5 rules for writers when working with fonts

I was a bit misty eyed during the week after reading of the death of Hermann Zapf. Zapf was a typographer and font designer. He gave us the widely used Palatino typeface, Optima (one of my favourite fonts) and the Zapf Dingbats (you've probably used some of them), amongst others.

To be honest I hadn't heard of Zapf before. What made me go all nostalgic was the thought of what this 96-year-old had seen over his life and that he will continue to make his mark, via his fonts, for many years to come.

I've always loved a good font. However, as a writer I'm also aware of the potential dangers of being a 'fontoholic'. Believe me, there are a lot of fonts out there if you go looking for them.

Here are the five strategies I use in order to manage this condition.

  1. Never play with fonts until the writing is done. The first job of a writer – and that by that I mean anyone looking to perform a writing task – is to get the words down. In my case I have both Scrivener and Microsoft Word templates set up to use the Georgia font by default. It's a font I find comfortable to work with so using it feels like picking up a comfortable old pen.

  2. Leave design to a designer. Just as I advocate seeking professional writing and editing assistance when it's important to get the words right, the same applies to design. Whether it is a newsletter, a white paper, a website or a blog, a pro knows how to use typography to make a statement without going over the top. At the very least, when it comes to the web, use a pre-designed template such as those offered by Squarespace or the better Wordpress theme designers.

  3. Use one serif and one sans-serif font family at a time. When you do want to do the design yourself, perhaps for a simple letter or article, this simple rule will keep that document from looking straight out amateurish. Serif fonts are the ones with small 'extensions' at the extremes (Times New Roman is the 'default' serif typeface in MS Word) while sans-serif (literally 'without serif') are more 'plain' (Arial and Helvetica being the most common examples). The point is that serifs should not be mixed with other serifs, nor sans-serifs mixed with other sans-serifs, in the same document.

  4. Be consistent. Large corporations are obsessive about typefaces. A carefully chosen font, universally used, can become an integral part of a brand. While most of us can't afford to have a typeface designed just for us, we can look more polished and professional by sticking to one font family (or one serif and one sans-serif) in all our writing, rather than presenting a different face to the world every time we send something out.

  5. Never, ever, use Comic Sans. At least don't use it if you want to be taken seriously. No. Come to think of it, don't even use it then.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

Image from Flickr user Bill Dickinson: used under Creative Commons licence

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