Message & Media: The Power of Typography
I guarantee this column is worth reading if you're responsible for using words to generate more clicks, calls or traffic through the door.
No, this isn't about writing copy. It's about increasing readership by increasing readability—the importance of the specific typefaces and fonts selected.
While I'm not a direct mail or Web page designer, I am a writer who knows the right people to ask for tips and techniques related to type.
So, my thanks up front to Patrick Fultz, an extraordinary direct mail designer who also teaches typography at New York City's Parsons School of Design; Bob Bly, the wizard of words no matter which typeface delivers them; Brent Niemuth, a master of merging words and design; and Kurt Medina, an expert on how to get things read by consumers older than 50.
Here are some of the tenets of typography they shared. Keep in mind: These rules are to be broken whenever you have a good reason for doing so.
• Select typefaces and fonts for their readability. For the record, a typeface is a set of fonts in the same family, such as Arial or Goudy. A font is a single kind of typeface, whether it is Times New Roman bold or Times New Roman in 10 point. For readability in print, this generally means using a serif typeface for body copy and sans serif for headlines, subheads and smaller pieces of copy, such as callouts or captions. Why?
Fultz explains it this way: Serif type has thick and thin lines with horizontal serifs that pull your eye across the page. Eyes love serif type for denser copy such as books, brochures, ads and magazines.
For example, if you're reading this column in the print version of Target Marketing, you're looking at Goudy, a tried-and-true serif typeface. Others include Times Roman, Palatino and Cheltenham. But Fultz says there are thousands more, and every type family has its own story. A designer who understands the power of typography can give you the details. And, as with all things related to direct response creative, details matter.
If you're reading this column online, you're probably looking at Arial, a classic sans serif typeface. I don't have space here to explain why it's common to see more sans serif than serif type online, even for dense copy. As you might guess, it has to do with technology and pixels. But as with everything digital, the typefaces being used online are changing. Other popular sans serif typefaces for print include Franklin Gothic, Futura, Frutiger and Avant Garde. Online you'll see Arial, Verdana and Calibri, to name a few.
• Just because there are thousands of typefaces, don't use them all in the same brochure. Niemuth says not to mix it up too much—two typefaces are usually enough. Fultz agrees: "Use as many as you need and as few as possible."
When you look at typefaces (a.k.a., font families), you quickly see there are "relatives" within the same family—italics, differing weights, condensed, etc. These are good for differentiating copy elements, such as callouts, captions, body copy and sidebars. Your job as a nondesigner is to help your designer understand what needs to be emphasized so he can choose the most effective type treatment.
• Use reversed-out type with caution. Be selective about using white type on black or a colored background, because it can be difficult to read. According to Niemuth, this is especially true in point sizes smaller than 10 point, serif typefaces with thick and thin lines, and in large quantities. Medina also cautions that, while senior eyes are OK with reversed-out headlines, it's a no-no for body copy.
• How big should type be? The answer varies by typeface, application and audience. But here are guidelines.
Bly suggests 12-point font for e-mail marketing messages and at least 12-point for Web page design. He says the most common error in Web page design is using a font that's too small.
For older eyes, Medina recommends at least 11-point font for body copy; and, if there's any doubt, go up a size. Letters should be in 11-point or 12-point serif type. Online, he agrees with Bly—11- or 12-point minimum.
Overall, most designers say it depends on the typeface and what's readable for your audience. But 10- to 12-point is usually best for body copy. However, don't fixate on point size alone.
• Typography is about pacing and message mapping. It's important to use type as a visual guide for scanners and readers. Eye flow is, in large part, a function of typography.
Ask yourself, "Where do I want the eye to go first?" Using the choices within a typeface encourages reader ship and controls eye flow. For example, put benefit headlines and subheads in a bold sans serif font for easy scanning and added emphasis. Use italics for customer testimonials to make them stand apart from unquoted words. Create a hierarchy of type used for headlines, subheads, captions, sidebars, bullets and callouts to guide your reader to your call to action.
On the Web, vertical rhythm—the spacing and arrangement of text as the reader scrolls down the page—is influenced by font size, line height, and margins or padding. All must be calculated with care to keep the reader scrolling.
Many marketers think typography consists of selecting a typeface, choosing a font size and deciding between regular or bold. For most, it ends there. But there's a lot more involved in good typography. It's these details that often go neglected and take their toll on both readership and response.