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Here Are NASA’s Top 19 Typography Tips

For some, the choice of font is actually a matter of life and death

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For some people, like Staff Sgt. Dana Fernkas, having access to crucial information depends, in some part, on the typography and design of checklists and manuals. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock

Whether you’re printing posters for your church raffle or unveiling one of the most important discoveries in modern physics, design matters. For pilots and early astronauts, with their elaborate manuals and checklists telling them how to set controls, or how to deal with emergencies, having clear, legible fonts was literally a matter of life and death.

NASA cares very much about the lives of pilots and astronauts. NASA also doesn’t like to screw around. You don’t get to put one-ton nuclear cars on another planet by screwing around. So, NASA doesn’t screw around with type design.

In 1992, NASA researcher Asaf Degani released a report outlining, in detail, all the ways typography can go wrong, and the very best ways to get it right. Degani didn’t care so much about whether this or that font would capture the identity of a hip business—he cared about near-perfect legibility, under a range of strange conditions.

Degani goes into the rationale and reasoning behind his recommendations, pointers that address everything from x-height and kerning to case and color luminosity. If you want to see the research behind Degani’s tips, it’s all in the report. At the end, Degani summed up his recommendations, and while some of them are a little technical, the best ones—”avoid using long strings of text set in italics” or “avoid using black over dark red, green, and blue”—are solid advice that local leaflet-makers would do well adhere to.

Here’s the full list:

1. Sans-serif fonts are usually more legible than fonts with serifs.

2. Avoid using a font that has characters that are too similar to one another, as this will reduce the legibility of the print.

3. Avoid using dot matrix print for critical flight-deck documentation.

4. Long chunks of text should be set in lower case.

5. If upper case is required, the first letter of the word should be made larger in order to enhance the legibility of the word.

6. When specifying font height, or accessing graphs to determine the size of a lower-case character, the distinction between “x” height and overall size should be made.

7. As a general recommendation, the “x” height of a font used for important flight-deck documentation should not be below 0.10 inch.

8. The recommended height-to-width ratio of a font that is viewed in front of the observer is 5:3.

9. The vertical spacing between lines should not be smaller than 25-33% of the overall size of the font.

10. The horizontal spacing between characters should be 25% of the overall size and not less than one stroke width.

11. Avoid using long strings of text set in italics.

12. Use primarily one or two typefaces for emphasis.

13. Use black characters over a white background for most cockpit documentation.

14. Avoid using white characters over a black background in normal line operations. However, if this is desired:

1. Use minimum amount of text.
2. Use relatively large typesize.
3. Use sans-serif to minimize the loss of legibility.

15. Black over white or yellow are recommended for cockpit documentation.

16. Avoid using black over dark red, green, and blue.

17. Use anti-glare plastic to laminate documents.

18. Ensure that the quality of the print and the paper is well above normal standards. Poor quality of the print will effect legibility and readability.

19. The designer must assess the age groups of the pilots that will be using the documentation, and take a very conservative approach in assessing information obtained from graphs and data books.

More from Smithsonian.com:

What if Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Published Today, Had Been in Comic Sans?
How New Fonts Are Helping Dyslexics Read and Making Roads Safer
Cosmic Sans: a New Font Space Geeks Will Love to Hate

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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