Ask A Cartographer

Best readable small font

July 24 2009 | 0 comments
Categories: Labeling

I am creating a landowner map of the county. I am looking for a font that will be the most legible at a small scale. I am currently using arial narrow size 3 for the Landowner Names. I am confined to the size of paper that we can print to (42 inches). It was suggested to try simplex font from cad. Can this easily be done? Or is there a better font for this situation. I am mostly concerned with the legibility on paper not on screen.

Any recomondations would be appreciated.

Mapping Center Answer:

There are three things you can consider that relate to type legibility - size, serif vs. sans serif and spacing. Larger fonts with no serifs and more space will be more readable.

Regarding the size, you say that you have a poverty of space, so your choices here are limited. Of course, higher resolution printing will help if you use smaller fonts but even a 3 or 4 pt font will be difficult for most people to read, especially if your readers have older eyes! 5-6 pts is generally the smallest I go, and which I use depends on other type properties, like serifs and counters.

Regarding the serifs, which are the small decorative flares at the end of a character's line, it is long-proven that larger bodies of type are most readable in a serif typeface because the help us recognize words more easily. Although sans-serif faces are recognized by the letter, thus requiring more work to read, small sets of words, like labels, are easier to read in san-serif typefaces.

Regarding the spacing, this can be considered in terms of spacing between letters, spacing between lines of type and spacing within the letters themselves. Again, if you have a paucity of space, then the most important thing to consider is the spacing within the letters themselves. The "counter" is the enclosed or partially enclosed circular or curved negative space (white space) of some letters such as d, o, and s. The more open this is, the easier to read. Condensed fonts (like Arial Narrow) will have more closed counters and will be less easy to read. Fonts like Simplex have very open counters although the spacing between letters is narrow.

One other consideration is whether you will be sharing this document with others -- if so, they need to have the font installed on their computer as well (otherwise it will be replaced with a different font) or you will have to embed the fonts in your document.

Having said all that, fonts that are commonly found on all computers, like Century Gothic and Tahoma (which are installed with Microsoft Office XP) have more open counters.

You'll have to decide how to weigh all these against one another, but it would seem to me that the open counters would be a major consideration.

One last tip - if you have Maplex, you can use the option to reduce the font size in cases where there is less space (this is on the Fitting Strategy tab of the Placement Properties dialog.)  The advantage of using this approach is that most of your text will appear at the size you specify, and only in the special cases where space is tight will the font be reduced.  Also, you can set the minimum size so that no text is placed that is smaller than the size you specify.

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