Acceptable Fonts For Essays

Last week I saw a documentary called Helvetica, which explored the history and culture of typefaces, and the sans-serif Helvetica font in particular. It got me thinking more about the almost sub-conscious power of the fonts used in the writing all around us, and the ones I use myself. (It’s a fun and elegant documentary by the way, and not at all as boring or geeky as it might sound.)

Coincidentally, a couple of days later I came across a blog posting called The Secret Lives of Fonts, in which the author reviewed 52 papers he wrote for university courses and found that on average he got better grades on the ones where he used serif fonts than on the ones where he used sans-serif fonts. He writes:

Well, would you believe it? My essays written in Georgia did the best overall. This got me thinking as to why that might be: maybe fonts speak a lot louder than we think they do. Especially to a professor who has to wade through a collection of them; Times seems to be the norm, so it really doesn’t set off any subconcious triggers. Georgia is enough like Times to retain its academic feel, and is different enough to be something of a relief for the grader. Trebuchet seems to set off a negative trigger, maybe just based on the fact that it’s not as easy to read in print, maybe on the fact that it looks like something off a blog rather than an academic journal. Who knows.

What fonts do you use, and have you noticed patterns like these? Professors and TAs, do you have typeface preferences for the papers you need to grade? Is there something to this?

Myself, I like Verdana, but I’m mostly reading my own words on screens now. Maybe I should think again and change the font just before I print it out…


Choosing the right fonts can affect how your scientific research is received.

Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part blog series about choices in fonts. You can read part 1 here.

You are dressed in your best. You edited the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb…but are your figures and images wearing flip-flops?

Last time we talked about fonts that suck professionalism out of your scientific research. In this article, we’ll talk about fonts that actually add credibility and professionalism to your research. Dress your research in a custom-tailored suit by just using these fonts!

My friend and colleague, Cassio Lynm described how a good figure should be like a billboard found in many highways around the country. Anyone who sees the billboard will understand what they are advertising in a split second. If someone is confused or gets the wrong idea, the image is not very successful.

Similarly, the best professional fonts should be one that’s easy to read with very little “bells and whistles”. When writing prose of informational value such as scientific research, a reader should pay attention to what the text is describing, not how the text looks.  A good professional font should be like air–we don’t really even pay attention to it most of the time.

Some of the fonts I’ll share with you today are considered “boring” and “overused” by some. These fonts are everywhere because they are champions of legibility and simplicity.  Make your work professional and trustworthy by using a time-tested font.

1. Arial- “All-Around Champion with IBM Roots”

According to, Arial is one of the most used typefaces of the last 30 years. Its electronic origins go back to 1982 for IBM laser-xerographic printers by designers Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders. When it came out, it was supposed to compete with Helvetica, which was one of the core fonts in Apple Computers in the mid 1980’s.

Arial letters have more round shapes and the edges of letters do not end in a horizontal line. Instead, the edges are at an angle.

Arial is an easy-to-read font in small and large blocks of text. Nature requests that the figure text be in Arial or Helvetica. It’s especially nice for figure labels and legends. When using Arial as figure legends, keep the font size small ~8 points for best results.

2. Helvetica- “All-Around Champion with Apple Roots”

Helvetica is the most heavily-used font. Helvetica was originally designed by a Swiss designer named Max Miedinger in 1957. The font was designed to be an easy-to-read font. The name “Helvetica” comes from “Helvetia” – Latin name for Switzerland. Actually, the font received a facelift in 1983-the newer version is called, you guessed it, Neue Helvetica.

Helvetica even has its own movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but please comment in the section below if you have.

Besides its Hollywood (Indie) status, Helvetica is a font that looks great on both print and on screen.  Nature , Science, and Cell request that their figure labels be in Helvetica. (If you need assistance setting up figures, I’m here to help). It looks great small as in figure labels, and it looks pretty good in large formats as posters. I lost count of how many figures I labeled using Helvetica, since that’s what one of the publishers used for their books.

3. Baskerville- “Tends to have positive influence on readers”

Baskerville’s history goes all the way back to 1757 when John Baskerville designed a typeface that works well in print and easy to read.  Mr. Baskerville preferred his letters simple and refined. He was also a writing master, so he had some ornamental letters like the upper case Q.

There was an informal study (not official, but some experiments here and there) that showed using Baskerville font increased trustworthiness of the text compared to other fonts. In the same study, Comic Sans had the most negative influence on the readers.

Baskerville is a serif font, which means that there are “tails” at the edge of the letters. Generally, serif fonts are better suited for print. This font works best when used in long blocks of text. Try to keep this font between 8 and 14pts for best results. This font looks dignified, so use this for your important professional occasions-award ceremonies, recognitions, etc.

4. Caslon- “When in doubt, use Caslon”

Caslon is another font with a long history. William Cason I designed the typeface back in the early 1700’s. This font is considered as the first original typeface from England. This font was very popular in colonial America, and it was used for many historical documents including the US Declaration of Independence.

Caslon is a serif font (with tails), and is best used in blocks of text. Like Baskerville, try to keep this font between 8 and 14 points for best results. Using this in a report or an application would be a good places.

5. Garamond – “Second best font after Helvetica”

This font’s history also goes way back. The font was designed by Claude Garamond (or Jean Jannon), who was commissioned to make a typeface for King Francis I of France (1515-47) to be used in series of books. The modern, electric version was revived in 1989 by Robert Slimbach.

Because there are different sources available for Garamond, there are numbers of different variations of the font. Adobe Garamond is the most popular and widely-available version today.

Garamond is still used extensively by French publishers. They also insist that Garamond be printed in size 9.  Some of the most famous publications in France are in Garamond such as Histoire de l’édition français.  The publishers prefer this font “for its beauty, its richness and its legibility” combined with “an uncluttered graphic style that underscores the rigour of essays and analysis providing a radical critique of contemporary society”.

Garamond is a great font to be used in long proses such as textbooks, dissertations and theses. Keeping it at 9 point is optional. In fact, my master’s thesis was in Garamond.

So that’s the 5 fonts that add credibility and professionalism to your scientific research. Did you find your favorite fonts here? Do you have other favorites? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Also, please feel free to send this article along to those who might benefit from this short article.


Now that you know about great scientific fonts, learn more about: PowerPoint Tips for the Scientist

Read the article

Sources and Further reading:

Arial vs Helvetica –

Research on font trustworthiness: Baskerville vs. Comic Sans

Caslon typeface

History of Garamond

Cell Press Figure Guide

Nature -Guide to preparing final artwork

Science Magazine: Preparing your manuscript

About Ikumi Kayama

Studio Kayama’s Founder, Ikumi Kayama is an award-winning medical & scientific illustrator who helps scientists and doctors how to be heard and understood and how to express the value of what they do through accurate and useful illustrations. Ikumi's mission is to make science relevant and accessible to everyone using accurate visuals. She also gives PowerPoint Design Tip seminars for the scientists and various illustration technique courses for the artists. Come say hello and follow Ikumi on facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, and Google+ .

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