This is a question I get asked a lot. What font size should I use for body copy text? And my response is always the same—it depends. Like most things in graphic design and typography there are no quick or easy answers, as many factors need to be considered when trying to successfully communicate a message. However, when armed with the correct information you can be confident in making an informed decision. So here we go!
In typography circles, it is predominately accepted that type set in 14pt or higher is considered display type (such as heading/sub-heading type). Although, there are some circumstances where it is acceptable to set body copy text in 14pt or higher, but I’ll get to that later. This leaves you with 13 choices. However, you would rule out type 6pt and below, as most of the time they are too small to read. So this leaves you with the range of 7-13pt.
Have you ever changed typefaces from one to another and discovered it looks smaller or larger even though it is still set at the same size? The answer is probably yes! Take a look at the diagram at the end of this paragraph and you’ll see when we compare Helvetica and Adobe Garamond Pro set at the same size that the latter looks much smaller. This is where type anatomy comes into play.
The main factors to consider here are the x-height, ascenders and descenders of each typeface. The x-height simply refers to the height of the main body of a typeface; the ascender is the part of the letter that shoots up above the x-height; and the descender is the part of the letter that falls below the main body. Take a look at the diagram below.
So when we compare Helvetica and Adobe Garamond Pro it is easy to see that Adobe Garamond Pro has a much smaller x-height but longer ascenders and descenders, making its overall height about the same as Helvetica. As a result, the typeface appears smaller. Therefore, typefaces with small x-heights may need to be set larger.
Do you remember when you were a little kid how big the type was when you read a book? You probably don’t. Take a look at one when you get a chance and you’ll see that the type is massive. This is because when a child is learning to read, they are actually memorising the shape of each word. This is an example where bigger is better. Now think about the appropriate type size if you were designing a magazine for urban music fans and one about retirement living for seniors. The former would likely have a young target audience with arguably better eye sight than readers of lifestyle for the over 70s. Hence, you should consider the reader when choosing a typeface. A younger audience would be fine with a smaller font, while a larger font might be better suited for an older audience.
Choosing a Typeface
Just like cars can be cheap and nasty or stylish and classic or suitable for specific purposes—so too can be said about typefaces. Some are better suited to body copy text, some for display type while others are just downright awful for anything! When setting large sections of type, do yourself (and your readers) a favour and select a well-designed classic typeface. This will ensure the text is more readable at a smaller size. Leave the fancy typefaces for display type. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Adobe Garamond
- Adobe Caslon
- Minion Pro
- Myriad Pro
- ICT Stone Serif
- Janson Text Pro 55
- PT Sans and Serif
As you can see, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to body copy text size as each design/layout you undertake will have different factors that need to be considered. Below are some tips to help you out.
- In most cases aim between 8-12pts. I rarely set body copy text over 10pts.
- If using a well-designed typeface, you can set body copy type smaller than you think.
- The screen lies! If your layout is destined for print, send a copy to your printer for review. I bet the type appears bigger than you think.
- Set a number of paragraphs using different typefaces and sizes then print them out. Ask some other people (preferably ones close to your target audience) what they think.
- Keep the body copy text size consistent throughout your layout. Don’t go changing sizes in certain areas just to fill up space. This will help give your layout a unified appearance.
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