Typography is one of the most important elements of a presentation. It's unique in that it actually does two things at once: it’s a decision about how you make content clear and easy to read, but it’s also an expression of your visual brand.
But for all the countless fonts and many ways to use them, it’s actually a less complicated topic than it seems. In this guide, we’ll cover the general principles of typography, and best practices for using type in presentations.
This is an entry in our Presentation 101 series, an exploration of the basic principles that you can use to give better presentations.
Font vs. Typeface
While these two terms are often used interchangeably, there is actually a distinction between them. Technically, a typeface is the overarching family (e.g. Arial), while a font is the specific iteration of that typeface that you use in a document (e.g. Arial Bold). But since font is more commonly used, we’ll be using it as a general term for all things type in this blog.
Serif and Sans serif
You can group all fonts into two categories: serif and sans serif.
A serif is a decorative stroke on the end of letters. They originate in traditional printing techniques, and tend to be seen as professional, traditional, or formal. Serif fonts are often used in body text, as the serifs make each letter clear and legible, even at a small size.
Sans serif fonts don’t have that endstroke on each letter. This creates a clear look that is commonly considered to be more modern than serifs. Sans serif fonts are popular in digital spaces like apps and social media. They are also used for things like wayfinding – the font for U.S. highway signage is in Clearview )
“Sans” comes from the French word for “without”, so fonts can come with or without the decorative tails known as serifs.
System vs. Google vs. Brand fonts
With these types of fonts, the difference comes from who makes or offers them, rather than their look.
System fonts are the ones that are included with most devices. In other words, the fonts you see when you open up PowerPoint for the first time. Some examples are Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, Courier New. Infamously, this category also includes Comic Sans and Papyrus.
Google fonts are fonts that are licensed by Google for anyone to download for free. They offer similar alternatives to many other fonts, as well as optimization for web use.
Brand fonts are just fonts that have been chosen to represent a specific brand. This means they can be any type or come from anywhere. Some are even custom created for that brand.
When picking fonts for a presentation, the difference comes down to two choices: usage and aesthetics.
What fonts you use can be influenced by where you will be using them. For presentations, we recommend system fonts as a best practice.
This matters most when you are sharing a presentation to someone on a different computer. System fonts are easily accessible to most users as they don’t require additional downloads, so everyone can open, read, and present a document with system fonts in place, without worrying if the appropriate font is downloaded or embedded.
Using Google fonts is a fine option as well, as they’re quick and easy to download to your computer. However, they do require an additional step compared to using a system font. But Google fonts are a great resource for an exciting and refreshing variety of fonts to use if you’re looking for something a bit more unique.
Sometimes you might choose a font because either you like the way it looks, or because it’s mandated by your brand guidelines. With purely aesthetic decisions, you are free to choose whatever you think best suits your presentation.
With brand fonts, this just refers to a font that is specified by your brand. These can be any category of font (system, Google, or custom), as they have been chosen specifically for their place in your larger brand vision.
This can create a unique and ownable look in a presentation, but it also creates some challenges. If you are using custom brand fonts, you may need to embed your font to ensure that presentations render correctly and consistently on every machine.
How to pick fonts
If you have a designated brand font, you will likely defer to that option for most of your presentations. If you are choosing your own fonts, there are a few guidelines we like to follow when considering font options.
Before you choose a font, ask yourself these questions:
Is it legible: Can you easily read and understand the content with this font?
Legibility is a core consideration of fonts, since they are essentially meant to communicate information. But appropriateness matters as part of legibility: some fonts aren’t readable, and that can be intentional for a number of reasons. See the example below for more on this idea.
Is it appropriate: What does the look and feel of the font contribute to the content?
Appropriateness can be challenging for people to determine, as there are not real rules to follow. But a good approach is to start with considering the audience for your presentation. For example, Comic Sans is more of a meme than a font at this point, largely because its playful appearance often contradicts the serious information it’s used to convey. It’s made to be playful with a faux-handwritten and bubbly aesthetic, so it's not great for every wedding invitation or the sign for a funeral home.
Here’s a real-world example of how this dynamic works.
Graphic designer David Carson famously (or infamously) used Zapf Dingbats, a font that is just pictographic symbols, for the text of an interview with English singer Bryan Ferry in the magazine Raygun because he felt the content of the interview was boring. This instance really seems to be the opposite of the guiding principles above, but it illustrates why these principles matter.
Is it legible? No, you can’t read or understand Dingbats on its own, but that’s the point – Carson doesn’t want you to because the interview is so boring that it's more interesting to look at a series of symbols than the content of the interview itself.
Is the font appropriate? Well, that depends on the audience. It might be if you’re interested in reading quality content, but it’s probably not if you’re Bryan Ferry.
Display and Body fonts
Not every font is meant to be suitable for every situation.
Display fonts are fonts meant to be large and attention-grabbing, like headlines or titles. These fonts have lots of personality to them to draw attention, however you wouldn’t use this category of font for long passages, not even more than a few words, because it’d be too difficult and overwhelming to read. The personality that some display fonts have also can be lost due to the scale, small details in the font can get shrunk out of existence.
Body text however, requires fonts that are meant to be at a smaller scale and easier to read. You can use a font meant for body text for a headline or at a larger scale but it’s not recommended to do vice versa.
Choosing font sizes
Because presentations (and fonts) are all about conveying information, picking font sizes should start with what’s easiest to read.
A good rule of thumb for fonts is that bigger is better – bigger text is generally easier to read in most use cases, whether it’s projected on a screen, shared virtually, printed out, or shared on a laptop. It’s also more accessible for those who may have vision impairment.
It’s also a best practice to stick to at most three different font sizes on any slide, and within your presentation overall. While your audience might not notice the specific changes in font size, using too many sizes will make your presentation messy and hard to follow.
Font sizes for different applications
There are a few general ways that fonts are used in presentations. Here’s how you can approach choosing font sizes in each area.
Title/Headline: Typically at the top of a slide or on the cover. This is usually the largest piece of type on your slide and draws the most attention, as it's the key message you want the audience to understand.
Subhead/Section: Usually below the title, it is often a more specific idea that is important but needs less attention than the Title.
Body: The text that makes up the primary content of a slide, it's usually smaller to accommodate more text, but still large enough for the audience to comfortably read.
Callouts: Labels within body text or on a chart/graph/map/etc. The size of these can vary depending on the content it is accompanying.
When to use bold, color, and other emphasis
Beyond the base font, there are a number of ways you can modify your text to emphasize certain information. The most common are bolding, italics, or underlining, but you can also apply color or size for emphasis.
Here are a few of our best practices for adding emphasis to your text:
Bolding text creates emphasis by darkening the appearance of letters, which comes from applying a thicker stroke around the letters. You can use the Bold function in your presentation program, or you can choose the “[typeface name] Bold” if the font you’re using offers it. If you are using the latter option, note that your font may include multiple weights (in other words, levels of bold) to choose from.
Italics set your type to slant towards the upper right. Italics are often used for names or titles (like of a book or source), and can be combined with bold or other types of emphasis to create hierarchy.
Underlining does just what it sounds like and places a line underneath your text. Be mindful of how you use underlining, as it can typically signify a hyperlink rather than simple emphasis.
Highlighting fills the area around your text with color. This can be useful for collaboration and editing, but can also be a way to add visual interest to your text.
ALL CAPS is a strong way to grab attention, and is often read as shouting or LOUD text. While useful in small doses, too much text in all caps can be hard to read.
Type deep dive: ligatures, kerning, leading, typesetting/ragging a block of copy
While most type today is digital, much of the terminology comes from old-fashioned manual typesetting. These concepts are fairly advanced, and most presenters won’t ever need to apply them, but there are definitely situations where you might want to dig in and make some fine adjustments to your fonts.
Ligatures were pieces of metal type that were made to solve the issue of letters physically colliding. The letters were commonly f with i/j/l/f or g with g/y. These visual overlaps can still be found in digital typesetting, though now ligatures usually are inserted automatically and most digital fonts will account for these letter combinations automatically.
To check if your font uses ligatures, right-click in the text and select Font from the menu. Click the Advanced tab. Next to Ligatures, select Standard Only.
Kerning and Tracking
Kerning and tracking refer to adjustments made to the spacing of letters.
Kerning refers to the spacing between individual letters. Most fonts are automatically optimized, but many programs allow you to manually adjust spacing if needed.
Tracking adjusts the spacing between letters overall, and is used for making the spacing consistent across all of your body text. It’s also more common in Microsoft Office programs. For example, tracking out letters that are all caps helps legibility since they are all of uniform height, which might make it hard for the eye to pick out specific words.
Leading refers to line spacing in Microsoft Office programs. Tighter leading can imply connection and flow, while looser leading can give space for large amounts of text to breathe. Too little and the text is cramped, too much and it can feel disconnected.
Narrow leading should allow for enough room for the ascenders and descenders of letterforms.
Ascenders are the upward strokes of a letter
Descenders are the downward strokes of a letter
Ragging refers to the vertical edge on the margin of text. A lot of factors add up to create your rag – like font size, margin size, and sentence length – but ideally you want to create a consistent flow along the edge of your text.
In particular, a good rag reduces orphans and widows, which are words (or the ends of hyphenated words) that are left alone at the end of a text column/paragraph. They create a distracting amount of white space either at the beginning or end of text, and can be fixed by bringing more of the sentence down onto the line or adjusting columns so the word can be rejoined to the rest of the text.
Understanding fonts is essential for good design and consistent branding. But you don’t have to be a trained designer to get the most out of your text – with a few key concepts, you can ensure legibility and a pleasing design, slide after slide!
Learn more about the basics of presentations in our Presentation 101 series.
Looking for more information about templates and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.