Font Styles & Their Appropriate Uses

Since the days of using Notepad on an old computer in my parents’ office to write little stories, I remember the vast variety of font styles available on the computer. Because I was more enthralled by the tales flourishing from my fingertips, I didn’t typically use outrageous fonts; however, when I went through a phase in middle school where I wrote cards (as in birthday, holiday, thank you, etc.), I experimented with all the fonts. Fellow adults will likely agree that common sense tells us not to use weird fonts in professional settings, but this post doesn’t simply state the obvious. In this post, I divide all fonts–standard and non–into three categories and explain the appropriate use of each kind.

Serif Fonts

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Words from the Bible in a serif font.

Serif fonts include Times New Roman, Cambria, Georgia, etc. Serifs are small dashes attached to the end of strokes in a letter or symbol. Serif fonts have a formal, traditional look, and they work most effectively with print sources. Presenting an essay in a serif font may create the slightest illusion that the writer’s words carry more weight since the font subtly invokes prestige. While serif fonts complement essays and other formal articles, I would argue that print sources like brochures, flyers, or other advertising material look better with sans serif fonts because they are easier to read. However, some fonts that technically have serifs are easier to decipher than others and would be appropriate for most print material. The style of “g” in a font provides a useful standard. If g has two bubbles like the g’s in the Bible picture, I’d consider the font “very serif.” Some fonts are technically serif yet have a g like in “design” in the picture below. If a font is classified as serif but has a modern style g,  I’d consider that “kind of serif” and wouldn’t rule out its use in print materials or web design.

Sans Serif Fonts

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Words on a screen in a sans serif font.

Sans serif fonts include Arial, Calibri, Trebuchet MS, etc. These fonts lack extra marks in the actual lettering, so they appear minimalist and, consequently, more modern. Since they are cleaner, they work well on digital platforms. From a perspective that considers digital rhetoric, this font style should almost always be used over serif for websites, blogs, or e-portfolios; however, as stated above, some “kind of serif” fonts that are cleaner look nice on digital platforms. I often see websites that use “very serif” fonts, and that choice can either subtly or drastically make the website feel outdated.

Special Fonts

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Words on a screen in a decorative font.

There are two types of specialty font: monospaced and decorative. Monospaced fonts like Courier New and Consolas can be useful for html coding, but I wouldn’t recommend using them otherwise. Decorative fonts like Lucida Handwriting and Papyrus usually mimic handwriting; many but not all are cursive. These fonts should be used sparingly. Believe it or not, I once received a syllabus written completely in Papyrus! While stylized fonts occasionally work for one major title in a project or in a highly specific context (cursive headers and subheaders might make sense in a project on a British, female author in the Victorian Age), they almost always appear over-the-top or unprofessional.

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