Your goal with every writing assignment, from an email to a proposal to a detailed report, remains the same—communicate data and your ideas about that data. Every part, from words to appearance, of that written communication contributes to the effectiveness of your work. This even includes the font you choose, which, as with meeting someone for the first time, can significantly influence your first impression of a piece of writing and how you’re viewed as a professional.
Here’s how you can better make the correct font choices for your business writing assignments.
Does your company have an internal style guide? What font to use, what size that font should be, etc., may already be spelled out for you. This information will likely address client-facing materials, although internal communications may be covered as well.
If not, set Times New Roman as the default on your word processing apps and Arial as the default on your email. Then, apply these guidelines whenever you consider changing fonts.
Serif vs. Sans Serif
A serif is a flourish on a letter. For example, the lowercase letter ‘l’ has a bit of a tail or spreads out at the bottom of the letter when you use a font with serifs. Serif fonts are better for texts that you will print and physically distribute or for longer informative articles. Definitely, if you are writing something for a higher-up, you’ll want to use a serif font.
A sans serif font lacks this flourish. The ‘l’ is a straight line. Sans serif means “without serifs.” Often, you’ll see this shortened to just ‘sans,’ e.g., Comic Sans. Sans serif fonts are better for digitally consumed texts.
Format and Content
Consider your content when picking between serif or sans. When you are discussing a lot of numbers in the text and using sans, the letter ‘l’ and the number ‘1’ look almost identical. This can be a real problem. However, if your numbers are going to appear in a chart or table, the context may make the ‘l’ vs. ‘1’ issue irrelevant.
Arial is the preferred sans serif font for digital communication, which tends to be easier to read quickly. If you’re not using Arial, aim for an option close to it like Helvetica.
Times New Roman serifs help the reader visually grab chunks of words, a speed reading technique most people use with larger blocks of business text. Each letter is more defined, which reduces decoding mistakes, such as reading ‘viscous’ as ‘vicious.’ If you are burnt out on Times New Roman and just can’t stand to use it a second longer, choose a similar font, such as Georgia, for reports and longer pieces.
Recently, font developers and educators have created Dyslexia-friendly fonts. More and more businesses are incorporating these fonts into step-by-step instructional documents used in warehouses, restaurants, assembly lines, etc. These fonts use a distinct shaping and a thicker line near the bottom of the letter, which helps stop the brain from flipping the letters around.
Familiar to all of us as a rule set by teachers and typing standards alike, is size 12 font. Size 12 is considered the most universally readable size. Anything smaller can leave you squinting, and anything bigger means that you haven’t written enough to make your word count. In business writing, deviating from this standard is a big unprofessional red flag.
Now there are instances where you will need to switch up the size of your font, and it is permissible and expected. It is generally acceptable on resumes to use a range of 10-12 for text and 14-16 for headers. Business cards, outside of the importance of graphic design, can accommodate anything that makes information easy to read.
In almost every situation, except for business cards and certain publications, increase or decrease font by 4 points when using multiple sizes. For example, if your quarterly report’s body is in 12 pt., the subheadings should be at least 16 pt. and the captions under graphs and images can be 8pt. Changes less than 4 points do not register easily; they clash.
When designing a business card, make sure any lettering in your logo is legible, your name is large (generally 10-14 point font), your title and contact info are a little smaller, and your tag line is the same size as your contact info.
Mixing and Matching
You should never use more than two different font styles in a piece of business writing. Ever.
Even two is usually too many.
A flyer advertising an event, for example, can incorporate different fonts to visually separate groups of information. Before changing fonts, though, try keeping the same font and use size and font-specific formatting for grouping. Captions, headings, titles, and other out-of-body signifiers usually work best in the same font as the rest of the piece with formatting and size adjustments. If not, consider replacing the entire font before adding in a second font to cover signifiers.
What do you know about the audience who will be reading what you write? If you know they read everything on their phone, Arial may be a better choice than a serif font. Sans serif fonts look consistent at different sizes, so when your colleague reads part of your report on her phone, another part later in the day on a tablet, and finishes it the next morning on her laptop, Arial won’t distract her from the content.
Did you receive a lighthearted email from a potential client in Comic Sans? Email your meeting request (to that person only) in Comic Sans. Does your boss use Times New Roman exclusively? So should you when writing to your boss.
Mistakes to Avoid
- Don’t use Comic Sans to drive a point home. An overtly informal font can illicit overtly informal responses. When you give instructions, be concise, and use Times New Roman or a plain sans serif.
- Highly decorative fonts have limited use. A company name written in Papyrus on a billboard is easy to read. A paragraph written in Papyrus is not, let alone a business plan.
- If your project requires a cover page, you may want to play around with fonts. Remember, if your cover page contains an image, your font should not pull focus away from that image.
- Ask yourself if you are adding an interesting font to compensate for a dull title or poorly written content; if so, work on the title and use a traditional font.
Remember, when writing for business, it’s all about appearing professional. Unless otherwise instructed, you are not designing a book; you are generating text to communicate a point. Stick to simple and standard.
Related: Best Fonts for Business Writing (and Ones to Avoid)
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