Choosing & Pairing Fonts

Normally I talk about things like user experience, web design, and best practices for the web. In this  post I hope to shed some light on font issues and to offer some tips in choosing fonts for things like emails, “quick” signage, and reports.


Everyone in our office knows that there are some fonts that just really bother me or are misused constantly.  These two fonts are Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Comic Sans. You know the font that looks like a 5-year-old made it.  Well, that font should almost never be used.  It does not convey style, creativity, or professionalism.  It is a font that was developed by Vincent Connare for Microsoft’s Microsoft Bob.  It was never intended to be used as a real font but rather a solution to a User Interface blunder.  Typefaces need to convey tone.  A “do not enter’ sign should use a strong and bold typeface, not a typeface that looks like a child wrote it.  It is even argued that Comic Sans is eroding away the principles of typography that have been in place for thousands of years.

Papyrus, the font that looks like it has seen the test of time dating back to the Egyptians.  This “ancient” novelty font is over-used and misused.  Like Comic Sans, it doesn’t make a quick sign that has to be printed creative or stylish.  The font isn’t necessarily a bad design, but because of its over-use it feels cheap.  The movie “Avatar” recently fell under criticism by for using Papyrus for subtitles in the film.  I agree with them. With the millions of dollars it cost to make that film, they couldn’t just buy a less used and abused font?


So what are good fonts to use and how should you pick them?  The real answer is dependent upon context.  Choosing fonts is like writing for a specific audience.  The size, weight, and type should help reflect the message.

Sans-Serif fonts are the de facto of screen-based text.  They can be used for titling and text.  The reason is largely because of the rendering hiccups Serif fonts have with hinting when the font size is set low.  The typeface Verdana was specifically designed to be used for on-screen text.  A rule of thumb for choosing a font for an email or any text that will be viewed on a screen is to choose a sans-serif such as Helvetica, Arial, or Verdana.  By choosing one of these fonts for screen-based text, you are ensuring faster and more fluid readability of the text.

Sans-Serif fonts are also used a lot for signage.  Helvetica is the safest bet in creating “quick” signage.  It’s extremely clear and when bolded warrants attention.  It does such a good job at conveying a message, it is used on virtually everything.

Serif fonts for screen-based content work best when they are used for titling.  Titling is larger than body text, therefore it doesn’t have the hinting problems that the same font would have as body text.  The typeface Georgia was designed alongside Verdana to provide a serif alternative for on-screen text.  A rule of thumb is to just use serif fonts for titling in things like emails.  If you do use a serif font for text make sure it has a tall x-height, wider letter spacing, and good contrast.

Serif fonts have a humanistic style to them which make them sort of a risky choice for a last-minute sign.  The structure of most serif fonts are not bold enough to grab someone’s attention and guide them.

For more information about legibility between sans-serif and serif fonts, check out this research by Alex Poole.


What d0 you do if you want to use more than one font in an email or report?  There are some quick and dirty rules to help you pair together typefaces.

  • Check the X-height between the 2 fonts.  Type the lower case x of both fonts at 72pt and see if the x’s have the same height. Larger x-heights also lead to better readability at small font sizes.

  • Check for similar structure.  Below are Bodoni and Futura. They are two very different fonts, but the structure of them is very similar.

  • Use fonts from the same designer or foundry.  This will probably will take a little bit of looking into but it’s also a good idea to use fonts that were made by the same entity. Below is an example of fonts from Hoefler & Fere-Jones.


Hopefully you now have a better idea of what type of fonts to use and how to pick fonts.  I hope these little tips help make your communication pieces look professional and more legible.  If you have any questions please make sure to comment.

Chad Hietala