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  • Writer's pictureRay Salisbury

9 tips for TIME-less type

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Sitting in the sun in a local café, I flip open my laptop and open up MS Word. The default font is 12pt Times New Roman – it’s very readable, but ridiculously over-used. Our eyes have evolved to recognise this ubiquitous serif font that was the mainstay in newspapers, books and Bibles since the Romans first carved their Latin alphabet into tablets more than two millennia ago.

One simple way to make our designs look more modern is the bid farewell to our faithful friend, Times Roman. Here are 9 more suggestions you can implement to improve the ‘look’ of your brand.

1 Typeface Selection

When starting up your business, you need to choose the following: a logo, colour scheme and typeface/s that represent you and your business. It’s all part of the overall experience your customers will enjoy.

Picking a typeface is like getting dressed in the morning. If you will be fronting up to a job interview, you’ll be sure to don formal attire. If you intend to spend the day relaxing on the couch at Zumo’s café, then a sweatshirt and jeans are adequate.

So, what typeface should you choose? This depends entirely on what type of business you’re in. If you’re a financial institution, you will want to appear formal, trust-worthy and stable. If you’re a brewery or vineyard, you will want to portray a rustic aura of family heritage or traditional techniques. If you’re a disc-jockey, you might choose distressed fonts and a grungy style of graphics to appeal to a teenage audience.

There are four basic styles of lettering:

a) Serif: (e.g. Times Roman)

The small, delicate ‘feet’ on the end of each letter stroke are named ‘serifs’. They help connect each letter, which improves scanning and therefore legibility. That’s why Times has been used in newspapers for centuries – it’s easy to read. But the disadvantage of serif faces is that they look out-dated. A modern derivation is the slab-serif, which is common in sports or western ranch logos.

b) Sans Serif: (e.g. Arial)

Sans means ‘without’. This type looks modern, and is great for headlines as well as body copy. However, it can often lack personality (which is fine for big corporates).

c) Script: (e.g. Mistral)

Derived from handwriting, these typefaces can appear formal, like calligraphy, pen or brush script, which was written using an actual writing implement. Or they can appear very human, even child-like, when drawn freehand. Useful for wedding invitations, artwork, or to appeal to children. Useless for body copy.

d) Display (e.g. Jokerman)

Decorative type styles are brimming with personality, screaming ‘pick me!’ like the Donkey in Shrek. However, as they are often difficult to read, and get out-dated, they are best used with restraint – perhaps in a logo, or short headline.

2 Font Family

Now you’ve selected some suitable typefaces, make sure they complement each other. You will notice that each typeface has its own font – that is, the different sizes and weights in the wider ‘family’. For instance, ARIAL comes in regular, bold, italic, narrow and black fonts. You can mix ‘n’ match.

3 Repetition

A good rule-of-thumb is to restrict a design to 2 or 3 typefaces. For example, a serif face could be used for the small ‘body copy’ on a page, while a sans serif face might compliment this in a bold headline.

By repeating the exact same type styles throughout your business documents and advertising will communicate both consistency and professionalism. You do not want your brand compromised by hap-hazard use of random fonts, sizes or inconsistent type alignment. The most common, and easily-read alignment of type, is flush left (like in this blog.)

4 Contrast

The flip-side of repetition is contrast. Too much repetition in any design equals boring. Too much contrast will look messy and confusing – you need to strike the right balance.

The rule here is to either keep the font (or colour) exactly the same, or change it a lot, so it’s obviously different. For example if you married Helvetica with its poor cousin, Arial, they would be poor bed partners, as they are, to the untrained eye, almost identical.

Use contrast when you are micro-formatting a passage of text. Bolden headlines or subheadings, and use a larger font size.

5 Web Browsers

Of course, typography is more than merely font selection. Unfortunately, limitations of various Internet browsers really restrict your font choice on-line. And as technology trends are fast-changing, your website must now be readable on a Tablet, Kindle, Smartphone or iPod, as half of internet traffic derives from these mobile devices.

60% of websites use sans-serif typefaces for headlines, mostly Arial, Verdana, Lucida and Helvetica. The most popular serif typefaces for headlines are Georgia (28%) and Baskerville (4%).

For body copy, Arial, Georgia and Verdana are the most common; a few years ago, around 80% of websites used one of these three fonts.

6 Legibility

14-point type is the new ‘12’. As minimalist design takes hold, which is necessary to communicate across a plethora of platforms and devices, font sizes are getting bigger. For body copy, the most popular font size is 13pt, with 14pt slightly more popular than 12pt. However, like the rebel typographer David Carson says: “Don’t mistake legibility for communication.” Just because the words are easy to read, that doesn’t mean the typeface is appropriate.

7 Line Length

The ‘rule’ here is to use between 55 and 75 characters per line on a web page. This is the optimal length of a block of text, to enable easy reading. On traditional print-based pages, a similar formula exists. Essentially, if a line of type is too long, the reader’s eye will struggle to locate the next line below. Try dividing a page into two columns.

8 Flair to spare

While experimenting with these tried-and-true conventions, don’t be scared to add a bit of spice here and there, to accent important features of a design. For example, using a splash of red is great for grabbing attention. Or choose a dynamic typeface, then rotate it on an angle; this will contrast nicely with the more static, horizontally-aligned text. Warning: do not exceed the recommended dosage!

9 Break the rules

When you get good at graphic design and you’ve earned your stripes; then it’s time to do something different. The rules listed above are really just ‘best practice’. Brody and Carson broke out of the grid-based design of their time. Now it’s 2021 and the world is waiting for a new breed of designers to grab our attention!

© 2021 Ray Salisbury / Nelson, New Zealand /

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