“Using type well is an art, but the principles underlying the uses of type are also based on research.” —C. D. Rude (2002) in Longman’s Techical Editing, 3rd Ed. (New York)

How do you select a typeface in your technical communications that maintains the right tone? Do you rely on intuition, personal preference, or just a gut feeling? Do you prefer to play it safe and stick with the same old tried and true typefaces? Understanding the personalities and anatomies of typefaces will give you more confidence and freedom in choosing typefaces that match the tone of your document.


Jo Mackiewicz (2005), professor at Iowa State University, demonstrates in her article “How to Use Five Letterforms to Gauge a Typeface’s Personality: A Research-driven Method” that typefaces have personalities, and she gives editors tools to use when looking at the anatomy of typefaces. Studying these guidelines will give editors confidence when it comes to choosing a typeface that maintains the tone of their document.

Mackiewicz sets out to answer two questions. First, what personality attributes do various typefaces convey, according to study participants’ assessments? Second, do typefaces assessed for a similar attribute have any anatomical features in common? To answer the first question, she conducted a survey showing examples of fifteen different typefaces and asked the participants to rate them according to ten personality attributes. The research analyzes two of these personality traits: friendly and professional. To answer the second question, she analyzed the differences in the physical characteristics of the letterforms between the typefaces that were rated high as either friendly or professional. She displayed the nonword “Jagen” in different typefaces because she was targeting specific anatomical characteristics that these letters have. For example, the capital “J” shows whether it sits on the baseline or drops below it, and the “a” and “g” show whether or not they were made as two-story or one-story letters. 


Some basic features of more friendly typefaces include imperfection, simplicity, and roundness akin to handwriting. The top rated friendly typefaces are Bradley Hand and Comic Sans. The more professional typefaces aren’t as easy to classify, and there are serif and sans serif typefaces to consider. In general, a professional typeface shows perfection, complexity, and balance, or in other words, very consistent design characteristics. The top rated professional typefaces are Times New Roman, Helvetica, and Century Schoolbook. As Mackiewicz says, “by investing in just a few minutes in analyzing five letterforms, professionals and students [and editors] can more effectively match typeface personality to the intended document tone” and use different typefaces with greater confidence.

To learn more about typeface personalities and anatomies, read the full article:

Jo Mackiewicz. 2005. “How to Use Five Letterforms to Gauge a Typefaces Personality: A Research-Driven Method.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 35 (3): 291–315. https://doi.org/10.2190/lqvl-ej9y-1lrx-7c95.

—Pamela Nelson, Editing Research