What's the big deal about font choices in presentations?

20 Jan 2010

Fonts and Presentations

Fonts, fonts, fonts. What's this obsession? For those of us that share a passion for making presentation materials as comprehensible as possible for our students, sandwiched right between a great story and great delivery is a great font.

Reviewing the list

Once you've installed Microsoft Office, iWork, or Open Office, you'll find that you've been granted a few (or possibly many) extra fonts installed into your operating system. This is a temptation you should approach carefully, just as you would the edge of a cliff. It is truly a time and design precipice you can fall off of into the abyss.

As you gradually approach this list of fonts, if you obsess over design like I do, you'll let out an "Ooooooo" as if mesmerized by the quantity of selections you could make. A tool would be perfect here. Let me grant your wish with FontDoc for the Mac and WinFontsView for Windows.

Title versus Body

Now, you have a tool to whittle that list of massive fonts down to size. Let me give you two facets that will chisel it down even further.

First, use a maximum of two Font Faces per presentation. I'll allow for three if you make judicious use of a handwriting font.

One font should be interesting and story-relevant. It should mesh well with your photography and choice of color in the slides. I'd suggest you primarily use it for titles, strong statements and short phrases. It adds spice to your presentation. Feel the freedom to have fun with your title fonts. I've recently styled a presentation on Hadoop with an African theme. I used the Tribeca font in the title and custom rhinoceroses for the bullet points (yes, I used some bullets).

The second (primary) font should be highly legible. I can't stress that enough. For the portions of your slide deck that people will need to read (and quickly, so they can return mental focus to you), readability is the critical point. I always suggest sticking with a very legible Sans Serif font, as does Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen Design.

I don't always obey this rule of Sans Serif in the body, sometimes to my own peril. Fortunately, local audiences in Denver are kind, and remind me that I need to change it back.

Hello Verdana. Really, I didn't mean to cheat on you! It was just that Aquiline showed up looking so stylish and I just couldn't help it.

The finalists

The short list of Sans Serif fonts that I printed and put across the room is:

  • Agenda
  • Arial
  • Bitstream
  • Calibri
  • Century Gothic
  • Franklin Gothic
  • Futura
  • Geneva
  • Gill Sans
  • Helvetica
  • Optima
  • Heiti
  • Trebuchet
  • Verdana

I'd suggest you do the same. Also put them up on a projector if you have access to one. Do white font on black. Do black font on white. Notice the affect each font's nuances have on legibility. Throw up some ranking numbers next to each. That's precisely what I did. And I asked a few folks to give me their rankings too.

The winner

Helvetica, the Movie The variant that I (and my scientifically font-polled friends) love the most, is Helvetica Neue. The beautiful part is that it comes preinstalled on many systems these days, but can also be purchased online if you are on a OS or office suite that doesn't include it.

In the life of a font, you know you've arrived when a movie is made about you. Yes, a biographical movie about Helvetica, the font named after Switzerland's classical name.

Lest you think this is a factor of Steve Jobs and his Apple design shop, I'll let you in on the secret that this predates the personal computer by several decades. Max Miedinger was the designer behind this font all the way back in 1958!


Give any of these Sans Serif fonts a try (but lean towards Helvetica!) in your next presentation and be sure to gather design feedback from your audience. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised!

Shameless plug: Keep an eye out in 2010 for the Presentation Patterns book from Neal Ford, Matthew McCullough and Nate Schutta for a complete recipe book with easily digestible presentation improvement hors d'oeuvres like this one.