Corporate handwriting — why typography is important in e-learning.

Western fonts and typefaces fall into one of two identifiable categories; either they have small features at the end of strokes to distinguish each character, or they don’t. Serif fonts (or “Roman” fonts) are the ones with the swishes, and sans serif typefaces are the ones that don’t. Put simply, Times New Roman is a serif font; Arial is sans serif.

Sans serif fonts (also known as “gothic” script) have become the acceptable standard. At Saffron, we use a sans serif font for this blog, our website, our courses, even our internal communications. Am I complaining? No way. I would pick using a sans serif font to write an email ten out of ten times. Why? I think for me the main reason has to be that it looks cleaner – the text sits on the page nicely and doesn’t look like it might err off course into the empty spaces and escape from the page.

It’s not just me that prefers sans serif. A quick sweep of the office shows that everyone else is of the same mind. “I think it’s more accessible” and “the space between characters makes Arial easier to read” were two of the replies I had. But the remark I found most intriguing was “I would pick Arial to write an email, but when I was younger I used to love Lucida Handwriting”.

I hate Lucida Handwriting. A scrawling monstrosity, it renders even the most fluid prose completely illegible. To be honest, in that aspect it probably reminds me too much of my own handwriting, which is so lacking in definition that a friend once said it was like “the heartbeat of a dying man”.

So why would anybody pick a serif font designed to mimic handwriting when writing something? I think the answer was hinted at when the colleague admitted that she was “younger” when she liked to use it. It makes communication seem more personal and identifiable, even if in a really rudimentary way. It’s probably also why publishers prefer to use serif fonts for classic fiction. We get a sense of history with the antiquated script of the characters, but also feel like a singular, personal voice is trying to speak to us.

That’s why we avoid serif fonts in e-learning. Text needs to be open, accessible, and, frankly, anonymous. The same reason we avoid serif fonts is the same reason we avoid the use of “I” in our instructional text. “We are going to look at” and “I am going to show you” make the same point, but notice the impact.

We often try to foster a sense of community in our instructional writing for business, encouraging the employee (the learner) to identify with the business (the teacher). Companies have been making the progressive effort to change their language to homogenise and simplify their communications, which is great for everyone. Fewer words + user friendly language = happy customers = profitable business.

But if we want to be indentified by our writing, why use the same font? I’m not taking about simply making all our communications Arial-based. Everyone uses Arial. I’m advocating companies developing their own, branded sans serif font that they can use in communication. Not just focusing on logos and headings, but adopting a typeface that is identifiable, a kind of corporate handwriting. It carries all the weighting of the brand and its core values but, unlike a static logo, can adopt. Employees identify with and get used to using the “voice” of the business because they can begin to visual recognise the business voice constructions in communications, and know when they should be using appropriate language for the business because the separation from their personal communication is evident in the typography. lf business communication attains a greater degree of homogeneity, then the knock-on benefit for elearning is that instructional designers will be able to replicate the business “voice” of the client with greater success, maximising the effectiveness of their courses.

Thinking about it, I might go and trawl the internet to find a font and adapt it for my own. Why not? There isn’t just one sans serif font out there, so why restrict yourself? Discover a new handwriting.

What are your thoughts on e-learning and business typography? Think the design of one of your courses would have looked better in another font? Perhaps you’ve even used serif fonts to build courses – let us know why you prefer them in the comments box below.