system fontsChoose wisely

Sys­tem fonts are the fonts al­ready in­stalled on your com­puter. Some are bet­ter than oth­ers. In printed doc­u­ments they present three problems.

  1. Many sys­tem fonts are not very good. This is less of a prob­lem on the Mac. But some of the Win­dows sys­tem fonts are among the most aw­ful on the planet. I won’t name names, but my least fa­vorite rhymes with Barial.

  2. Many sys­tem fonts have been op­ti­mized for screen leg­i­bil­ity, not print. This leg­i­bil­ity comes at the cost of de­sign de­tails, which have been sanded off be­cause they don’t re­pro­duce well on screen (e.g., Geor­gia, Ver­dana, Cam­bria, and Cal­ibri). 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 mil­lions of com­put­ers, they’re used all the time. Not every ty­pog­ra­phy project de­mands nov­elty, but if yours does, you’ll need to look else­where. For in­stance, you wouldn’t want to adopt the mar­ket­ing slo­ganA De­sign 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, fonts on the A list are al­ways best. For screen dis­play, like pre­sen­ta­tions and web­sites, sys­tem fonts on the A, B, and C lists are fine. They’re also suit­able for shar­ing draft doc­u­ments. But al­ways steer clear of the F list. 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 pro­fes­sional writ­ing. 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
Cen­tury
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
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

by the way
  • If I’m mak­ing a PDF that will prob­a­bly be read on screen, shouldn’t I use a screen-op­ti­mized sys­tem font?” No. In Win­dows, fonts are op­ti­mized for the screen us­ing hint­ing, which is ex­tra soft­ware code stored in the font it­self. Win­dows re­lies on this hint­ing when it draws text on screen (e.g., in Mi­crosoft Word, or in a web browser).

    But Adobe Ac­ro­bat—what most peo­ple use to read PDFs—draws text on screen us­ing its own tech­nol­ogy. So in PDF, sys­tem fonts lose their screen-leg­i­bil­ity ad­van­tage over other fonts. Any PDF could also end up be­ing printed. There­fore, as a rule, you’re bet­ter off us­ing print-op­ti­mized fonts for PDFs, re­gard­less of how you ex­pect the PDF to be read.

    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. When you gen­er­ate a PDF, your fonts are em­bed­ded in the PDF to pre­serve the formatting.

  • This is not true, how­ever, on the web. Web browsers use the text ren­der­ing of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem. Thus, in Win­dows browsers, screen-op­ti­mized sys­tem fonts have tra­di­tion­ally held an ad­van­tage, be­cause they look good and they’re al­ready in­stalled. (In­deed, the Mi­crosoft fonts Geor­gia and Ver­dana were specif­i­cally cre­ated for web use.) But this ad­van­tage is rapidly fad­ing with the ad­vent of screen-op­ti­mized web­fonts and the gen­eral shift to­ward higher-res­o­lu­tion screens. Still, for now, us­ing pro­fes­sional fonts on a web­site re­quires a lit­tle more leg­work than it does in PDF.

  • My aver­sion to Comic Sans—king of the goofy fonts—prob­a­bly comes as no sur­prise. But why Ar­ial? Ar­ial was cre­ated as a Hel­vetica sub­sti­tute. To many, they’re indistinguishable.

    But to ty­pog­ra­phers, Ar­ial con­tains none of the con­sis­tency and bal­ance that makes Hel­vetica suc­cess­ful. For in­stance, the ends of the low­er­case a, c, e, g, s, and t in Hel­vetica are ex­actly hor­i­zon­tal. In Ar­ial, those ends are sloped ar­bi­trar­ily. Read­ing Ar­ial is like try­ing to have din­ner on a tippy restau­rant table.

    As a sys­tem font, Ar­ial has achieved ubiq­uity akin to 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 one of the fonts listed in Hel­vetica and Ar­ial al­ter­na­tives. Or use some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. But don’t use Arial.