Character in Fonts

Just yesterday someone asked me if I could provide feedback on an analyst presentation they were preparing. I immediately set my mind to focus with the intent of providing my best insights. As soon as we got past the title slide to the first slide of the presentation my brain received a jolt which had me reeling. The slide was a very basic introduction that was intended to set context for the rest of the presentation. Nothing complicated – an image with a couple large lines of text. Yet my brain just froze and I had a hard time trying to focus after it was shown to me. It took me a couple more slides before I could recover and set my mind back to focus.

So what was it that was so jarring? The fonts. The juxtaposition of two different font families, the relative sizes and the colors just ground my thinking brain to a halt. I won’t even go into the image that was used. That’s a topic for another set of posts.

I readily admit that I am one of those anal people. I am rather infamous in the circles that do know me for fussing about the right fonts, colors, and design elements. Now I’ve never had any particular training in typography or design – though I wish I had. However, I have always been fascinated with design and over the years have had an opportunity to nurture the interest in large part due to the encouragement and recognition from friends and co-workers who seem to genuinely – at least to my face, appreciate my design sense and insights.

As a self-professed design aficionado who is every so often asked to provide his “opinion”, I often am in the position where I have to justify my insights e.g. why I think something looks good or bad.  Given the lack of any formal training, I don’t have much theory to back me up. All I know is that when I look at something it either resonates within my head or I perceive a dissonance from some element of the design. I have over the years, developed some ability to better articulate where some of that dissonance is coming from and make specific recommendations. Through this blog I hope to provide regular insights from my perspective on what makes good design.

I am always looking to validate my theses with professionals and others who may be more formally schooled in design. This is why I found this article very interesting – What Font Should I Use: 5 Principles for Choosing and Using Typefaces. It provides a nice introduction to the basics of selecting fonts. Additionally, it gives me a basis for explaining the dissonance I felt while I was reviewing the introductory slide with mixed font types in the presentation I was reviewing yesterday. The author of the article has this to say about mixing fonts – “..we need to decide how to mix and match and — most importantly — whether to mix and match at all. Most of the time, one typeface will do,..” So true. This is something I keep telling anyone who will listen. I routinely see people mixing fonts in presentations. My pet peeve is seeing text of similar size, color  in Arial mixed in with Times Roman. People seem to have no qualms …much less concern about the long term damage they are doing to my mental health!

My sanity notwithstanding I highly recommend reading the article. Besides a basic introduction to typography i.e. understanding which fonts go where, you’ll get an introduction into the governing principles behind the art of mixing fonts e.g. “Correspondence and Contrast”.

BTW – even if you have just a passing interest in typography, I highly recommend watching the documentary – Helvetica. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it is now available on Netflix. Check it out. You will truly appreciate how much character is in fonts (pun intended) through the unique perspective from all the characters into fonts.

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