What fonts work best in Excel?

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. My associate says that in Excel, I should use an Arial font for numbers and a Times Roman font for text to improve readability. Do you agree? If not, which fonts do you recommend we use for creating Excel, Word, and other documents?

A. I'm not a fan of mixing fonts in an Excel workbook because it requires extra work to apply different fonts and because your documents tend to look more professional when you consistently use the same font throughout your cover letters, financial reports, and footnotes. However, when it comes to choosing the best font for displaying both text and numbers, the font you choose matters. From a readability point of view, the Times New Roman font is considered to be easier and faster to read compared with other commonly used fonts. Times New ­Roman is a serif typeface that first ­appeared in the British newspaper The Times on Oct. 3, 1932. The Times New Roman font's serif design makes reading easier because the characters are more recognizable. Notice how easy it is to read the following phrase in Times New Roman font even though the bottom half of the characters are hidden from view.


Likewise, the Arial font's thicker and cleaner design seems to make large sets of numbers appear streamlined and more readable. While readability is important, being contemporary is also important. In the same way that wearing a short, fat tie with high-waist pants can make you look "old-fashioned," using an old-style font can make your documents look "old school" as well. For example, when you examine an old brochure or magazine advertisement from several decades ago, it looks old, doesn't it? But why? Chances are that the older style font screams "antique," and subliminally, your brain can tell. For your reports and writings to look current, you need to be using a current-day font.

Just as clothing styles change from one decade to the next, so do font styles. In the 1970s the Times New Roman font was considered highly fashionable. In the 1980s the Helvetica font emerged as the font that made writings look fresh and chic. The 1990s was dominated by the Arial font, and starting around 2000, the trendy Veranda font hit the scene and became widely adopted as the latest fashion statement. Today, Calibri is the hot new font that may be the best one to use in Excel, Outlook, and Word for the following reasons:

  1. Current and hip: Introduced by Microsoft in 2007 in conjunction with Office 2007 and Windows Vista, Calibri is basically a skinnier version of the Arial font and the latest font style to gain wide acceptance.
  2. Easier to read: The Calibri font was designed by Microsoft to make both numbers and text more readable for all sizes of fonts, large and small. It was specifically engineered to be highly legible for both alphabet and numerical characters, and the thinner Calibri font makes it easier to read on today's smaller handheld devices. Presented below are the alphabetic characters formatted in the Times New Roman, Arial, and Calibri fonts, which show that the Calibri font requires less space than the others.

So, remember to use the right font, or I'll call the serif.

About the author

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a CPE instructor, and a JofA contributing editor.

Note: Instructions for Microsoft Office in “Technology Q&A” refer to the 2007 through 2016 versions, unless otherwise specified.

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