Effectively using typography when developing learning resources can be fun but also challenging. In fact, I consider myself a font fanatic. I love all kinds of fonts and may just have the largest font library in the South. The study of effective font use has become a craft that many people now claim as a profession. A Google search for fonts will display hundreds of options, many free and others being premium fonts that can carry a pretty steep price. Because font development is an artistic field in itself, educators need to be aware of licensing requirements before using fonts for resource development.

Effective use of typography impacts readability, how information is processed, and the overall effectiveness of your content. As learning professionals, we are expected to have some basic knowledge of typography. No matter how many images, graphics, videos, or audio files we use in our PowerPoints, handouts, resources, and e-learning courses, the main source of our content is text. While good typography makes your work look professional, bad typography can signal amateur work.

This article includes simple guidelines for the effective use of typography to ensure that your learning resources are not only readable but also attractive and memorable.

  • Avoid using too many fonts. You should never use more than three fonts in a document or resource and in most situations, two will work just fine: one for headings and one for body text.

  • Avoid mixing different fonts of the same type, such as two different serif fonts or two different sans-serif fonts. We’ll talk more about types of fonts in a few minutes.

  • Do Not Use Comic SansChoose your fonts cautiously. Always keep your audience in mind when selecting fonts for your learning resources: Depending on who the target audience is, children, adults or employees, your choice should always be appropriate for them and for your content. Nothing is perceived more amateurish than an entire PowerPoint or handout targeted at adults that was created with the Comic Sans font. The best advice is to stay away from Comic Sans at all costs.

  • Maintain consistency in layout. Use the same font for headings and the same font for copy. Avoid changing the font in the middle of a presentation or document. Readers become accustomed to the font being used and can become confused or distracted if the font changes without a reason. In addition to using a consistent font, you should also use uniform font sizes for headings and copy throughout your presentation. Headings, subheadings, bullets and spacing should also be consistent.

  • Use simple, consistent fonts. Avoid using exotic or artistic fonts for most educational resources. Using simple, common fonts will ensure that your document will be read the way you intended. Be aware that for web-based resources or content that will be shared electronically, including certain PDF documents, the learner may need to have the font on his or her computer to be able to see it unless you are able to embed it into the document. However, be aware that embedded fonts can dramatically increase the size of your document.

  • Focus on readability. In addition to using clean, easily read fonts, maintain a strong contrast between the text and the background. Black text on a white background provides the greatest contrast.  Also, make sure to include sufficient whitespace within the document to avoid a cluttered appearance and to improve flow. Failing to maintain adequate contrast and whitespace can lead to learner fatigue.

  • Use a sufficiently large font size.  Many web pages today include larger body text with a font size of 14 or 16 pts. in size. Research has shown that a larger font size can greatly enhance readability. Minimally, a font size of 12 or greater for body text should be used and a size below 10 pts. should be avoided.  It’s also important to use different font sizes to create hierarchy. For example, when creating a learning resource, consider having two or three headings that decrease in size by 2-4 pts. (i.e., Heading 1 = 32 pts., Heading 2 = 28 pts, and Heading 3 = 24 pts.). Heading 1 is used for the top level heading of a section, while headings 2 and 3 are used to separate topics by hierarchy underneath Heading 1. Finally use a body text that is 12-14 pts. in size.

  • Keep line lengths short in word count. To improve readability and reduce learner fatigue, keep the word count as short as possible in each sentence. Instead of connecting long sentences with conjunction after conjunction, consider separating them with a period and starting a new sentence. As a general rule, sentences should have around 75 characters. It’s also important to avoid overly long paragraphs.

  • Use left-aligned paragraphs. Although many books, magazines and newspapers fully align paragraphs (right and left), studies have shown that left-aligned text is easier to read. Fully-aligned text in which extra spaces are added between words to ensure each line extends the full-width of the column can be difficult to read. Also avoid center-alignment for body text.

Font Faces

Fonts come in several different face types:

  • Serif fonts have an extra horizontal stroke on each letter, known as a serif.  The most commonly recognized serif font is Times New Roman. These fonts can be read easily on hardcopy documents and are good for body text. However, be cautious when using serif fonts in PowerPoints or e-learning courses as the serif strokes can sometimes make the text difficult to read on a computer screen or display. Other commonly used serif fonts include Georgia, Cambria, Garamond, and Lucida Bright.

  • Sans serif fonts do not have the serif strokes attached to the letters.  In French, sans means “without.” They are easily read on computer screens and displays, making them the most popular fonts used for web design, PowerPoint development, and e-learning courses.  Helvetica font is the “parent” sans-serif font, with typefaces such as Arial, Tahoma, Verdana, and Lucida Sans being very popular. Newer versions such as Calibri, PT Sans, and Open Sans are also frequently used.

Font Typefaces
  • Script fonts imitate handwriting and can be ornate, with swirling strokes or rounded like printed handwriting. These fonts can be difficult to read in longer paragraphs and should be reserved for smaller, decorative areas. Examples of script fonts include Script, Brush Script, Comic Sans, Lucida Calligraphy, Angelina, and Vivaldi.

  • Novelty fonts encompass a large category of “other” fonts. These include decorative, artistic, grunge, super-bold, and chalkboard fonts. Like script fonts, novelty fonts can be difficult to read and should be avoided in body text. Examples include Broadway, Harrington, Stencil, Chalkboard, Bauhaus, Engravers and Lobster.

Web-Based Learning Resources

When developing web-based learning resources, simple guidelines can improve readability.

  • Avoid underlining text as it usually signifies a hyperlink.

  • Avoid using ALL CAPS, as they are difficult to read and signify shouting.

  • While many people were taught to add two spaces at the end of each sentence, current etiquette encourages the use of only one space. An extra space can cause awkward pauses and lead to formatting issues when used online.

  • And finally, to improve readability, avoid over use of bold, italics, centered, and colored text within body text.

Effective us of typography can have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of learning resources. It can improve readability, increase reading speed, enhance understanding, and reduce learner fatigue. It also positively impacts the perception of you as the developer of the content.