The Modern Language Association (MLA) provides explicit, specific recommendations for the margins and spacing of academic papers. (See: Document Format.) But their advice on font selection is less precise: “Always choose an easily readable typeface (e.g. Times New Roman) in which the regular style contrasts clearly with the italic, and set it to a standard size (e.g. 12 point)” (MLA Handbook, 7th ed., §4.2).
So which fonts are “easily readable” and have “clearly” contrasting italics? And what exactly is a “standard” size?
For academic papers, an “easily readable typeface” means a serif font, and a “standard” type size is between 10 and 12 point.
Use A Serif Font
Serifs are the tiny strokes at the end of a letter’s main strokes. Serif fonts have these extra strokes; sans serif fonts do not. (Sans is French for “without.”) Serif fonts also vary the thickness of the letter strokes more than sans serifs, which have more uniform lines.
Books, newspapers, and magazines typically set their main text in a serif font because they make paragraphs and long stretches of text easier to read. Sans serifs (Arial, Calibri, Helvetica, Gill Sans, Verdana, and so on) work well for single lines of text, like headings or titles, but they rarely make a good choice for body text.
Moreover, most sans serifs don’t have a true italic style. Their “italics” are really just “obliques,” where the letters slant slightly to the right but keep the same shape and spacing. Most serifs, on the other hand, do have a true italic style, with distinctive letter forms and more compact spacing.
Since they’re more readable for long passages and have sharper contrast in their italics, you should always use a serif font for the text of an academic paper.
Use A Readable Type Size
The standard unit for measuring type size is the point. A point is 1⁄72 of an inch, roughly one pixel on a computer screen. The point size of a font tells you the size of the “em square” in which your computer displays each letter of the typeface. How tall or wide any given letter is depends on how the type designer drew it within the em square, thus a font’s height and width can vary greatly depending on the design of the typeface. That’s why if you set two fonts at the same point size, one usually looks bigger than the other.
Compare the following paragraphs, both set at 12 point but in different fonts:
For body text in academic papers, type sizes below 10 point are usually too small to read easily, while type sizes above 12 point tend to look oversized and bulky. So keep the text of your paper between 10 and 12 point.
Some teachers may require you to set your whole text at 12 point. Yet virtually every book, magazine, or newspaper ever printed for visually unimpaired grown-ups sets its body type smaller than 12 point. Newspapers use even smaller type sizes. The New York Times, for example, sets its body text in a perfectly legible 8.7 point font. So with proper spacing and margins, type sizes of 11 or 10 point can be quite comfortable to read.
I usually ask my students to use Century Schoolbook or Palatino for their papers. If your teacher requires you to submit your papers in a particular font, do so. (Unless they require you to use Arial, in which case drop the class.)
One thing to consider when choosing a font is how you submit your essay. When you submit a hard copy or a PDF, your reader will see the text in whatever typeface you use. Most electronic submission formats, on the other hand, can only use the fonts available on the reader’s computer. So if you submit the paper electronically, be sure to use a font your instructor has.
What follows is a list of some widely available, highly legible serif fonts well-suited for academic papers. I’ve divided them into three categories: Microsoft Word Fonts, Mac OS Fonts, and Universal Fonts.
Microsoft Word Fonts
Microsoft Word comes with lots of fonts of varying quality. If your teacher asks you to submit your paper in Word format, you can safely assume they have Word and all the fonts that go with it.
Morris Fuller Benton designed Century Schoolbook in 1923 for elementary-school textbooks, so it’s a highly readable font. It’s one of the best fonts available with Microsoft Word. Because it’s so legible, U. S. Supreme Court Rule 33.1.b madates that all legal documents submitted to the Court be set in Century Schoolbook or a similar Century-style font.
Hermann Zapf designed Palatino in 1948 for titles and headings, but its elegant proportions make it a good font for body text. Named for Renaissance calligrapher Giambattista Palatino, this font has the beauty, harmony, and grace of fine handwriting. Palatino Linotype is the name of the font included with Microsoft Word; Mac OS includes a version of the same typeface called simply Palatino.
Microsoft Word includes several other fonts that can work well for academic essays: Bell MT, Californian FB, Calisto MT, Cambria, Garamond, and Goudy Old Style.
Mac OS Fonts
Apple has a well-deserved reputation for design excellence which extends to its font library. But you can’t count on any of these Mac OS fonts being on a computer that runs Windows.
Finding his inspiration in the typography of Pierre Simon Fournier, Matthew Carter designed Charter in 1987 to look good even on crappy mid-80s fax machines and printers. Its ability to hold up even in low resolution makes Charter work superbly well on screen. Bitstream released Charter under an open license, so you can add it to your font arsenal for free. You can download Charter here.
In 1991 Apple commissioned Jonathan Hoefler to design a font that could show off the Mac’s ability to handle complex typography. The result was Hoefler Text, included with every Mac since then. The bold weight of Hoefler Text on the Mac is excessively heavy, but otherwise it’s a remarkable font: compact without being cramped, formal without being stuffy, and distinctive without being obtrusive. If you have a Mac, start using it.
Iowan Old Style, designed by Iowan sign painter John Downer, emulates 15th century Venetian typefaces by Nicolas Jenson and Francesco Griffo, but it blends these designs with more modern features that make it ideal for extended, immersive reading. Like Charter, Iowan Old Style comes with the iBooks app in OS X Mavericks (released in 2013). If you’re running an older version of Mac OS, you won’t have these fonts.
Other Mac OS fonts you might consider are Athelas (another iBooks font), Baskerville, and Palatino.
Anyone you send your document to will have these fonts because they’re built in to both Windows and Mac OS.
Matthew Carter designed Georgia in 1993 for maximum legibility on computer screens. Georgia looks very nice on web sites, but in print it can look a bit clunky, especially when set at 12 point. Like Times New Roman, it’s on every computer and is quite easy to read. The name “Georgia” comes from a tabloid headline: “Alien Heads Found in Georgia.”
Times New Roman is, for better or worse, the standard font for academic manuscripts. Many teachers require it because it’s a solid, legible, and universally available font. Stanley Morison designed it in 1931 for The Times newspaper of London, so it’s a very efficient font and legible even at very small sizes. Times New Roman is always a safe choice. But unless your instructor requires it, you should probably use something a bit less overworked.
Page Last Updated: 23 October 2017
The importance of typography in design can’t be overestimated. The accuracy, precision and balance of geometric forms can give letters the elegance and sharpness they deserve. Besides, elegant fonts can help to convey the message in a more convenient way. In fact, while there are many excellent professional fonts there are literally thousands of free low-quality fonts which you would never use for professional designs.
Quality costs. The price of “bulletproof” fonts usually reflects their quality and starts at 50$ per typeface. However, before purchasing a font you will probably use only once in your designs you might want to take a glance at outstanding free alternatives first.
Over the last year we’ve been observing typo-designers and their works; we’ve regularly collected high-quality fonts available for free download and free to use for personal or/and commercial projects. In this article we’d like to present an overview of over 40 excellent free fonts you might use for your professional designs. What is your favourite?
- Some images are taken from Gerrit van Aaken’s Typography Essays. Thank you, Gerrit.
- We haven’t listed Arial, Georgia, Verdana, Trebuchet MS & Co. as well as Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Constantia and Corbel as they are delivered almost “automatically”.
- We’d like to thank to all typo-designers and foundries for releasing these fonts for free. We appreciate your work and your intentions.
- Before using fonts please read the license agreements carefully — they can change from time to time.
Excellent Freefonts For Professional Designs in 2008
Gentium Gentium is a typeface family designed to enable the diverse ethnic groups around the world who use the Latin script to produce readable, high-quality publications. It supports a wide range of Latin-based alphabets and includes glyphs that correspond to all the Latin ranges of Unicode. Gentium examples.
District Thin A very calm, serious and impressive sans-serif free font from GarageFonts’ District family. The font is available as Mac Postscript, Mac TrueType, PC Postscript, PC Truetype and OpenType.
Few years ago the government of the region has decided to design a new typeface to enable its 28.000 citizens to use all four languages in a uniform manner. The result is a beautiful, rich and professional sans-serif free font. The family includes a bold, heavy, italic, light and regular weights. Examples.
Delicious Special attention was given to character spacing to obtain a homogenous appearance. With its relatively large x-height the Delicious can be used for text in smaller point sizes. The Delicious italic is not a slanted roman, but a true italic. Serif, Mac / PC.
Anivers A robust and rigid font, forgiving, flexible, elegant and also suitable for a broad use: from a stationery to a poster headline. A smashing serif freefont by Jos Buivenga, dedicated to the One-Year-Anniversary of Smashing Magazine. Besides ligatures, contextual alternatives, fractions and oldstyle/tabular numerals Anivers also has a ‘case’ feature for case-sensitive forms. Anivers supports CE languages and Esperanto. It has more than 350 glyphs and over 1.600 kerning pairs. Examples.
Tallys Tallys is a font that is one degree slanted and has large caps, a small x-height and long ascenders. Only roman style is available.
Fontin Sans Available weights: regular, italic, bold, bold italic and small caps. It is a sans companion of Fontin and can be downloaded at Mac & PC (OpenType). Fontin Sans is absolutely free for personal and commercial use. Examples.
Geo Sans Light, by Manfred Klein
Yanone Kaffeesatz This “coffee”-font is supposed to be used in headlines and brief text passages; it shouldn’t, however, be used for body copy. The numbers and currency signs are monospaced, which means that they have the same width. This is useful if you’d like to place them on a restaurant menu beneath each other in a table. The alternative and historic symbols as well as ligatures can be activated via the OpenType-option »optional ligatures«. Released under Creative Commons license. Examples.
JustOldFashion A font designed by Manfred Klein.
Cardo Cardo is a large Unicode font specifically designed for the needs of classicists, Biblical scholars, medievalists, and linguists. This font is free for personal, non-commercial, or non-profit use.
Liberation Serif Public domain / GNU GPL, Regular, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic, PC / Mac OS X
Liberation Sans Public domain / GNU GPL, Regular, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic, PC / Mac OS X
Romeral offers aside from optimal legibility an elegant style, rounded forms and sharp geometric structure of its letters. Romeral is designed to produce a noticeable visual impact that invites the audience to the reading due to its sizable thickness. Interestingly enough, the basic idea of this OpenType-font was to find a way to fill the color titles zone in order to create a comfortable atmosphere for the reading experience. It can be used for body copy and headlines. Free to use in personal and commercial projects.
You can get the font sending a personal request via e-mail or comment form. More information is available on Typies, Pablo De Gregorio’s blog.
Scriptina Handwriting, PC, Mac.
Mank Sans A freefont designed by Manfred Klein.
Diavlo Jos Buivenga’s freefont that is a bit square and sharp. Great attention has been given to detail, spacing and kerning. It contains more than 300 glyphs and over 1.300 kerning pairs. So Tørwald can pick up his Téléphone without worrying. Diavlo contains (some) East European characters and also Esperanto characters.
The final release contains 5 weights: Light, Book, SemiBold, Bold and Black. Diavlo contains a bunch of ligatures and contextual alternatives (OpenType feature) to prevent undesired collisions.
Cicle Sans-Serif, 7 weights, freeware.
Kontrapunkt Slab-serif. Kontrapunkt was awarded the Danish Design Prize for best typeface. The aim has been to develop a distinct font, with regards to both the inidividual character and the overall image as such. The typeface has so far been developed in a light, light italic and bold version.
Fontin The Fontin is designed to be used at small sizes. The color is darkish, the spacing loose and the x-height tall. The numbers of the Fontin have a ‘hybrid’ design. They carry the characteristics of medieval numbers, but their size is larger than the x-height. Mac (Type 1), PC (TTF, Opentype).
[image via typoblog.ch]
Fertigo It’s a bit like Laphroaic; the more you get to know it, the more you’ll (probably) appreciate it. With it’s auto-ligatures (no Open Type programms needed), a complete character set and many other unknown features it can be hard to resist. Regular only.
Steiner This typeface is ideal for logos and general design. It isn’t very suitable to be used with word-processors as it lacks some symbols and letters. Sans Serif, free for personal use only.
AUdimat (v2) OpenType, Mac, PC, in four weights: regular, italic, bold, bold italic. Freeware, via fontleech.
Droid Font Family
Google’s Android project, an open platform for mobile devices, includes the Droid font family, which was designed to provide optimal quality and comfort on a mobile handset when rendered in application menus, web browsers and for other screen text.
The Droid family of fonts consists of Droid Sans, Droid Sans Mono and Droid Serif. Each contains extensive character set coverage including Western Europe, Eastern/Central Europe, Baltic, Cyrillic, Greek and Turkish support. Description with a specimen. You can find concrete instruction of how you can use the fonts in this article.
OT Versa Condensed, by Peter Verheul
Ourtype offers a bonus font of the month. To download the font, click on the “About” item in the left sidebar of this site. Once the horizontal menu has appeared, click on the “Bonus font of the mont” section link in the menu.
Greyscale Basic A freefont designed by Greyscale
Existence Light A free sans-serif font designed by Yeah Noah. 3 weights — Light, UnicaseLight, StencilLight. OpenType, PC, Mac OS X.
Com4T Fine Regular
Is your pattern library up to date today? Alla Kholmatova has just finished a fully fledged book on Design Systems and how to get them right. With common traps, gotchas and the lessons she learned. Hardcover, eBook. Just sayin'.
Style-Force Semplice Pixelfonts Tiny pixelfonts, Flash-compatible including detailed instructions on how the fonts should be used to achieve the best readability.
Silkscreen Silkscreen is best used in places where extremely small graphical display type is needed. The primary use is for navigational items (nav bars, menus, etc.). Silkscreen also works very well at large point sizes if you’re looking for that chunky, old school computer look so popular with the kids today. Created by Jason Kottke. Silkscreen, with both Mac and Windows versions, is free for personal and corporate use. TrueType, Windows, Mac, Linux.