You’ve probably heard the general rule:
Serif for print, sans serif for screen.
Is that really all there is to choosing a print typeface? Does it mean you can never use a sans serif in print, even if it would work really well?
Let’s look at some of the subtleties of print typography, and how you can use them to maximum advantage in your design efforts.
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A bit of history…
Print was initially meant to resemble hand lettering – the only form of print that anyone had ever read.
As the genre of print grew and overtook manual manuscript copying, typographers experimented with new ways to make inked text ever more elegant and readable.
The advent of computer screens and word processors made it necessary to adapt print typefaces so they would still be legible in digital form. Programmers initially accomplished this by rendering letter shapes via mathematical equations embedding in their coding.
But this didn’t always produce the sharpest letter shapes, especially for serifed fonts.
Rasterization and phototypesetting did little better at achieving clearly legible characters. To avoid a fuzzy appearance, digital typesetters often preferred sans-serif fonts, which contained fewer details to render.
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This led to the truism that “serif is for paper and sans serif is for computers.”
Today, of course, font design software is much more sophisticated and able to render the finest details without a problem. This has led to a blurring of the lines between which fonts are considered best for print vs. digital.
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For example, many sans-serif typefaces join the ranks of classic serifs as favorites for print because of their adaptability.
The best fonts for print formats
Though many fonts are easy to read in either medium, some fonts have been specifically designed for print productions. You might want to consider them to avoid ink bleeding, especially on absorbent paper types.
In general, some great options include:
- Century Gothic, Verdana, and Helvetica because of their overall versatility (though they also look great onscreen).
- Times New Roman and Garamond over Helvetica thanks to their serifs, according to informal testing by Drew Eric Whitman in his book, Cashvertising.
Not all serifs are created equal, though.
Fonts with simple, sturdy (also known as “abrupt”) serifs, such as Chaparral, improve the flow of the eye across a line of text in silent reading. These fonts also don’t appear to “dissolve” when printed as light text on a dark background.
However, thinner, delicate serif typefaces like Garamond and Dubiel have the advantage of saving ink, making them ideal for projects reproduced directly by your client, for example.
The question of which type of font would be best for your project can ultimately only be determined by you. Test out several by printing a sample on your home printer before selecting the perfect one for your needs.
Additional tips on font choice
Be mindful of your audience when you’re designing a print piece. Some readers may need enlarged or bolded fonts, typically plain ones like Arial or Times New Roman.
Example: Elderly or sight-impaired consumers. The extra effort you put into making it legible for them will greatly expand the reach of your printed piece.
It’s always best to err on the side of serif for print because of how much easier it makes quick reading. (Even on the web, the serif font Georgia outperforms the most common sans-serif typefaces.)
Final takeaway: Anything you can do to increase reading speed makes your printed item more dependable to potential customers, consequently increasing conversion and engagement.
What’s your go-to print font?
Do you have a strong opinion in the serif/sans-serif debate, or are you happy with any font that does the best job (regardless of the recommended medium usage)?
Or have you successfully used a “digital” font for print and seen great results?
Share your thoughts, ideas, and favorite print fonts in the comments!
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