Thursday, 9 December 2010

So many fonts, so little time

It is east to take for granted the power that modern PCs have placed in the hands of the public.

Take publishing. If I had wanted a pamphlet printing thirty years ago, then I would have limited choices: either hand-draw and photocopy, giving poor quality, or send it to a professional printers to layout and typeset the document before printing.

In the mid-eighties the term DeskTop Publishing, or DTP, was all the rage. This allowed anyone with access to high-end computers to layout documents with fancy fonts, multiple columns and even pictures. This could then be saved into a universal format called Postscript and sent to a professional printing outfit.

Roll on a few years, and the cost of printers decreased as rapidly as the power of computers increased. Instead of the old daisy-wheel or dot-matrix printers, we had laser and inkjets. Anyone could print out whatever leaflets or brochures they required for moderate cost.

Nowadays, of course, the Internet makes it possible to publish whatever you want without recourse to a printer. Yet the power of print - the sheer physicality of having paper in your hands - is awesome, as can be seen by all the political leaflets that dropped through my door in the run-up to the last election.

Yet the democratisation of publishing has led to other problems. One of them is in fonts. Hundreds, even thousands of fonts are available for the aspiring publisher, from Arial to WingDings. And this is a problem. Faced with such a choice, people choose to put many different fonts in their document. At worst this makes a mess, at best it detracts from the message they are trying to send.

It is therefore best to keep the number of fonts down used to a minimum, and only use others when there is a need. When writing on-screen I prefer Arial, which has a clear form on screen. When coding, the monospaced Courier is my favourite. Of the hundreds of fonts available to me in Word, I generally only ever use a couple.

Anyone wanting to print something for public consumption should try to learn a little about how the professional compose text. There are many tricks, of which I have learnt a few over the years. Some are obvious, whilst others are counter-intuitive.

For instance, take pictures. Pictures are powerful. Put them in the wrong place, and the readers' eyes will be drawn to it and away from the text that you want them to read. Put them in the right place, and they will lead the reader to the text. (Alternatively, a well-placed picture can be used to draw the reader away from some text that you do not want them to read, such as the legal small-print). 

Modern computers make it exceptionally easy to put presentation over content. That is wrong. If you are going to the bother of presenting something, the content matters. Sure, use eye-candy to get attention if you need it, but make sure that the message is stark and clearly legible.

The message is king.

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