What’s the best font?

What’s the best font?

It depends.

This ques­tion has been pitched at me two ways. First, as a sin­cere in­quiry about whether there’s a best font. Sec­ond, as a gen­tle heck­ling of the over­all ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of ty­pog­ra­phy: surely, if ty­pog­ra­phy has a prag­matic role, then it shouldn’t be treated as a mat­ter of per­sonal choice, but rather em­pir­i­cal research.

Sounds good to me. While we’re at it, can we re­search the best open­ing sen­tence for a brief? Can we at least de­ter­mine the num­ber of vow­els each para­graph ought to have?

Type de­sign­ers aren’t hos­tile to the idea of re­search. On the con­trary, many type­faces have emerged from leg­i­bil­ity re­search. For in­stance, Bell Cen­ten­nial (shown at left) was de­signed in the 1970s to keep small type leg­i­ble in phone books by us­ing ink traps that com­pen­sated for low-qual­ity print­ing. More re­cently, the new fed­eral-high­way sig­nage font, Clearview, was de­signed to be leg­i­ble at var­i­ous speeds and light lev­els. In these cases, how­ever, the re­search tested propo­si­tions suf­fi­ciently nar­row to be con­verted into de­sign guidance.

Is it pos­si­ble to dis­cover the best font for every­thing? Some have claimed to, but just like re­search in any field, cre­at­ing an em­pir­i­cally co­her­ent leg­i­bil­ity study is dif­fi­cult. One com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor is con­trol­ling for ac­cul­tur­a­tion and habit, which nat­u­rally play a large role in what is leg­i­ble. (Con­sider the huge range of writ­ing sys­tems that hu­man civ­i­liza­tions have suc­cess­fully used.) A good sur­vey of this re­search can be found in Sofie Beier’s book Read­ing Let­ters: De­sign­ing for Leg­i­bil­ity (see bib­li­og­ra­phy).

Which brings us back to the ques­tion. As I said in what is good ty­pog­ra­phy, ty­pog­ra­phy is not a math prob­lem with one right an­swer that we can dis­cover with suf­fi­cient re­search. But nei­ther is it a mat­ter of whimsy, as we can al­ways imag­ine ty­po­graphic so­lu­tions to a prob­lem that are not suit­able. In­deed, think­ing crit­i­cally about the dif­fer­ences be­tween, say, pre­sen­ta­tions and con­tracts is al­ways help­ful “re­search” be­fore start­ing to de­sign a ty­po­graphic solution.

And in that way, ty­pog­ra­phy func­tions much like writ­ing it­self. We can—and should—use prag­matic con­sid­er­a­tions to nar­row down the space of pos­si­bil­i­ties. But when it’s time to choose from among those pos­si­bil­i­ties, there’s some art, hu­man­ity, and ex­pres­sive­ness to it. Just as no one can tell you the best open­ing sen­tence for your brief, no one can tell you the best font for that brief, either.

And what’s wrong with that? Part of the per­sua­sive value of the writ­ten word comes from that ex­pres­sive­ness. So it is with typography.

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