Do you recognize it? The Herald changed its typeface to Minion Pro this semester. It should be familiar to everyone as the comforting "BROWN" next to the University's coat of arms in the University's logo. In past semesters, I could have still typed "BROWN," but it would not have been the same, because each typeface has small but important differences. These subtle discrepancies make some typefaces easy to read and others a pain.
The casual reader may oftentimes overlook those differences. Helvetica looks pretty much like Arial — which is a Helvetica knockoff — until you compare them. Suddenly the differences in the shapes of the letters pop out. On the other hand, the differences could be drastic. Take, for example, Comic Sans and any respectable typeface. Comic Sans is clearly Comic Sans — you will not mistake it for any other.
I urge you to take The Herald as an example. Consider changing your typeface. There are myriad typefaces available in word processors, but few people ever bother to use them.
Stop using whatever default font your word processor gives you without taking the time to look at it. Times New Roman is a perfectly good font, even if it is overused. The Times of London, the font's namesake, commissioned it to allow the newspaper to cram more text into less space. It would be a nice typeface for The Herald, but not the best choice for writing an academic paper. If you are struggling to reach a certain number of pages, it may even be counterproductive.
Microsoft Word holds some of the responsibility for Times New Roman's dominance. However, even Microsoft has now changed Word's default typeface. It is nice to see alternatives to Times New Roman being used more often, but it has not inspired much diversity. Times New Roman is just being replaced with a small number of fonts like Calibri and Cambria.
The dearth of font diversity outside of graphic design is not just the fault of those sad Microsoft Office users. How many people using OpenOffice or Word Perfect care about their typefaces? Even people using TeX (aside: it is a wonderful typesetting system and it is Turing-complete!) usually rely on the standard Computer Modern.
As a TeX user, I finally abandoned Computer Modern at the beginning of the year. I copied a page from an old lab report and printed it out in several different typefaces. Then I looked to see which one I liked the best. Garamond looked too much like a page from an old book. Utopia did not produce good-looking equations. I finally settled on Palatino. It has its problems, but it is nonetheless a definite improvement. Switching has made reading text on a screen easier and looking at it on a printed page more pleasant. Look through your library of typefaces and see how they change the look of what you write.
The appropriateness of a typeface is determined by the situation in which it is used. Again, The Herald stands as a fine example — the print edition is in Minion Pro, but the online edition uses Georgia, a nice, standard Internet font. Sans-serif typefaces — those without little strokes at the ends of letters — look very nice on a computer and have a clean modern look. Serif typefaces are popular just about everywhere. They are used for most books and many, like Georgia, are designed to be easy to read on screens. Programmers choose monospaced typefaces, where a thin letter such as an "i" would take up the same amount of horizontal space as an "m," because equal spacing makes code easier to read.
Changing your typeface will not improve the content of what you have written. No amount of Garamond will make your writing any more distinguished than it would be otherwise. It can, however, make it a little more or less pleasant to read. A typeface like Minion Pro is pleasant to see, while the notoriously overused Comic Sans makes most people want to punch someone (followed, of course, by the requisite caption of "WHACK!" or "BAM!").
Try giving your reader a little diversity. If you are handing in a paper, be kind to the grader. Pages upon pages of similar-looking text will get boring. Making what you write look a little distinct and more appropriate for the topic by avoiding generic typefaces can make all the difference.
David Sheffield '11 is a math-physics concentrator from New Jersey, who wrote this in Minion and submitted it to his editor in Comic Sans. He can be contacted in Helvetica at firstname.lastname@example.org.