Fonts and your house style

When determining you company’s (or firm’s) house style for contracts, it may be helpful to introduce you to some working vocabulary of typeface designers (and typesetters), as well as to some features of fonts. That’s what this blog is about.

First, a font was originally referred to as a typeface of a certain size and style (and a style is a condensed, light, bold or other variant of the main typeface). Now that typefaces are not cut from wood or cast from plumb anymore, the terminology has become a bit clouded since font is now synonymously used for all typefaces.
The typefaces most of us know are those from Windows: Times New Roman, Arial and Garamond (probably you also know their somewhat more attractive counterparts for screens, like Verdana and Calibri). Old printers had built-in fonts, the most wonderful one is still used on Apple computers and more generally in the design industry, and called Helvetica (about which I wrote this blog – click here). You may well be familiar with Times and the legal preference for decades, Courier.

Font properties. When two fonts are printed in the same size, one often looks bigger than the other. Bigger x-heights make a typeface appear larger. Differences in line weight and character width also affect the fonts’ perceived size. What does it mean, x-height, small-caps and serifs, a few key characteristics of fonts? The x-height of letter is the height of the underscore “x”, a key guideline for designing other letters of the same font. serifs are small crossbars on the outer ends of a stroke (i.e., there are three on the bottom of an m (and one on the left corner of it)): it made wooden and lead typefaces less fragile; sans serif (‘no serif’) conveys a 20th century sense of simplicity and pragmatism.

Small caps form a league of its own: they are not upper case letters of a smaller size, but small capitals designed to match optically with lower-case letters. They are slightly higher than the x-height (and about 82 percent of the moderate capital’s height) and about 87 percent of the moderate capital’s width. In contracts, small caps can be used for all-caps party names: ing, tnt, bp, basf, bmw, sap, eni, axa, lvmh. Using small caps make those names display less ‘screaming’. Overuse of small caps, such as in the title of a contract article or the header of a schedule, reduces legibility and readability.

Legibility and readability. A decisive factor for selecting a font is its ‘legibility‘. Many fonts are designed to convey a sense of novelty or fanciness, properties that are irrelevant and even undesirable for contracts, prospectuses or legal advices.
Legibility is influenced by various factors, some of which are more important than others. A factor improving legibility are serifs, which harmoniously link letters to each other. On computer screens, however, sans serifs appear to be more legible. Also, over time, the sans serif font designs have been improved to reduce the impression that the stems of two adjacent letters blend. A remarkable aspect affecting legibility is the design of the upper half of the font: whilst the upper part remains relatively legible when removing the lower half, the opposite is certainly not true. (Try it yourself with a ruler.)
In addition to the concept of ‘legibility’, which largely relates to font properties, is that of ‘readability’, which relates to texts as a whole. Readability not only deals with semantics, grammatical structuring and drafting style, it also relates to the typography and use of fonts in texts: line spacing, alignment.

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