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Best Practices: Effective Use of Fonts in Online Course Design

As learning continues to thrive beyond the confines of the traditional face-to-face classroom and into exciting new e-learning and virtual environments, the need to design courses that are pedagogically sound and quality-driven is a must. Even though developing meaningful and relevant instructional content will always be crucial, the design and aesthetics that support the content can be just as equally important and can sometimes make or break that fabulous online course you just designed. In this week’s blog post, we’ll focus on fonts and I’ll share some quick and easy design considerations when thinking about using fonts effectively in online learning.

Fonts: Sans serif or Serif…or both?
The differences between the two typefaces can be quite confusing. “Serifs” refer to the small finishing strokes on the end of a character; any font characters without these finishing strokes are known as “sans serif.” Many folks in the e-learning field consider Sans Serif typefaces more legible for computer-based instruction or presentation since the resolution of many computer monitors do not always display serifs very well, resulting in poor legibility. While used in many areas of online courses, Sans Serif typefaces are frequently used as headings, while Serif typefaces are typically reserved for body text. While these are common industry-standard typeface preferences, please keep in mind that there is currently no strong research to support or explain them.

Legibility versus Readability
What’s the difference? Williams and Tollet (1998) define the difference below:

  • "Legibility is defined as how easy it is to read short bursts of text, such as headlines, bullets, and signs. Sans Serif typefaces are preferred when legibility is the goal."
  • "Readability is defined as how easy it is to read a lot of text, or long passages of text. Serif typefaces are preferred when readability is the goal."

Recommended Typefaces for Instructional Materials:

  • Old Style Serif typefaces (Garamond, Times New Roman): these fonts are widely used in instructional materials because they are very easy to read.
  • Square Serif typefaces (Century, Georgia): these fonts are also considered highly readable. The Georgia typeface, in particular, was designed specifically to optimize screen reading.
  • Sans Serif typefaces (Century Gothic, Trebuchet, Verdana, Franklin Gothic): Trebuchet and Verdana were designed to optimize screen display.

Some Do’s and Don’ts:

  • DO NOT use too many cueing devices – cueing devices are used to signal a change in the message design. This includes changing colors, using all caps, bolding, changing size or typeface, etc. The point is: don’t overdo it because IT can MAKE any sentence confusing to READ. See what I mean? At the very least, limit your cueing devices to one or at the most two combinations.
  • DO NOT USE ALL UPPERCASE LETTERS – unless you’re dealing with science or math-based content (Tinker, 1963), all uppercase letters can be difficult to read. Instead, use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters. This seems like a pretty obvious principle, but it’s an easy error to make!DO consider the properties and design of your online course prior to selecting typefaces. Will your online course command a stronger sense of legibility, or readability, or both?
  • DO consider the type size of your fonts based on your teaching and learning needs. For printed text, websites, and online learning, it’s typically best to set your point size to 12 points.

So what should you do and which font typeface should you use? The simple rule is: it depends. As you may have realized by now, there is no standardized “one size fits all” recipe for effective use of fonts. Design is considered both an art and a science, and the scope of fonts for your online learning projects requires you to consider your learner, the context, other elements in the visual, and the overall message design. Hopefully I’ve provided you with enough tips and ideas to inspire a more mindful and judicious approach to choosing fonts for your own courses!

- Jeff

Tinker, M.A. (1963). Legibility of print. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Williams, R., & Tollet, J. (1998). The non-designer’s web book: An easy guide to creating, designing, and posting your own web site. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

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