Signage Versus Documents

WhatsApp, TED Talks, Epson, Staples, Knoll Furniture, and Lufthansa Airlines all have something in common with the New York subway system: Each of these diverse organizations uses the same typeface in its signage: Helvetica. A book called Helvetica and the New York City Subway System describes why their decision makers chose the font style:

For years, the signs in the New York City subway system were a bewildering hodge-podge of lettering styles, sizes, shapes, materials, colors, and messages…. Efforts to untangle this visual mess began in the mid-1960s, when the city transit authority hired the design firm Unimark International to create a clear and consistent sign system. We can see the results today in the white-on-black signs throughout the subway system, displaying station names, directions, and instructions in crisp Helvetica.

Helvetica is a sans serif font, characterized by clean, straight lines. Its counterpart is serif font, characterized by small decorative flourishes—little hooks or tails—at the ends of the lines. The former is best suited for signage because its bold strokes command attention. Sans serif is the font of choice in two universally familiar signs where attention is vital: EXIT and STOP. 

Let’s also turn to Adobe, a company where the look and feel of contentimages and textis and always has been a primary focus. On their website Adobe says, “One of the most recognized fonts in the United States, Clearview, is a sans serif font. It was specifically designed for highway signs. Drivers needed to read a small amount of type from a long distance away and, in that instance, sans serif fit the bill.”

Serif is often the font of choice for printed text because the little hooks help a reader’s eyes separate and absorb individual letters. The Adobe site quoted designer Madeline DeCotes on the benefit of the hooks, “Serifs often lend a bit more legibility at smaller scales…When you’re reading a 9.5 font in a printed book, serifs help you distinguish the letterforms and create flow as you’re reading.”

In printing, serif font is conventionally used for the body text. Just look at any article in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

The point here for presenters is to draw a clear distinction between documents that are meant to be read and graphics that are meant to capture an audience’s attention. If you are creating a document, by all means use serif font.

But if you are creating a slideshow for your presentation, treat the text in your slides as signage or headlines. Here, too, look at any newspaper and you’ll see that headlines are succinct statements composed mainly of key words such as nouns, verbs, and modifiers, with very few articles, conjunctions, and prepositions; the latter are only necessary for complete sentences in the body text. Create the text in your slideshows as headlines and design them in sans serif.

The bar for attention is even higher for presentation audiences because, unlike readers of text, your audiences must process not only what you are showing but simultaneously what you are saying. If they have to process a large amount of sensory data, their eyes, ears, and, ultimately, their brains can go into overload—and they stop listening to you.

Instead, compose all the text in your slides—that means titles, bullets, and captions—as headlines and do so in sans serif font—then provide the body text in your verbal narrative. Use serif only for reading text such as handouts of your presentation.

You are the presentation; your slides are the signage.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.