Language is inherently prone to indeterminacy. This risk of misinterpretation only increases with online correspondence, without the body language of in-person communication and the added richness of vocal cues. In the digital era, there are seemingly innumerable typefaces to choose from, including fonts that favor legibility, as well as more ornate options designed to jump off the screen. Finding the right balance is important and will vary from situation to situation.
Not all communications will demand the same air of professionalism; for instance, a seemingly candid approach to a job application may not bode well for a candidate’s chances. We spoke with business professionals and academics to gain a better understanding of the principles people should keep in mind when selecting their standard typeface.
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Bear in mind the psychology of fonts
While font choice may seem like a trivial decision, in digital business communication, the font acts as a key client-facing component. In a resume or cover letter, the font is an integral part of a candidate’s first impression. Jolene Caufield, a senior advisor at Healthy Howard, noted the importance of font psychology when selecting a digital typeface.
“Using the principles of font psychology, you should choose a font that stimulates and emboldens the letter’s function while properly conveying the intended tone of communication. For example, [using] traditional and formal fonts for your business letters will embody authority. However, using unique and [bolded] fonts as your subject line or title will promote better recall and will definitely leave an impact on the reader,” Caufield said via email.
Caufield also detailed considerations prospective employees should keep in mind when choosing a resume font, leaving ample room for personalization depending on one’s intent.
“For resumes, a fusion of formal, bold, and script fonts will go a long way to help you land that job. Going into detail, Serif fonts are the ones who portray formality and sophistication; Sans serif fonts are modern and neutral; Slab serifs are formal and contemporary; Script fonts are classic and elegant,” Caufield said.
Beware of the cutesy fonts
In business writing and formal emails, it’s important to choose a font that gives the appearance of professionalism. While more casual fonts may be an approachable choice for personal email correspondence, it may not necessarily exude competence. A situationally inappropriate font could leave an unintended impression on the recipient.
“Cutesy fonts (e.g., Comic Sans) give the impression that you’re unprofessional and immature. Many professionals have a knee-jerk adverse reaction to these fonts. Even for those that don’t care about fonts, it will flag as unusual, making you stand out in a not-favorable way. Used in a resume, they won’t add any value, and may actually hurt your chances,” said Jon Hill, Chairman and CEO at The Energists via email.
Consider aesthetics across the device spectrum
In the 21st century, digital communication is by no means limited to PCs and laptops. From dual monitor desktop setups and portable tablets to smartphones, people access business documents on a wide range of devices throughout the day. While one font may look great on one device, it may not necessarily translate as well to another.
“I tend to favor sans-serif fonts like Arial and Calibri for on-screen communications like e-mailed cover letters or business e-mails. They have a cleaner look for screens, especially when viewed on smaller smartphone screens,” Hill said.
Working professionals often access their email and other workplace documents on their mobile phones. Rolf Bax, CHRO at Resume.io, emphasized the importance of ensuring communication is tailored for a variety of devices, especially in the smartphone era.
“Typically, we do all of our work on client resumes in either Calibri or Arial because there is a tendency for serif fonts (such as Times New Roman) to display poorly on a computer monitor, and even worse on phone screens. Making your resume (and any electronic communication) mobile friendly is important given the considerable amount of work and communicating people do with their phones,” Bax said via email.
To help illustrate the importance of font choice, Bax provided an example situation in which one’s digital typeface misses its intended target audience due to the viewing device at hand.
“You don’t want the hiring manager reading a phone screen-sized PDF of your resume while on the train or subway to immediately next you because your serif font is too hard on their eyes,” Bax said. “A good rule to live by this far into the mobile internet era is that things should be mobile friendly–resumes, emails, e-books, website content. Serif fonts should be reserved for print.”
Avoid formatting issues
Aside from screen size, there are other compatibility issues to keep in mind when selecting the ideal font for business communication or the hiring process. Rather than using a less common font choice to stand out in the crowd, it may be best to heed the fundamentals of Murphy’s Law for the sake of usability and simplicity.
“Not everyone has the same fonts installed on their computer, so if you use a non-standard font it might not display the way you intended. This could end up throwing off the formatting of your resume or document and giving it a messy, unprofessional look overall,” Hill said.
Some candidates include a headshot and list hobbies to add personality to their resumes and cover letters; more eye-catching font choices are another way to stand out in a competitive job market. However, by introducing more elements to the mix, individuals only increase the risk of error by the time their documents hit the end-user’s screen.
“While it is tempting to go with something a bit fancier, applicants who use non-standard fonts run a risk of introducing unintended formatting issues when their applications or resumes are processed by electronic applicant tracking systems,” said Brett Atwood, associate professor at The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University via email.
Know your audience
In general, keeping the font simple, standard, and safe may be the best rule to follow in most settings. A basic font may not wow the recipient, but, then again most people probably aren’t anticipating a transformative experience when opening an email or scanning a job candidate’s documents. Whether it’s an email exchange or a prospective employee’s one shot at landing an interview, clarity and coherence are central objectives in most situations.
“Unless you are applying for a job in graphic design, most employers are going to be focused on substance over style when it comes to your resume. Stick with the default fonts whenever possible or make sure that you are using clean and simple-to-read fonts like Arial or Verdana,” Atwood said.
Get past an ATS
In the digital era, most prospective job candidates will submit their application via an online applicant tracking system (ATS) to organize and streamline the hiring process. That said, compatibility will vary depending on both the font and the system; as a result, it may be best to err on the side of caution when submitting a resume. After all, it’s better to be safe than digitally cast to the wayside.
“Readability is a major issue when it comes to getting a resume past the [ATS] software used by recruiters. Resumes with chaotic formatting using artsy fonts like Papyrus etc. will raise the red flag fast,” said Deepak Shukla founder of ResumeCats via email.