system fontsAvoid if you can, choose wisely if you can’t

As pro­fes­sional writ­ers, law­yers ought to rely on pro­fes­sional fonts. They’re the quick­est and eas­i­est way to up­grade your ty­pog­ra­phy. More about that in font rec­om­men­da­tions.

But pro­fes­sional fonts aren’t al­ways an op­tion. Cer­tain projects de­mand sys­tem fonts, which are the fonts al­ready in­stalled on your com­puter. In printed doc­u­ments, they present three problems.

  1. Many sys­tem fonts aren’t good. The Win­dows and Mac OS li­braries have im­proved, but they’re still mine­fields of aw­ful fonts. I won’t name names, but my least fa­vorite rhymes with Barial.

  2. Many sys­tem fonts have been op­ti­mized for the screen, not print. This comes at the cost of de­sign de­tails, which have been sanded off be­cause they don’t re­pro­duce well on screen. Screen-op­ti­mized fonts look clunky on the printed page.

    Com­pare the two fonts above. In ba­sic ap­pear­ance, they’re sim­i­lar. But Geor­gia was op­ti­mized for the screen; Miller was op­ti­mized for print. See the difference?

  3. All sys­tem fonts are over­ex­posed. Be­cause these fonts are in­cluded with bil­lions of com­put­ers, they’re used all the time. Not every ty­pog­ra­phy project de­mands nov­elty. But if yours does, look else­where. For in­stance, please don’t adopt the slo­gan “A Law Firm Un­like Any Other” and then set it in Helvetica.

If you’re lim­ited to sys­tem fonts, con­sult this chart and choose wisely. For print, the A list is best. For screen dis­play, like pre­sen­ta­tions and web­sites, the A and B lists are fine. They’re also suit­able for shar­ing draft doc­u­ments. Avoid the C list if you can. F list, kapu.

Fonts plau­si­ble for body text are marked with . Oth­ers are us­able for spe­cial pur­poses (for in­stance, let­ter­head).

This chart in­cludes all the com­mon Win­dows and Mac sys­tem fonts, plus the Mi­crosoft Of­fice fonts. Sys­tem con­fig­u­ra­tions dif­fer, so not every font will be on your computer.

These rank­ings rep­re­sent a blend of prac­ti­cal and aes­thetic con­sid­er­a­tions, not ab­solute merit. Some fonts on the F list aren’t bad. They’re just in­apt for a law of­fice. Sim­i­larly, some fonts on the A list are not my fa­vorites, but they’re rea­son­ably useful.

The A list: Gen­er­ally tol­er­a­ble
Athe­las ★
Avenir ★
Bell MT ★
Book An­ti­qua ★
Cal­i­forn­ian FB ★
Cal­isto MT ★
Cen­tury School­book ★
Char­ter ★
Franklin Gothic ★
Gara­mond ★
Gill Sans ★
Gill Sans MT ★
Goudy Old Style ★
Hel­vetica ★
Hel­vetica Neue ★
Hoe­fler Text ★
Iowan Old Style ★
Op­tima ★
Palatino ★
Ser­avek ★
Sitka ★

The B list: OK in lim­ited doses
Agency FB
Big Caslon
Bodoni MT
ITC Bodoni 72
Cal­ibri ★
Can­dara
Cen­taur
Con­stan­tia
Cor­bel
Fu­tura ★
Geneva
Glouces­ter MT Ex­tra Cond.
High Tower Text ★
Mod­ern No. 20
Per­petua ★
Rock­well
Se­goe UI ★
Tw Cen MT ★

The C list: Ques­tion­able
An­dale Mono
Baskerville ★
Berlin Sans FB
Bernard MT Con­densed
Cam­bria ★
Castel­lar
Cen­tury Gothic
Cochin
Con­so­las
Cooper Black
Courier
Courier New
Di­dot
Ele­phant
En­gravers MT
Eras ITC
Fe­lix Ti­tling
Geor­gia
Haet­ten­schweiler
Im­pact
Lu­cida (all styles)
Ma­ian­dra GD
Menlo
Ni­a­gara Solid & En­graved
Onyx
Plan­ta­genet Chero­kee
Skia
Times New Roman ★

The F list: Fa­tal to your cred­i­bil­ity
Al­ger­ian
Amer­i­can Type­writer
Ap­ple Ca­sual
Ap­ple Chancery
Ar­ial (all styles)
Bauhaus 93
Black­ad­der
ITC Bradley Hand
ITC Bri­tan­nic Bold
Broad­way
Brush Script MT
Book­man Old Style
Cen­tury
Chalk­board
Chalk­duster
Chiller
Colonna MT
Comic Sans MS
Cop­per­plate
Curlz MT
Ed­war­dian Script ITC
Foot­light MT Light
Forte
Freestyle Script
French Script MT
Gabri­ola
Gigi
Goudy Stout
Har­low Solid Italic
Har­ring­ton
Her­cu­lanum
Im­print MT Shadow
In­for­mal Ro­man
Jok­er­man
Juice ITC
Kris­ten ITC
Kun­stler Script
Lu­mi­nari
Mag­neto
Marker Felt
Matura MT Script Cap­i­tals
Mis­tral
Monaco
Mono­type Cor­siva
Note­wor­thy
OCR A Ex­tended
Old Eng­lish Text MT
Palace Script MT
Pa­pyrus
Parch­ment
Play­bill
Phos­phate
Poor Richard
Pristina
Rage Italic
Ravie
Savoye
Script MT Bold
Se­goe Print
Se­goe Script
Sign­Painter
Snap ITC
Snell Round
Sten­cil
Show­card Gothic
Tahoma
Tem­pus Sans ITC
Trat­tatello
Tre­buchet MS
Ver­dana
Viner Hand ITC
Vi­valdi
Vladimir Script
Wide Latin
Zapfino
… and all others

by the way
  • “My PDF will prob­a­bly be read on screen. Shouldn’t I use a screen-op­ti­mized sys­tem font?” No. In Win­dows, cer­tain sys­tem fonts (e.g., Geor­gia, Cal­ibri) have been op­ti­mized by Mi­crosoft for user-in­ter­face pur­poses. 

    But Adobe Ac­ro­bat—what most peo­ple use to read PDFs—draws text on screen us­ing its own tech­nol­ogy that elim­i­nates the screen-leg­i­bil­ity ad­van­tage of these sys­tem fonts. More­over, any PDF could also end up be­ing printed. There­fore, as a rule, you’re bet­ter off us­ing print-op­ti­mized fonts for PDFs.

  • “But if I use a print-op­ti­mized pro­fes­sional font in my PDF in­stead of a sys­tem font, my read­ers prob­a­bly won’t have the same font in­stalled.” Right. But it doesn’t mat­ter. If you know how to make a PDF cor­rectly, your fonts will be em­bed­ded in the PDF to pre­serve the formatting.

  • Yes, I dis­like Ar­ial more than Comic Sans. Though it’s the undis­puted king of the goofy fonts, Comic Sans is at least hon­est about what it is. But Ar­ial is merely a bland, zero-calo­rie Hel­vetica substitute.

    For many, the two are in­dis­tin­guish­able. But for ty­pog­ra­phers, Ar­ial con­tains none of the con­sis­tency and bal­ance that makes Hel­vetica successful.

    Still, the main is­sue is overuse. Af­ter decades as a sys­tem font, Ar­ial has achieved a ubiq­uity that ri­vals Times New Ro­man. And like Times New Ro­man, Ar­ial is per­ma­nently as­so­ci­ated with the work of peo­ple who will never care about typography.

    You’re not one of those peo­ple. So use Avenir. Use Franklin Gothic. Use Gill Sans. But don’t use Ar­ial. It’s the sans serif of last resort.

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