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We are creating branding guidelines for a nonprofit voluntary organization. Only around 10 people will create content, but a lot more people will need to be able to view documents and publications using the branding, both printed and digital.

When looking for appropriate fonts, I found Corbel to fit our needs for a body font quite well. However, I am no typography expert, and I read a lot on fonts in the past days. In his Practical Typography guide, Butterick lists Corbel as a B-tier font (OK in limited doses) and does not mark it as appropriate for body text. What could be his reasons? Is there something wrong with the font? It is at least not as overused as Calibri / Arial etc.

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It's about legibility. As in all situations, do not focus only on what they say but also on what they imply.

If you look at the fonts listed that they choose as optimal for including in a text, all of them have modulated strokes. This means that the letter body gets thicker or thinner according to the path.

One of the typography design statutes says that all typography with stroke modulation has better legibility because of the contrast. But this is not an absolute rule.

Contrast: difference in stroke width within a letterform; also called stroke modulation.

modulation

And it is not that far from being right. In the image below is a comparison of some characters between Minion Bold and Corbel Bold. The characters on the right look like sticks.

Comparison of Minion and Corbel letter forms

But they are talking about using this font in a long text, where Corbel can be a bit tiring for the eyes. While Minion offers a comprehensible and relaxed text/texture, Corbel, due to the shape of the characters and its characteristic of being a little expanded in its normal version, offers more of a stripy texture. In a 300-page book, the first option is much more relaxed.

Texts in both Corbel and Minion

I do not think there is any mistake in choosing Corbel as a corporate font - will there be 300-page books?

What I would try to avoid:

  • Long Text
  • Column width too wide
  • Justified or centered text: both of them are very difficult to read
  • Try not to generate the stripy texture, for example exaggerate the alignment to the left as in the case of the blue figure compared to the grey
  • Very small text size. Is there a secondary font? That would be of great help in some cases.

Texts with different alignments

In response to the comment below, it's true, a comparison with another sans serif font would be fairer. In the list of ideal fonts, Helvetica appears as one of the best choices, even with an imperceptible stroke modulation.

Why Helvetica? There are many reasons: the construction, the optical arrangement of each character, but the most important in terms of legibility: the x height. In the image below, Minion Pro, Helvetica Regular and Corbel, all three with 60 pt height:

comparison of letter 'a' in three fonts

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    Great answer but I think it would be better to compare Corbel to another sans-serif font to make the difference more apparent. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 3 '18 at 20:07
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    I see, thanks for the thorough explanation. We indeed do not intend to write a book, and if we did, we would certainly consider choosing a different font for that. Helvetica is unfortunately not available for our Windows users and on the Web, and Arial is definitely too bland and overused to replace it. But your answer as well as Emilie's give me some good clues what to watch out for. – Carlo Beltrame Jul 3 '18 at 21:44
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    @CarloBeltrame Is there any reason that the non-printed material must be distributed in a format that requires the font to be installed (like a Word document or an Excel file), as opposed to a format where the font can be embedded (like a PDF file)? If there is no real reason for you to distribute Word files instead of PDFs, then there’s also no need to limit yourself to ubiquitous, safe system fonts—you can use any font you want. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 3 '18 at 23:25
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    The lesson of the examples seems to me to be not to use bold for long text. – Anton Sherwood Jul 4 '18 at 8:20
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    are you sure that that middle 'a' is Helvetica? It looks like Arial to me. – Vincent Jul 4 '18 at 10:05
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When in doubt I would advise you look for the origins of why a font was created. The link you provide actually states this as well.

Many sys­tem fonts have been op­ti­mized for screen leg­i­bil­ity, not print. This leg­i­bil­ity comes at the cost of de­sign de­tails, which have been sanded off be­cause they don’t re­pro­duce well on screen (e.g., Geor­gia, Ver­dana, Cam­bria, and Cal­ibri). Screen-op­ti­mized fonts look clunky on the printed page.

MyFonts' description of Corbel claims:

Corbel is designed to give an uncluttered and clean appearance on screen.

The font was optimized/designed for on-screen reading and this is something you should take into account when making your choice (e.g. depending on the ratio of print/digital applications you will be using it for).

Concretely, what are the differences?

In this article, Strizver (2013) lists what is typically modified when designing a sans-serif for screen as opposed to print:

Fonts intended for use on the web are optimized and often modified to enhance readability and performance onscreen in a variety of digital environments. This can include:

  • a taller x-height (or reduced ascenders and descenders)
  • wider letterforms
  • more open counters
  • heavier thin strokes and serifs
  • reduced stroke contrast
  • as well as modified curves and angles for some designs. -... for smaller sizes – is more open spacing.

All of these factors serve to improve character recognition and overall readability in the non-print environment, which can include the web, ebooks, ereaders, and mobile devices.

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Major points are covered in Danielillo's answer. My opinion is similar but I have some notes and I'll make comparisons with some sans-serif fonts.
So in general there is nothing bad about "Corbel" - it's just not the most readable font out there, thus maybe not the right choice for a long text. Apart from being a sans-serif, following features play role here IMO.

Letter spacing and proportion

"Corbel" has loose spacing and expanded proportions compared to some more readable fonts. Here is comparison with "Liberation Sans" font which has dense spacing and narrower glyphs.

Corbel / Liberation Sans

enter image description here

So generally speaking, loose spacing is bad for readability.

Note: more spacing and wider proportions are not always bad. Namely a font with such features can be better readable at very small sizes. Consider downsampled example (same fonts as in the above sample):

enter image description here

The first structure remained slightly more comprehensible due to wider proportions and spacing, whereas the words in the Liberation sample became optically smudged.

Stroke style

I've noticed that Danielillo used the term "modulation" in his answer, though I was not aware of such term. I'm not sure if there are precise terms for such things.

So in general, fonts which have oversimplified strokes, i.e. strictly aligned and all of the same width, are considered bad for readability. It is hard to explain this effect with words, so simply put - some stroke 'play' and even some inaccuracy in stroke alignment helps to 'relax' the overall image structure and thus can reduce the eye-strain.

As an evidence example - I always remember the Comic Sans MS font. Despite it's childish design, many people find somewhat pleasing in it and this relates to the mentioned positive effect caused by such inaccuracies in strokes.

And of course variable stroke width is just a natural part of glyph morphology, e.g. stroke transitions and connection areas require careful manipulations with strokes widths.

Compare with a very similar font which has slight stroke width 'play':

Corbel / Candara

enter image description here

Digits

Well, IMO such digits are annoying. This note kind of contradicts with my 'play' theory, but it is just too much play here.

enter image description here

  • Thanks, I believe another term for the modulation is contrast. Personally, I don't prefer either one of the Corbel and Candara examples you posted. But we rejected Candara exactly because its specific implementation of contrast looks rather unprofessional at larger sizes in our opinion. Of course there are other sans serifs that make better use of contrast, but none that I know that are ubiquitously available on amateurs' computers. – Carlo Beltrame Jul 9 '18 at 8:21
  • @CarloBeltrame Then you should have specific requirement - so you want only standard Windows font (or even down to Windows 7 only). For Win 10 there are better readable fonts and IMO more pragmatic look. Segoe, Microsoft Tai Le, Microsoft Sans serif, Gadugi, Tahoma. And if it is just style that matters - then this is just a matter of choice. – Mikhail V Jul 9 '18 at 14:26
  • Yes, I would love to use Segoe, but it's not available on Mac. The only font in your list that is reasonably well available on Win and Mac is Tahoma, and that font is listed as bad font at Butterick's. Why that is would be suited for another similar question. – Carlo Beltrame Jul 10 '18 at 12:02
  • Just to note that Corbel has alternative capital-height "lining" figures accessible via the font options menu. (Cmd+D on a Mac.) – Copilot Aug 8 '18 at 4:27
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I don't think Corbel is at all terrible, but it looks clunky printed out.

It's designed to look very legible on a low-quality monitor at small size. But printout is higher-resolution than screen display and on paper the lower-case starts to look too big and too wide. It feels like there's not enough contrast between upper- and lower-case, and it feels clunky. (Compare with Seria Sans, which is also a fairly strict monoline sans-serif, but designed to be printed. There's a lot more contrast in character size.)

But what's far more important to take in mind here is that the font you use depends on use scenario. If you're talking about office documents, especially ones that are mostly never going to be printed out, then sure, Corbel is fine. If you're thinking about documents that need to be shared with someone else outside your organisation as an editable Word document, then Corbel is a great choice because it will display on their computer correctly. For non-important documents, like a volunteer timesheet, no problem. For a "premium", finished document, like a leaflet, brochure, funding proposal or whatever, that you are going to distribute in a non-editable format (printed or pdf), then of course you would be better off switching to a font that gives a more "premium" impression. But I'm not sure that this is what you're thinking of.

It's worth noting that Butterick, who worked as a type designer before training as a lawyer, is writing for a legal audience. Such organisations often will distribute documents that are not meant to be edited by the recipient and need to convey a "premium" feel. I'm not sure this is what you have in mind.

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