Improving my knowledge on typography in data visualisation

Yesterday evening, on a train journey home, I was musing about the reading I need to line up over the summer. One of the subjects that jumped to the front of my mind was that of typography. After all these years studying data visualisation, an sufficient understanding of which typefaces are most effective and elegant for different purposes had so far eluded my attention and represented a gap in my knowledge. I’ve had no formal design training so every choice I make around typefaces is based largely on instinct.

And so I took to Twitter to undertake a crude, mini-survey to obtain feedback from followers on the fonts they perceive to be the best for a) displaying numbers and b) text items on a visualisation.

Strangely enough, the vast majority of responses I received said they didn’t know and were more interested in what others were saying, which is why I decided to publish this post and start a discussion. So here is a summary of the responses:
 

For Numbers…

Din
 

 
Helvetica Neue
 

 
Myriad
 

 
Gills Sans
 

 
Tahoma
 

 
Azuro
 

 
Lucida Sans
 

 
(I also received a suggestion for wingdings but we’ll swifly move on…)
 

For Text…

Meta
 

 
Tahoma
 

 
Azuro
 

 
Lucida Sans
 

 
[For titles] Adobe Jenson
 

 
I also received the wishilist below from follower Graham van de Ruit:

Anyway, I would love to hear more from people in the comments boxes about your own typeface choices so please feel free to contribute. I would also like to receive some tips on the best books/texts to learn more about the effective use of typefaces. So far I have come across this collection of books from Brainpickings.

12 Comments

RobinJuly 17th, 2012 at 10:22 am

Would also recommend a good selection of clean condensed typefaces in your toolkit for when space is issue.
Pass favourites include News Gothic, PT Sans Narrow, Akzidenz-Grotesk BQ Condensed, Tungsten (great for headers)

I choose the typeface based on reflecting the content of the visualisation, as it also helps to inform the mood.

Naomi B. RobbinsJuly 17th, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I would like to see a list of which proportional fonts have fixed width for their numbers. I had trouble lining up hyphens in ranges of numbers while writing my most recent blog post (http://onforb.es/Nt9j3l). Changing the font solved the problem.

Stephen RedmondJuly 17th, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I quite like good old fashioned Arial for text and Verdana for numbers.

Have the benefits for more cross-platform support.

Andy KirkJuly 17th, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Thanks all for your comments, seems to be a subject that has been a little bit neglected. Will let others add to discussion before seeing if there are any conclusions.

Andy KirkJuly 17th, 2012 at 2:05 pm

[Ed: This comment was posted by Graham van de Ruit. It was originally picked up incorrectly as spam and deleted by Andy Kirk. But Andy noticed his mistake at the very last second before deletion happened and wish a quick flick of the trusty CTRL & C, the comment was saved. Hero? No, just doing my job. Clumsily]

Thanks for the mention, Andy! I could keep going all day, but here are a few points:

I agree with Robin. Space will often be an issue, and some typefaces are designed to be more efficient. Consider also the size. Helvetica Neue Light may look beautiful as a huge heading in a magazine, but at small sizes the detail will be lost and its tiny apertures will close up. Although I’m not crazy about Myriad, it’s an easy substitute that is more efficient and has much larger apertures. If you’re stuck with system fonts, I’d go with Lucida Sans or Verdana.

Naomi raises a good point about the numbers. Large, well-designed families will have lining figures (same height as upper case), oldstyle figures (like mixed case, some dropping below the baseline), and tabular versions of both (constant width). If you’re using lots of numbers, check out these features before selecting the font and take the time to use them correctly.

Spend some time reading about the fonts released by reputable foundries, such as Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Commercial Type, etc. Often they’ll write about the design process and the intended use, and will specifically create styles for use at small sizes or in low-quality press settings. Tobias Frere-Jones talked some years ago at Design Indaba about the design process behind Retina; I don’t have a link, but it should be easy to find.

For online resources, http://ilovetypography.com/ is a good starting point. Lots of good content and links. FontShop has an education page (http://www.fontshop.com/education/). Ralf Herrmann has a good blog (http://opentype.info/blog/).

Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is widely considered the must-have book on typography, though there are many other good ones.

My personal taste is to use an open, humanist sans serif for labels and small text (Azuro, Gill Sans, Greta, etc), a humanist sans serif or slab serif for titles and blocks of text (Adelle, Foro, etc) and a slab serif or text serif for long text (Elena, Fedra, Mercury, Lyon, etc). It’s generally best to keep it to one or two at most. Some families are versatile enough for all purposes, and some even have sans-, slab- and serif versions. Obviously a lot can depend on the specific nature of the project.

Have fun!

SantiagoJuly 17th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Andy, this article is quite useful… don’t you think you should feature the number fonts with numbers?

Andy KirkJuly 17th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I absolutely do, what was I thinking missing that? So obvious?!

Andy CotgreaveJuly 17th, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Don’t forget it’s important to consider what fonts are available on the destination device if you’re leaving the rendering to that device. most of the ones you list aren’t available on my Windows PC.

I like Georgia for titles and Segoe UI for chart text. For captions and instructions, I switch between serif and non-serif fonts depending on my mood. As one other commenter says: mood often determines font.

BTW – it’s Lucida, not Ludica.

Andy KirkJuly 17th, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Thanks Andy – typo corrected! If my reaction to that had been caught on camera, you would have seen my typoface….

SantiagoJuly 17th, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I would add http://fatfonts.org/ as a special mention.

It would be great to have an example in which you can change fonts for texts and numbers to see how they look in a more actual context… and, very important, how they combine one with the other.

It’s exactly as you said: this is a neglected topic. A lot has been said about visualization and perception and fonts play a determinant role in that sense… in fact font design is the most mature and ‘scientific’ field regarding the study of perception and design, and there’s a lot of knowledge that can be transfered from font design to visualization design… (in a post I’m just about to publish I propose (with examples) that visualization is an extension of writing).

Ben JonesJuly 17th, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Andy – Great post, very helpful! I’m a big Comic Sans guy…

Okay actually, I’ve been using Segoe UI (which I have come to learn is very Microsoft of me) and text headlines with Georgia (which is very NYTimes of me – slightly dated article from NYTimes on the virtues of Georgia here)

These choices could be a grave error: like you and many posting here, I haven’t really focused on fonts, other than to change the default Arial or Times New Roman (for the sake of changing the defaults, admittedly).

But what this post really has me wondering is how someone does anything quickly with sixty zippers…

Tom HannenJuly 19th, 2012 at 10:55 am

This problem becomes even more complicated when you work across many languages. After Effects support for right to left languages, and complex scripts is patchy at best… I end up working between google translate, photoshop and various after effects scripts to make my datavis graphics in (usually about 14) languages for the BBC World Service. I’m using CS5.5, and hoping that CS6 might resolve some of these issues. If anyone else has experience of dealing with this, please let me know.