I am looking for a recommendation for a font which has certain properties. It is for use in figures in a scientific publication. The journal sets style requirements (prefers Helvetica), but unfortunately there are incompatible practical requirements (distinguishability of glyphs).

  • Must be sans serif, preferably resembling Arial/Helvetica.
  • Must have excellent distinguishability of similar letters like I/l. It should be obvious what letter a glyph represents, even if it stands alone with no context.
  • Should be free as in beer, or very commonly available (e.g. comes with MS Office).
  • Would be nice if it had a clearly distinguishable bold variant (not a hard requirement)

enter image description here

  • It would be nice if you could expand this question by asking answers to state how the fonts they propose interface with typeset math, particularly with their use in LaTeX and their support for the Greek alphabet.
    – E.P.
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 19:40

9 Answers 9


One very nice (if you ask me) option is IBM’s new set of fonts called Plex. The family includes both a sans-serif, a serif, and a monospaced variant, all with excellent distinctiveness (1/I/l and O/0 are easily distinguished and it has both dotted and slashed alternates available for zero), and the entire family is free and open-source.*

At the moment, only Latin-script languages are supported (though the family does support a wide variety of diacritics), but more are in the works (Cyrillic is nearly done; Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, and Thai will kick-off soonish; CJK will follow some time in mid-2018). Sadly no small-caps (yet).

IBM Plex Sans specimen

You can download it through FontSquirrel or straight from the IBM GitHub where it’s hosted.


* Or at least it will be open source. The actual source files that you can use to compile your own fonts from scratch won’t be available until 2018, though all the compiled font files are available now.

  • 2
    Thank you to everyone for the answers. I accepted this one because it was the only suggested font which is proportionally spaced and makes both I and l unambiguous even out of context. Many of the other suggestions look nicer and definitely look more Helvetica-like, but the I is typically a serif-less vertical line, thus it could be confused with l when shown out-of-context.
    – GarrPons
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 13:40
  • This is a good call :)
    – Scott
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 15:55
  • Plex is great but it is only in prerelease AFAIK, and may be expected to go through further revisions before it is "done" and given a 1.0 release. IMHO a few letters in certain styles at certain sizes tend to have a kind of disjointed appearance near some of the finer details.
    – Darren
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 14:48
  • 1
    @Darren I’m not actually sure whether the current version counts as prerelease or not. It has version number 1.000, but as they themselves have confirmed that they’ll be working on the suite through 2018 before releasing the source files, you’re probably right that other tweaks will be made as well. Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 16:57
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Hmm, on their IBM/type Gihub repository (github.com/IBM/type) I see the following: "Warning: IBM Type is still in development and being carefully implemented in real cases where we can look for any difficulties. Look out for a stable v1.0.0 release in the near future." I guess I got confused between the difference between 1.0 and 1.0.0, and I still can't say I understand what it means in terms of being a prerelease or not. Thanks for pointing that out.
    – Darren
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 17:11

Your requirements are somewhat contradictory, potentially even mutually exclusive. You specify sans serif as a requirement, but the thing that distinguishes the similar characters in your example is the serifs. That said, there are probably some typefaces out there that would be a reasonable compromise. My first suggestion would be Anonymous Pro : https://www.marksimonson.com/fonts/view/anonymous-pro

Like many fonts that fit your requirements, it is aimed at coders. Many more, with discussions regarding their pros and cons, can be found in this article : https://www.slant.co/topics/67/~best-programming-fonts

Even if none of them are perfect, it will probably help to inform your choice. Happy hunting!

Another option would be to use a font editor to doctor Helvetica to suit your specific use case, but this would require purchasing some font editing software and learning how to use it. This may be trivial or prohibitive, depending on your skill set.

  • Yes, you are right that it must be a compromise font (it is the serifs that make the capital I unambiguous), and you are also correct that it is typically coding fonts that have the required features (like Menlo in my example). I was hoping to be able to find a non-monospace font inspired by a coding font (or a straight non-monospace variant of such a font). The ones you linked to are all recognizably monospace.
    – GarrPons
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 18:14
  • So the conclusion is that I should be googling for "proportional coding font", I guess, which somehow didn't occur to me before your answer.
    – GarrPons
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 18:17
  • This is amazingly customizable. It's a pity that it is not free for published usage.
    – GarrPons
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 18:30
  • @GarrPons Some variable-width sans-serifs do manage to combine the characteristics you’re looking for without looking like coding fonts. Adobe’s Source Sans (in Scott’s answer) and IBM’s Plex Sans (in mine) are both very legible and natural-looking fonts that just happen to distinguish similar glyphs very efficiently. (Edit: Just noticed you mention Source Sans in the question. It’s true that I is ambiguous out of context there. Not in Plex, though.) Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 23:35
  • @GarrPons don't forget that the serifs on capital I are unusual. If you image-search "handwritten capital letters" you'll see plenty of examples with top and bottom bars on I (and possibly a top bar on J) -- this is a typical example. So I would say it's perfectly possible to have top and bottom bars on "I" in a sans-serif font -- are they even really serifs? (IBM appear to agree, as in the accepted answer)
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 9:54

Well the difficult part is the "free" aspect...

I have several typefaces in my library that may meet most of your requirements: - Museo Sans - Bunday Sans - Source Sans

I'm not certain Museo or Bunday are free.... However, I believe Source Sans is free, if it fits your needs.

None have an easy slashed zero, but they all have a unicode symbol for the slashed zero.

enter image description here

And if a monospaced font is acceptable, there are many.

  • 2
    OP mentions Source Sans and that the I is ambiguous out of context. All fonts listed here have the same problem.
    – wchargin
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 0:12
  • Museo has a (or maybe 2?) free weights available I believe
    – Cai
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 8:59
  • @is U+00e8 a mistake should it be U+00f8?
    – joojaa
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 11:21

Some other Helveticaish Options:

enter image description here

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here


Personally, I like the Johannes Kepler (kp) font (http://www.tug.dk/FontCatalogue/kpsansserif/), which is available with and without serifs (you'd probably need the sansserif) and in all those variants that are required for scientific texts (italic, typewriter, small caps...). Good for math typesetting, too. I, l and 1 are clearly different, even more so if you use the oldstyle numbers.


I like Droid Sans myself. There are several varieties, two of which are Mono and Fallback (proportional).

The specific one I use is the one WITHOUT the ugly dot (or slash) in the center of the zero.


I was trying to find a Helvetica-esque font for a presentation in which I was using I as a recurring variable and decided to use Lucida Sans Typewriter for the I's to make them more distinguishable. It is also in most standard OS installs.


Make your own font. Take a font which is in the public domain, get a font editing tool, and make the tweaks you want for your purposes.

That's common anymore, the tools being so readily available.

And as IBM shows with their Plex series, you certainly can use serifs to distingush the EYE's and ell's and zeroes, without making it a serif font, or ugly. Seriously, edit 3 characters and I think you'd be doing the world a favor. "Techvetica" or something.


How about Eurostile

It's pretty good stuff.

  • 3
    Differentiates very little beween 0OIl
    – spiral
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 16:19

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