16 April 2009

Break from the herd

If you’re looking for a way to set your poster apart from the pack, splurge on a font.

The vast majority of computers, particularly Windows machines, come with a standard set of fonts. People rarely change them. When I grade student papers, I can guess with pretty high accuracy whether they use Windows Vista or XP by what font they used, since the default changed between those two versions of Word. This means that if you use something other than the fonts that came with your computer, it will give the poster a slight, subtle distinctiveness that can serve well.

For example, the font Helvetica was widely used for decades. There was a point were it was overused, and became nearly synonymous with standardized, depersonalized corporate imagery. But when TrueType fonts were added to Windows 3.1, Microsoft chose a different sans serif font as its standard, namely Arial. Personally, I think Helvetica is the more elegant font of the two. Among graphic connoisseurs, Helvetica’s reputation is undiminished, albeit controversial. It may well be the only font to ever have a feature length movie made about it

Since Helvetica isn’t a Windows standard font, you don’t see Helvetica as much any more. And there’s the opening for making a poster that is clean, readable, but ever so slightly distinctive. You can easily buy Helvetica online. (Other fonts providers are available.)

If you’re one of those who thinks Helvetica is too clinical, there are many other sans serif fonts to pick from. How about Univers or Futura?

Of course, I’ve used Helvetica as just one example. If you like serif fonts, how about trying something like Garamond or Baskerville instead of Times New Roman? (Actually, Alley recommends against Garamond, arguing it is too fine. I generally agree that san serif fonts generally suit posters better, but that is a topic post for another time.)

There are thousands of fonts out there to choose from. Picking one good, solid, simple, readable font that 95% of the other presenters won’t have on their computers might be a good investment and one of those little subtle tweaks that helps to move a poster from good to gorgeous.

(Additional note to typography purists: I just learned that I am probably using “font” in this article when I probably mean “typeface,” or vice versa. I'll try to do better in future.)


Alley M. 2003. The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid. Springer: New York. Website.

Related links

Cure for the Common Font, a Flickr photostream of How magazine article

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