Which fonts look good in presentations?

By Kathy Jacobs, Microsoft MVP and webmistress of www.OnPPT.com.

Applies to
Microsoft Office PowerPoint® 2003
Microsoft PowerPoint 2000 and 2002

Choosing the fonts for your presentation can be tricky. You can go with the old standbys of Arial and Times New Roman, but they get stale pretty fast. On the other hand, going with display fonts isn't always the best answer either.

Start with first principles

Just as you would make choices about any part of your presentation, to choose the best fonts you need to start by considering your message and your audience.

Formal or informal?

Should your presentation feel formal or informal to your audience? This is a two-part decision. First, decide if the content is formal, such as the budget for a corporation, or informal, such as the results of a prize drawing. Next, consider whom you are talking to. Upper management will receive your content better if you use a more formal font rather than something fun and silly. If you're presenting to a group of kids, you can go a little wilder with the look of the fonts.

Display or content?

There are two primary types of fonts, display fonts and content fonts. Display fonts are showy, flashy, sometimes extreme-looking. Use these fonts where there is little text to be read and the idea is to catch the audience's attention. Display fonts include script fonts, block fonts, engraved fonts, and many others. If a font is a little hard to read at small sizes, chances are pretty good that it's a display font.

Sample of a display font.

On the other hand, for blocks of text you should use content fonts. Content fonts are:

  • Easy to read.
  • Clear at any size.
  • Helpful for moving your eye through the material.

As you might guess, content fonts are the ones you see most often in printed or on-screen materials. The simple sans serif fonts and the simple serif fonts fall into this category.

Most of the time, you will be using content fonts. Why? Because if you overuse display fonts, they lose their impact — the text becomes harder to read and your audience spends more time figuring out the characters and words than the content.

Serif or sans serif?

The characters in some fonts have little feet on each character, like the characters in Times New Roman. These fonts are serif fonts. Fonts that don't have these lines are called sans serif fonts. An example of a sans serif font is Arial.

Samples of a serif and a sans serif font.

Serif fonts help people read long blocks of text. The feet help your eye move from one character to the next, linking them together in your brain. Sans serif fonts, in which each character is independent from its neighbors, are good for reading shorter pieces of information, such as titles and labels.

The PowerPoint world is split on whether you should use serif or sans serif fonts for PowerPoint text. I say it depends entirely on what you are trying to communicate. Serif fonts look more formal, especially on block characters. Sans serif fonts are more informal and work better in smaller chunks of text.

Choosing fonts: Map a font to each content type and stick with it

Once you know what kinds of fonts you want to use, it's time to pick the actual fonts. Because PowerPoint comes with a wide variety of fonts, you don't have to stick with just Times New Roman or Arial. But you do have to pick the three or four fonts that you want to use in your presentation and stick to them.

Why only three or four? Fonts, like colors and sounds, should be used to trigger a reaction or thought from your presentation. By sticking to just a few fonts, you make it easier for your audience to catch clues on what you are sharing.

Main content font

Your first font choice should be the main content font, which you will use for most of your presentation's text. This is the font you will use for your bullet points, for example, and if you are presenting charts and graphics, this is the font you will use to explain or comment on the slide elements.

I like to stick with a fairly plain serif font for my main content font, but I don't like to use Times New Roman. Instead, I use a font out of the Bookman family, which I find a little easier to read at large point sizes than Times New Roman. My second choice is usually Garamond or Century Schoolbook. Each of these choices scales well, each is available on most machines, and each has a slightly different feel from the standard Times New Roman.

Titles, labels, and captions

The next choice is for the titles, labels, and captions. This font should be a little less formal than the content font, but still very readable at all font sizes. Because you will be using it for both large text (titles) and small text (labels), it is a good idea to check the font out in both sizes before you choose.

This is where sans serif fonts are quite handy. For this group, choose a non-display sans serif font that is easy to read, widely available, and that prints and animates cleanly. Many people use Arial here, which works, but is rather ordinary. I prefer some of the sans serif fonts with just a little flair, such as Tunga, Tahoma, or Trebuchet. I don't like Comic Sans. It is overused, overly informal, and can get pretty ugly in certain circumstances.

Display font

Your last font choice (or two, if you must) is the font that you use to grab the audience's attention — the display font for your presentation. It should fit with the other fonts in the presentation, but stand out enough that the audience knows that something important is about to happen.

To choose wisely, pick a display font that is either on every system or that can be easily shared. With the wide variety of display fonts out there, this is where you can have fun. Practice matching the display font to the content.

Display font choices are very personal. I don't have much advice for you on choosing one. All I suggest is to pick the ones up front that you want to use and stick with them.

Choosing font size: Use fonts that can be read by the entire audience

Now that you know which fonts you are going to use, you need to decide what size the text should be. The basic answer: Big enough to be seen by the entire audience. Whether you are presenting live to a group of a thousand or creating a kiosk to be run one person at a time, using fonts that are too small is one of the easiest traps you can fall into.

Just because you need to cover a lot of content doesn't mean that it should all go on a single slide. Characters should always be big enough to be seen by every person in the audience. If you ever find yourself saying, "I know you can't read this, but…," you know that the font is too small.

What is big enough? If you are giving a presentation using a projection system, regular slide text should never be smaller than a 16-point character. I try never to go smaller than 18-point, but I know that isn't always possible. Labels and captions should never be smaller than 14-point, and bigger is better. Labels on charts don't do much good if they can't be read.

If you are creating a presentation for viewing at a kiosk, you can use slightly smaller text. Keep in mind that human beings are living longer and longer every year. Longer lives mean more chance that your audience has people in it who just can't see as well. Keep text larger than 12-point to ensure that everyone can see what you put on the slide.

If you want a formula for font sizes for projected presentations, check out the PowerPoint FAQ entry "How big should text be?" In some cases, you will want to be sure that your fonts are even bigger than listed here. If you are setting up an advertising kiosk to run at a trade show, you will want to use the largest text you can get away with for your attention grabbers.

Words such as "Announcing," "Presenting," "New," and other eye-catchers should always be at least 32-point. Bigger is better for these — I've seen instances where fonts of over 120-point worked and nothing else would have.

Choosing attributes: Use sparingly, like spices

Attributes are the little extras that you add to characters to make them stand out without changing their size. The common attributes are bold, italic, and underline. Use attributes sparingly. Like display fonts, they lose their punch when used too much

If you find yourself making more than a few words bold on a single slide, it is time to rewrite the text on the slide. Active words need emphasis less than passive ones do, so the more active you can make your text, the better it will be.

Use italic even more sparingly. The italic for many common fonts does not upsize well. It becomes hard to read very quickly. If you are using italic for emphasis, don't. If you are using it to show motion, consider using an animation instead. About the only place I like italic in a presentation is for attribution of a quote or statistic.

Underline … okay, time for Kathy's bias. I hate it. If text is underlined in today's presentations, it means that the text is a link to somewhere else or to the activation of another element. Some people also still use underline for book titles. If you don't mean the text to fall into one of those two buckets, don't underline it.

If you are looking for a double underline, it doesn't exist in PowerPoint. If you must use it, you will need to group lines with the element holding the text. More attributes are available when you click the Font command on the Format menu. Consider these attributes as mini-display fonts. Use them sparingly, and if you must use them, count them in your one or two display fonts per presentation.

Coloring fonts in your presentation can be a useful information trigger to your audience. Pick your main color by finding the contrasting color to your background. Once you have set that color, pick a second color for your titles. Finally, pick other colors as needed to indicate links, buttons, or special meanings. Once you pick your colors, stick to them consistently. Don't use green for button text in one part of a presentation and yellow in another. You will confuse your audience and make it harder for them to use your presentation.

When you are picking your font colors, have other people test the combinations. Just because you can see the different overlapping colors doesn't mean that everyone else can.

About the author: Kathy Jacobs' latest book, Kathy Jacobs on PowerPoint, is available through most major booksellers. When she's not writing about PowerPoint, Kathy puts the rest of her time into e-mail, Girl Scouts, and outdoor cooking (especially using Dutch ovens). Her husband is also a computer nerd and outdoor cook. They live in Phoenix, Arizona, and love the weather.

 
 
Applies to:
PowerPoint 2003