Typeface Questions: Recently, I’ve seen a lot of debate online – and a lot of confusion — about which typefaces promote maximum readability.
Common wisdom says that in print, serif typefaces like Times Roman (the face used by most newspapers that has little ruffles and flourishes on the characters) are the most readable. The characters are heavy enough to be easily readable even when they’re relatively small – as in the 9 point type commonly used in newspapers.
In direct mail, type selection is usually driven by the format you’re using. In print ads, magalogs, special reports, bookalogs and tabloids, most marketers use Times Roman (or a close cousin thereof) for body copy.
In sales letters – promotions designed to look as though you just tapped them out on your trusty typewriter – most mailers go with a serif typeface, although brand-driven (rather than sales-driven) communications often stick to corporate branding guidelines, regardless.
And if many of your prospects are older, I recommend that the type be 12 points or larger in size.
On the web, most folks use sans-serif fonts like Verdana, Arial or Helvetica. Although monitor resolutions are pretty good nowadays, some computer monitors pixelate everything, and can mangle the little flourishes on serif letters, causing eyestrain and fatigue.
And while Amazon and eBay and most other massive sites use little, tiny 10pt and even 7.5pt type on their pages, I try to stick with 12 point Arial or 11.5 pt. Verdana for long copy.
Now, here’s where it can get a little sticky…
Just because a typeface has serifs (in print) or no serifs (on the web) does NOT mean it is readable.
In print, many serif faces can get so fancy with all their little curves and flourishes – and line weight can get so light in places — they’re virtually unreadable. Bell or Bodoni MT, for example.
Ditto for sans-serif faces on the web: Some of them are so light, they almost melt into the page. Corbel, for example.
And trust me on this: Given the choice between the same old “boring” Times and Verdana typefaces and something artsy-fartsy and virtually unreadable, most designers will go the creative route, rendering your copy indecipherable.
My philosophy: Marketing is fraught with risk. There’s a risk your theme or proposition will fail to resonate with prospects … that your headline will perform a not-so-graceful face-plant … that your opening copy will leave prospects cold … that nobody wants the benefits your product offers at the price you’re asking … or that your spokesman reminds your prospects of the bully who stole their lunch money in middle school.
There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to add to this list of risks by experimenting with the typefaces you use. Stick to what is proven to work.
Size Matters: Still on the typeface issue, but this is important stuff.
A lot of people seem to think that all reverse type is evil; and they are dead wrong.
I know –we’ve all been taught that anytime the type is lighter than the background, it renders your words less readable. David Ogilvy even made that point – quite eloquently, in fact — in his famous book, ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’.
Problem is, it’s not always true.
Sure – if you go with 12-point Times Roman in white on a black background, you might as well be setting your copy in hieroglyphics. Nobody will get past the first line.
But is the prohibition against reverse type true for headlines or main copy set in big, fat sans-serif letters?
Before you answer, consider this …
- Stop signs are white lettering on a red background. Are they unreadable?
- McDonalds, Coca-Cola and many other huge franchises spend hundreds of millions on market research and their signs are unanimously yellow or white type on red or dark blue backgrounds. Unreadable?
- The Hollywood sign is made up of white letters set against the dark background of the hillside. Unreadable?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have a disease called reverselexia – kind of like dyslexia, only it won’t have you on your knees praying to your dog.
The point is, when it comes to reverse type, size matters. The large lettering on a stop sign … on a McDonalds sign … and the 45-foot-high letters on the Hollywood sign …make the characters eminently readable – while the brilliant color contrast makes it impossible to look away.
The Bottom Line: Avoid reverse type in body copy at all costs (you’ll never see large blocks of reversed-out copy in a newspaper or a book). But for large headlines, white, yellow, or hot pink type on a black, red, blue or lime green background can actually give your promotion greater attention-getting power and impact.
Always remember that whilst typeface and graphics are very important, what will really get you the response you’re looking comes from the world’s most powerful computer: The one sloshing around inside that skull perched at the top of your spine.
Questions, thoughts, comments? Please get in touch, below!