Remind you of anything? Simple typography for non-professionals

Setting type used to have just one function: is it readable? Then, to save money, a new question: Can we get a lot of words on a page?

The third question, though, is the most dominant for most people making a presentation, designing a website, scoping out a logo or otherwise using type to deliver a message: How does it look?

The answer is not absolute. In some situations, some cultures, some usages, one type looks fine and another looks garish or silly or just wrong. And the reason is that whether we realize it or not, type reminds us of something we've seen before.

Here's an obvious example that I found floating around online:


Here's another example… which one looks like a college you'd aspire to attend:

Harvard type

If you use a typeface that reminds me of the script on the menu of a French restaurant, then no, I'm not going to instinctively believe that you're a good doctor. If you use a thin, elegant wedding invitation font in your Powerpoint presentation, you haven't been clever, you've merely confused me.

Here's the amateur's rule of thumb: don't call attention to your typeface choices unless you want the typeface to speak for you. Instead, start with the look and feel of the industry leaders and go from there. The shortcut that I learned from design pioneer (and the world's first desktop publisher) John McWade: Use Franklin Gothic Condensed for your headlines and Garamond for your body copy. Change it if you want, but only when you want to remind me of something.

[And this is where the hard part shows up: by 'industry leader' I don't mean the company that makes the most profit. I mean the voice that has the most authority, that raises the bar, that is well dressed. And that means learning how to see. Do you see how the New York subway system uses typography that feels more confident and clear than a typical amusement park's signage? Until you see the difference, keep your hands away from the keyboard…]

Typography in your work isn't for you. It doesn't matter if you like it. It doesn't matter if the committee likes it. After legibility, all that matters is what the recipient is reminded of. (And yes, it's fine if the typography reminds your viewer of nothing at all, at least if your goal is to create the awe of the totally new).

If you use the standard Microsoft font in your Powerpoint presentation, it might be common, but it won't be powerful. If you use Comic Sans, it won't be common, but it won't be powerful either.

It's a bit like wearing a dark blue suit to a meeting with a banker. You can wear something else, sure, but make sure you want it to be noticed, because it will be.

And here's a bonus advanced idea from XKCD.

Professionals and those with a budget to hire one, feel free to ignore some of this. If you ask for attention to be paid to your typography, though, you need to own the outcome of that attention.