Favorite Fonts: One of the underappreciated advantages of e-books.

typographyA friend of mine who works as a graphic designer pointed out that the font she selects has a huge influence upon the visual and emotional impact of her designs. Although most of us are more or less oblivious to it, font plays a powerful role in the lives of readers and can make a real difference.

Size Matters and So Does Presentation

“When it comes to typeface size matters, and so does style,” she said. “That’s why I almost exclusively use Verdana on all of the marketing materials and websites that I create.”

I found that interesting since I am also a fan of Verdana as a reader – particularly when I have to proofread a document. I convert almost everything I proofread into Verdana 12 or 14 beforehand, for instance, because I’ve learned that it’s easier to clearly see the words. I can usually catch mistakes or typos more effectively when I am reading Verdana, versus when I read in other fonts such as the ubiquitous Times Roman.

Ongoing Research

Research conducted at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1999 compared Georgia, Verdana, Times, and Arial fonts to find out which was best for reading on an electronic screen. Georgia and Verdana were, after all, specifically designed for reading from a computer monitor and their creators touted them as superior in terms of readability. The conclusion reached was that there was no real significance between those fonts when it came to reading speed and comprehension. But there was a measurable effect on reading based on how the text was presented or formatted. A year before a comparable study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University reached similar conclusions.

Then colleagues at Wichita State University conducted a series of studies on font sizes and styles. They found that 12-point fonts were generally preferred over 10-point fonts, which should come as no surprise since none of use likes to read small print. Research has also shown that 14-point font is easier for most older readers. A follow-up study concluded that Arial and Times New Roman could be read faster than Courier, Schoolbook, and Georgia. But those participating in the study said that all of the fonts except Century Schoolbook were preferred over Times New Roman.

The Times are a Changing

Most readers are accustomed to Times Roman because it has been the standard font for the newspaper and magazine industry for decades. That all-pervasive font first appeared in 1932 in the Times of London newspaper, for which it was designed and after which it was named. (Interestingly enough, the Times newspaper abandoned Times Roman several years ago in favor of Times Modern font.) Although readers often express a preference for other fonts, publishers love Times Roman and its different variations such as Times Modern – and that helps to keep it in vogue. It really comes down to economics. Times is a consolidated font that saves space, allowing publishers to fit more words per page. That translates into real profits by saving publishers gallons of ink and reams of paper.

What it Means to You and Me

Which font is healthiest on the eyes and most efficient in terms of reader comprehension and speed? That’s the subject of much study and the object of some controversy. But Times may not be your preferred choice and I personally consider it one of my least favorite fonts. So the jury may still be out in terms of the academic or scientific pros and cons of various fonts. But personal preferences count and can influence your overall reader experience. We don’t make those kinds of choices or have those preferences based on laboratory studies. We just know what we like when we see it, and may find that certain fonts seem more user-friendly. They may feel more easy on the eyes, for instance, or contribute a certain quality that resonates with us on an emotional or psychological level.

Set Your Preferences to Suit Yourself

Buy a conventional book and you will never be able to change the font because you’re stuck with whatever the publisher or author chose. But most of the popular e-reader gadgets these days allow you to set your own preferences and freely experiment with different fonts to find the one you enjoy most. For those of us who pay attention to those small but significant details that option is a tremendous value-add. So remember that when you download an e-book you can tailor the font to suit yourself – even if the original manuscript was written centuries ago with a quill pen on parchment.

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