Fonts for Proposals, Reports, and Probably Websites Too

Written by lricci on . Posted in Marketing, Proposals, Tactics and Tools

I used to work at The Sacramento Union, Mark Twaina major daily newspaper. It is the same place Samuel Clemens worked under the moniker, Mark Twain. (We DID NOT work there at the same time.)

The typsetters there taught me that certain fonts were used for specific purposes and I’ve been teaching this ever since.

Marketing Sherpa posted about this today, and included some specific numbers on comprehension:
“In 1984, the Newspaper Ad Bureau of Australia published a research pamphlet that should have been laminated and hung on the walls of every single marketing art department in the world.

In fact, to this day I think every graphic designer should be forced to take a quiz on this data before you allow them anywhere near your marketing design project.

Why? Because it spells out what typefaces and layout design people can read most easily … and what’s nearly impossible for the human eye to comprehend.

For example: Headlines set in Times New Roman upper and lower case have a 92% comprehension rate. However, headlines in sans serif type (think Arial) all caps cause a 59% drop in comprehension rate.

Another example: Reverse type, such as white lettering on a black background, has 0% good comprehension (that’s right, zero.) Ink colors, such as bright red on a white background, aren’t much better at 10% good comprehension.”
I can add the fact that there are two aspects to page layout and font selection which will enhance or degrade your document.

Comprehension is the depth of understanding attained by the reader. So using serif fonts (such as Times New Roman) for your text enhances the reader’s comprehension. Your reader will have a more complete understanding of your document.

Legibility is the ability to understand/read lettering at speed or from a distance. San Serif fonts (such as Arial) were invented for restroom signs in German Train Stations.

Therefore, if you want the message to be delivered to a reader who is scanning or flipping pages, your headings in san serif font will better accomplish this than serif fonts. Your reader will more quickly find/see the heading.

Reversed text (white on colored field) is nasty for comprehension, and will actually reduce comprehension of surrounding text. Avoid this unless you want to reduce comprehension of some report, brochure or proposal. (Which you may have reason to want to do.)

Marketing Sherpa cited a book that documents the research that proves why you need to use care: Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes’ by Colin Wheildon

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Comments (7)

  • Bob VL


    I loved your comprehension piece you wrote on typefaces. My first job was with an advertising agency back in the 70’s and I fell in love with typography. Times Roman has always been a favorite of mine, for it’s clarity and character, serifs included.

    Fast forward 25 years and my boss tells me that Arial (and/or helvetica)is EASIER to read online. It is HIS preferred judgement, and he quoted statistics that Arial is the preferred face? So I was thrilled to see your stats! Of course, do you agree, or disagree wtih my boss Laura?


  • LRicci


    Well, your boss is picking up on the fact that Arial is more legible. (As in restroom signs in Railroad Stations, the original use for san serif fonts such as Arial, required high legibility.) And it is true that most online sites use sans serif fonts. However, publishing online is just a few years old and most sites are created by designers of recent vintage and limited print experience.

    Anne Holland of MarketingSherpa is hoping to link up with someone who can help with research into online comprehension.

    The state of the computer monitor will be a determining factor. A few years ago, monitors were too poor to display fonts clearly and with the crisp distinction of ink to paper. However, monitors are improving.

    We do know that webpages and blog posts must be short to be read. My suspicion is that current technology will prove to have poor comprehension for a few more years. The lack of good resolution may make the font question meaningless.

    After all, if online text has poor comprehension, improving it from 10 percent to 12 percent only tells you that important information must be delivered by other means to reach 70 percent or higher comprehension.

    As our monitors improve, I’m sure the results will prove to be the same as print. Sans Serif for headlines, Serif face for text.

    The artists will always disagree, and the decision must be made, which is more important? Looks or Understanding? Beauty or Brains? Advertising attracts a lot of artists, who would do well to read the sample ads in Type & Layout by Colin Wheidon. If they have an open mind, they’ll be amazed by the difference font makes in two ads.

    In my opinion, proposals require understanding over “beauty.” I want to hear the beautiful words, “Your proposal was the one that made the most sense to us. You win.”

    Advertising sometimes resorts to beauty for it’s own sake, and that doesn’t sell most products as well as compelling explanation. I found the Rolls Royce ad very readable, and I’m certainly not in the demographic who shops for that product!


  • Geoffrey Heard


    Well, how rewarding it this? I googled on reader, comprehension, font, and this is the first item listed.

    I am a contributor to, editor of, and publisher of “Type & Layout: Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes?” by Colin Wheildon.
    In fact, I believe his is the only publicly available research on type, layout and reader comprehension. Certainly, I can’t find any more.
    However, I was given a nod of approval last year by someone from STARCH when I was at a conference talking about this. Their research shows the same thing.

    Note the limitations of Colin’s research, however. He is specifically talking about text that is more than a sentence or so and is meant to be “read” — as distinct from skimmed and noted. You make an excellent point about the sub-heads, Laura.
    Bob, your boss might be right about material to be read on a screen — there is certainly some indication that because of the poor resolution of even the best of screens, the simpler, sans serif shapes work better (e.g. my Benq flat screen gives me 90 ppi; type on a printed page is normally in the region of 1200-2400 dpi. The screen tries to improve apparent sharpness with lots of contrast, however).

    On the other hand, there is a question of “reading mode” — I suspect that when people are reading on screen, they rarely read fluently, as on paper, but rather drop back a step to the slower word by word process of the early teens (for most of us).

    I discuss this in the book, and there is some evidence to support it.
    But the lack of new research really gets to me! Our whole civilization relies on the printed word, and increasingly, the word on screen. We happily write stuff, sweat blood over every word … then too often, just dump it into print and ASSUME that it is read and understood!

    Incidentally, Laura, Colin’s father was a typesetter, so he cut his teeth on type (not literally, one hopes — all that lead, yuck!). He became a journalist and editor, and it was while in that position that he carried out his research (with some support from the late, great David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather) so test the assertions of typesetters which he grew up with. His work came up with some surprises. The biggest surprise, though, was the enormous influence type choice actually has on readers.

    I recommend that you buy the book, it is great to have around. (I would say that, wouldn’t I? — but in all seriousness, I published it to get it back into print because I cut my DTP teeth with Colin’s original monographs as guides and I have found his work ever since to be a great shield against the fads and fancies of the graphic design world.)

    You can get the book either from our site or from Amazon. It’s in stock! 😎


  • Geoffrey Heard


    Oh, I forgot to mention — the “New York Times” is a great site to look at as an example of serif type on the web. Note the largish size and the use of black on white.


  • LRicci



    Very honored to have your comments. And Thank You so much for publishing Type and Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes?

    I do have this book on my shelf, and agree that everyone involved in writing that needs to be understood should have this book in self-defense!

    Here’s the link again: Type and Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes?


  • Texas Web Design


    I’ve been trying to find a good font when writing proposals to our clients and I was never using Time New Roman or any other font in the same category. I was using other fonts such as Arial or Helvetica, but am going to try and see how Times New Roman works out from here on out.



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