Design Matters Part 3: Typography

It's taken me a long time to get to this post for two reasons. Number one, The first half of the school year was insane, and as you know were all busy. I'm also teaching an online class and am the adviser of the yearbook, which makes it doubly insane. Enough of the excuses. The other reason is because this is a tough topic to talk about, and it seems rather picky and somewhat overly particular, maybe excessive on my part... It's just something that I believe in, and I want to share with you. Why? I think that it could really help the overall look of your classroom and how seriously your students take your classroom. So, this design matters is first of all directed at you, the teacher. I'll of course eventually show how it also has applications to your students as well...

Typography is one of those big $.50 words in graphic design. It deals with all aspects of how designers deal with type and text. For the purposes of this post and to simplify it, we'll narrowly focus on the choice of fonts and how you use those fonts and what message that conveys to your audience.

Typography should perform these functions:
  • Invite the reader/audience
  • Reveal tone/meaning
  • Clarify the structure/order of the content
  • Link the writing with other elements
(Rodney Gräbner)
Basically, your font selection, whether you own up to it or not, sends a message about you and your topic before a reader even deciphers your words (see Lifehacker, Smashing Magazine, & I Love Typography). Let's look at three ways to improve the use of typefaces (fonts) in your little piece of Edudom.

Trick 1: Avoid Campy and / or Unprofessional Type

The biggest problem we have as educators is our tendency to try to be too creative, clever, unique or whatever you want to call it. Many of us came up on the typewriter, and when Jobs and Woz introduced a computer with Font selection, we went nuts and have been doing so ever since.

As I said earlier, your choice of font sends a message about you and your topic so you should consider this when choosing a typeface. You might love Papyrus, for example, but does it send the message that you're looking to convey?

Below, is a quote from an article I read on BBC News, and it really simplifies and clarifies this point.
Selecting a Font is like getting dressed
Selecting a font is like getting dressed, Ms Strawson says. Just as one chooses an outfit according to the occasion, one decides on a font according to the kind of message you are seeking to convey (BBC News). 
This is an apt simile because, as professionals, we understand that one needs to dress for the occasion. The denim jumper on the right, for example, in all its campy, puffy-painted glory is perfectly suited to the Kindergarten or even Third Grade teacher, but a Middle or High school teacher would not wear this and expect to be taken seriously by her students. In the same way, Comic Sans, while beautifully suited to a First Grade classroom is insulting and demeaning to your Middle and High School students and the content area you're trying to have them take seriously.

I have a friend and colleague that teaches with me, who is a bit of a Fashionista. She meticulously chooses every aspect of her look daily, from clothing to jewelry (some of which she makes herself) She would not ever wear the fore-mentioned denim jumper with puffy paint, yet she announces loudly every time she sees me that she still uses Comic Sans on everything.

Of Pots and Kettles: By the way, I have many colleagues who complain that when they take their students to the lab to complete typed work, they return with pieces produced in Chiller or Jokerman. They wonder why the students have no concept of professionalism even though they mass produce hand outs in Comic Sans.

The best way to avoid Campy Cheese is subtlety. "The font-design should never be more noticeable than the text it spells out. On the flip-side, a font that turns heads, an exciting, fancy font with lots of flourishes, a glamorous font that begs for attention is always a bad font" (Shane Melaugh).

If you must use a ready-made display face with a lot of character, think about what the font is saying. to your audience.


Trick 2: Develop a consistent look / brand 

Believe it or not, as a teacher, you develop a brand as much as any company selling a product or service. Like typography, branding is a huge topic. For now, here's an example of Skype's Corporate brand book. Notice the role of font consistency in representing the brand.

Believe it or not, your school district likely has a brand guide. You are actually expected to abide by this any time you're using your school logo or mascot on a publication. Ask your public relations office for a copy of it.

The typefaces you choose to use on Posters, handouts, and other classroom consumables & visuals should, if nothing else, be consistent. Using a consistent typeface [s] (and color scheme)is a visual trick that allows you to:
  • Create a mood / feeling that students can associate with your class.
  • Allow students to mentally prepare for your subject through the visual cues of your brand through font choice alone. 
  • Add a touch of professionalism to your room that students will pick up on.

Trick 3: The secret of Pairing Type

Office Built in Font Pairs
This is only an important topic if you're using highly advanced software for publishing, alike Adobe Creative Suite, or you're using free software for productivity, like Google Docs or OpenOffice. If you're using MS Office for the bulk of your work, you can skip this section as long as you promise one thing: Repeat after me.
I will not mess with the default font pairings found in MS Office's built in Themes, so help me God.
Now, as for the rest of us who aren't using Office and / or refuse to make that pledge. Here are some resources that may help you in your use & pairing of typefaces.
Here are some basic rules that may help you make a decent choice:
  • Pair Sans-serifs with Serifs
  • Pair basic Sans-serifs (body) with 
    • Slab Serif headings
    • Strongly stylistic Display Face headings.
  • Pair Serif body copy with Cursive or Handwriting headings. 

Getting good Fonts

If you're allowed to add fonts to your system, and you're looking for some decent (professional) typefaces that have multiple weights and variants, here are some suggestions. These are free, and available in Google Docs.

Sans Serif

  1. Lato - My new favorite (the typeface you're reading now)
  2. Pt Sans
  3. Raleway


  1. Neuton
  2. Alegreya

Slab Serif 

  1. Arvo
  2. Josefin slab (goes great with Josefin Sans)
 Handwriting & Display
  1. Lobster two
  2. Cabin Sketch
Lots more available at Google Web Fonts. The bottom line is, there are a lot of great alternatives out there to Comic Sans and Papyrus.



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