presentation message isn't in your "font." Don't get lost in the minutia.

  16. Thanks, everyone, for your comments (please keep them coming)! Andy from had a similar discussion on his blog a couple of months ago, which you can read about here if interested:

  17. I'm an Arial guy for presentations, but use Calibri for Outlook/e-mail. It's interesting; I'm old enough to remember when everyone used Times New Roman. Now I can't remember the last time I used it.

    I do think Arial works best for people who have moved away from bullet-heavy copy and toward images, simple charts, and slides with one piece of data instead of a chart (e.g., 32% of our customers do X).

  18. I personally liked the Arial above, but it seems a little narrow, OK for a paragraph of dense text but something just a little more open for graph labels might look less crowded.

    Also see the short (1hr) movie: "Helvetica" you might find it illuminating, and oddly entertaining.

  19. Here is another video you may enjoy on type:

  20. Cole, i will look at Frutiger and Gotham font.


  21. I don't like Arial because it's the default for pretty much everything (aside from Times New Roman) and thus makes it look like the person didn't put any thought into it. I also don't think it looks great, maybe because I see it so often. Open Sans kind of looks like the font they use on karaoke machines, however. I guess I like Calibri best.

  22. @fred, how is Open Sans a serif font? :)

    Open Sans is actually becoming quite popular font on the web, it's free, it has lots of characters supported, it doesn't look comic the way Calibri does. I like it very much BUT I kinda still prefer Arial because it's so Helvetica like and Helvetica will always rule. And while I find Open Sans pleasing to the eye, I can't get used to it to use it on my own sites or materials. And, BTW, It's also less legible than Arial due to the lighter nature of the font.