By Chris Hollands

15 June 2017

I went to a client the other day to run a 'Report Writing' course and we discussed “House Style”, including the font choice for audit reports. They were, like many large organisations, very clear on what was and what was not acceptable. I was delighted to hear that their choice fitted with the research I had done several years ago, but before I tell you what it was, let’s discuss the options.

For those of us who don’t deal in fonts every day, the number of fonts on offer can seem overwhelming – but it doesn’t have to

Fonts generally fall into two categories – serif and sans serif. Those with small projecting features are known as serifs. Examples include Times New Roman, Garamond and Bookman Old Style.

Fonts that lack these small projecting features are called sans serif (from the French for ‘without’). Arial, Helvetica and Verdana are the most common. They’re usually used online, but are becoming increasingly acceptable in printed materials.

The generally accepted wisdom is that “serifed” typefaces are better for printed material, because the serifs guide the reader’s eye along the line.

However, as the eye doesn’t travel in a smooth line when reading, but in quick jumps known as ‘saccades’, this argument is questionable. In fact, it’s so traditional to use serif style fonts for printed material that using sans serif can be a statement of modernity.

It is worth noting that serif fonts aren’t usually used for text intended to be read on screen because on lower-resolution screens the serifs can look fuzzy and inhibit readability. That said, I have heard that some serif fonts, like Georgia, have been specifically designed to display well even on low-resolution screens.

So, based on what I have said so far, are serif fonts more readable than sans serif, or is it the other way round?

Apparently not, most editors have their own preferences and studies into readability generally indicate there is little or no difference.

However, when it comes to an audit report we need to consider our stakeholders, so reader expectation does have an impact on readability. If you send someone a 50-page report in a sans serif font and they are unfamiliar with that, you may well cause yourself a problem before you start. We all know how difficult it is to get a report accepted, so you don’t want the reader on the offensive before you start.

On the other hand, people don’t expect to read newspaper-style fonts online. It’s worth noting that as the quality and resolution of computer screens increases, this distinction is likely to fade.

Some people suggest that fonts often look their best when paired, where one is used for headlines and another for body text. I disagree, in a report I would always tend to use the same font overall. I might vary the size of the text for headings and very occasionally might use italics but I never change within the report, to my mind it causes mental confusion, suggests perhaps you are trying to make a point without saying something.

The final decision is a matter of judging which one looks the best for your report and of course the Corporate Standard. You may have no choice in what you use but I hope that you will give it some thought, we all want our reports to have more impact.

After all this you may well still be wondering what the client’s choice of font was and why I was pleased to hear it. The answer was “Verdana”.

A sans serif font, with a hint of modernity, it has the benefit of being clear both on the hard copy page as well as being crystal clear on computer screens. It also transfers from word documents to websites and the internet without problems.

My research in 2013 came up with this as the answer for the font we should use both for our new website as well as the course material we gave to delegates and I continue to use it to this day. The client by the way was the FCA, the lead regulator in the UK, certainly a standard to follow.

Article by Chris Hollands, a director of TomJak Ltd, a company which specialises in audit training and consultancy