Visual Design Tip: Finding Font Personality

Written by Trina Rimmer | Apr 20, 2010 4:45:53 PM

Like other visual design elements, the right font has the power to grab your audience on an emotional level while reinforcing your message.   But unlike other visual elements such as color scheme, photos, or clip art, which are readily translated from inspiration to application, a stylized font can be harder to replicate and integrate into a design.   Add in a healthy dose of behavioral conditioning from brand management and marketing folks who want everyone using only the approved presentation templates and style guide, and you've got a recipe for a visual plague of 12pt Times New Roman!  So, how can you use fonts to add a little more personality to your training – without breaking all the design rules and regulations? 

Set the Tone

Setting the right tone is key to creating that emotional connection with your audience. In the case of fonts, people will complain a lot less about how you broke the style rules if you've kept your font selection(s) in the proper tone.  This means you need to think of fonts as a graphic element on the page; one to be used as strategically as a photo or a piece of clip art.  For example, while you might not able to get away with doing an entire Workplace Ethics course in a handwriting font, you might be able to integrate the font into a particular slide or scenario.  Look at your preliminary design and see where the tone might allow for a more visually creative interpretation of the content. 

Find a Font with the Right Personality

Once you’ve set the tone (serious, energizing, etc.) start considering fonts for their sense of “personality.”  Font personality is not just crazy-designer-speak; fonts have distinctive characteristics that impact the trainee's perception of tone—depending on how well they're used.  For example, Comic Sans has a whimsical look with its rounded edges and casual, handwritten feel. This makes it an appropriate choice for thought bubbles or to emulate handwriting.  Arial, on the other hand, has an unmistakably modern, clean quality, making it highly readable and a popular choice for body or title text. Of course it's easy to personality type fonts like Comic Sans or Arial, but what about more exotic ones? 

Try this quick exercise: Look at each font below and quickly jot down your first impression of its personality. Think of words you’d use to describe a person –funny, serious, artistic, etc. 

Here's what I came up with.  Maybe your first impressions were a little similar to mine?

  1. Feminine, smart
  2. Retro, disco
  3. Bookish, traditional
  4. Artistic, textured

You can use this same process to help you narrow in on the right font personality, and then use the descriptive words in your font search (see below).

Search for Fonts

If you don’t have the right font readily available, the perfect one is out there - and it's probably free!  Unlike stock photos or clip art, there are tons of free fonts on the web. Some sources I’ve used include:

Of course it's always a good idea to heed the copyright for the font you've selected.  In some cases, a free version of the font will only get you the “regular” typface and you’ll have to pay to download other style variations like bold or italics.

Have you already found a font, but don’t know what it is?  Let technology do the work for you!  MyFonts.com has a free tool called “What the font!”  Just upload an image with the font in question and What the Font analyzes it and provides you with likely font matches.  This is a very handy tool if your company or a client has given you a logo image file and you’d like to match the font from the logo to a font in your training.

Audition Your Font Selection(s) Before You Commit

I like to “audition” potential fonts by applying several fonts to the same content to gauge readability and personality fit. If I’m using PowerPoint, I display the mock-up in slide show view to make sure everything works on the screen before I commit.  When I’m done, I simply apply the chosen font to the slide master to instantly update the entire presentation.

I find the best way to use fonts in my designs is get inspired by what other people are doing.  Typography as art is a huge trend right now, so pay attention to the fonts used in magazines, advertisements, on the web, or in other training.  Use your cell phone camera to take photos of anything that inspires you and then use free tools like What the Font! to locate something similar.  

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at trina@rimmer.net.