Since our school days, many of us have been crafting essays, letters, and stories with a word processor. Inevitably we would experiment with the font selector, trying to see what our report on Christopher Columbus would look like in Papyrus. But back then, we probably didn’t know what we were doing, or why certain fonts worked while others fell flat on their face.
But now as grown-ups in the eLearning industry, we can’t afford not to have at least a working knowledge of typography or when to use Cambria over Garamond. For those that need to brush up on their stuff, this post is for you.
Font or Typeface?
A common misconception is that Cambria or Garamond or Times New Roman are all fonts. The confusion often gets further complicated by the fact that most non-designers call them such.
To settle the confusion here and now, all you have to know is that the difference between font and typeface is one of specificity. A typeface is what you were selecting when you changed your history report to Papyrus. A typeface is simply a set of characters that have a similar design (Cambria, Garamond, Times New Roman, etc.)
The term font refers to a specific style and size within a typeface. For instance, Bold Arial 12 point would be considered a different font from Bold Arial 14-point, and Italic Times New Roman 36-point would likewise be its own font.
There are two basic types of typefaces: Serif and Sans Serif.
A serif is a little notch or tick mark used to embellish a letter. Many historians trace them back to the stone-carving methods of the Ancient Romans, who would cap off a stroke of their chisel with a serif to make a neater edge than if the serif were left off. Today they are simply for design purposes. In print publications, serif typefaces are more legible because each letter has a more recognizably distinct shape, and the serifs provide for a flow that seems to link the letters of a word into one whole.
However, when it comes to the computer screen, serifs can be difficult to read. This is because print publications are at a much higher resolution, typically around 1000 dots-per-inch. Because of this, serif typefaces sometimes come out looking a little smeary on the screen, especially in smaller font sizes.
For these reasons, serifs are typically not used for body text in online publications, and the same goes for eLearning professionals.
As “sans” is French for “without”, you can probably guess that a sans serif typeface is one without the ticks and flourishes of a serif font. Sans serifs are sleek and unencumbered, making them ideal for the screen and smaller font sizes.
Putting it All Together
Combining serif and sans serif typefaces is a trick that each eLearning designer needs to experiment with when using typography. Combining fonts is a lot like getting dressed in the morning. You wouldn’t just grab a few different patterns and colors you like and not consider how they look together. If you did, you would look like a freak.
When you do put an outfit together, you usually try to coordinate things that compliment each other, or that follow a similar theme.
Fonts are exactly the same. Don’t just choose a couple of eye-gouging monstrosities and call it good. Put a little thought and effort into it.
In this example, the text comes out looking like mad-man’s ransom letter. Typefaces are used with reckless abandon, straining the eyes and testing the gag reflex. Perhaps two of these fonts could have been used together, but as a whole, they fight each other, and one can only hope it’s to the death.
Here, the serif type in the heading compliment the sans serif type in the body text.
Was I missing anything? Let me know what you think in the comments below.