System vs Custom Fonts in Presentations

old metal typeforms, like little stamps they set in letterpress printers

One of the first things I try to determine, when asked to design a new presentation, is whether or not a custom font can be used. There are numerous reasons not to. However, if you are in a situation in which you CAN use custom fonts, I highly recommend you do so.

In case you don't know the difference between the two: A system font is a font installed on most computers. The most common are the ones that come already installed with the computer's operating system and ones that come with Microsoft Office. If you have to work with users on both Mac and PC systems there are only a few fonts that can be counted on to be on both. Custom fonts are those you find on the internet or are sent to you by another person. Typically it is unlikely that other people will have these installed, so you need to get all collaborators to do so. In either case, even when using systems fonts, it is wise to check with your collaborators to make sure everyone has the desired fonts installed.

Why use custom fonts?

  1. Most brand guidelines don't call for standard system fonts. It can be a little bit disappointing to see your well-crafted brand get taken down a notch due to the fact that you have to use system fonts instead of the custom fonts your brand designers so carefully selected. Some people might think this is trivial, but to use an analogy from another post I wrote about design: Your brand's design elements, in some sense, are like your attire. There is a huge difference between a finely tailored suit and one you bought off the bargain rack. People may not be able to point specifically to why they think you look a little shabby, but they are still aware of it and this affects the overall impression they have of you and your presentation. This is why I usually push clients to use custom fonts in the case of B2B presentations. Internal presentations usually don't carry the same weight of importance, so going with a system font is an easy decision IF your organization doesn't already have brand fonts installed on all computers.
  2. Another reason is that you have much more versatility in communicating mood when you have full control over the fonts. For instance, there are multiple well-designed, hand-written fonts that communicate a fun, adventurous mood. Many of them have become very popular in contemporary design. However, you can't use them if you are stuck with system fonts. This same idea goes for almost any mood you are trying to convey. If you want to convey sophistication you are stuck with Century Gothic (in my opinion) if you can only use system fonts. However, there is a huge world of high-caliber, sophisticated fonts out there for you to use, many of them free, but they aren't system fonts.

Use custom fonts if the following apply:

  1. The fonts are installed on the computer that will be used to give the final presentation.
    OR you are using a later version of PowerPoint on a PC. In this case you can embed the fonts in your presentation and send to colleagues who are also using PowerPoint on a PC. Sorry Mac users, you can't natively embed fonts yet. There are some add-ins (for PowerPoint) that attempt to do this, but they are limited.
    OR you plan on exporting the final deck as a PDF. This will embed the fonts and therefore look correct in a PDF viewer. However, you will lose any builds or transitions you have in the original file.
  2. Everyone building the deck (you, your team and sometimes your client) also has the fonts installed or, if they don't, you can get them to install the fonts. This isn't absolute though. You can have people helping with the writing early on that don't need to know how the layouts are working, but the closer you get to a finished deck, the more confusion it will cause if layouts are getting broken because someone doesn't have the right fonts. Broken layouts can happen when a default font replaces a custom font (because the user doesn't have the right font installed). Often that default font has different letter widths and spacing than the custom font. You can get a lot of awkward line breaks and even overlapping text. Note: You can also get broken layouts because people are using different versions of presentation software. I've run into this a few times: everything is going great, then someone takes a deck home and works on it via their personal laptop which has a different version of PowerPoint and then I get a call asking why some of the layouts are broken.
  3. You have the appropriate license to use and/or distribute the fonts. Many free fonts will give you an open license that allows you to freely distribute them so long as you don't sell them or claim authorship. Some require attribution. Paid fonts are typically much stricter. So, read the license agreement before using or purchasing any font!

When to stick with system fonts

  1. If you are in a hurry it may not be possible to find, purchase, distribute and install a custom font.
  2. Your boss or client doesn't care or sees it as a hassle. I see this mostly in technical industries in which "looking good" is almost shunned by certain managers. If you encounter that attitude you can make the argument for the psychological effects that good design has on audience engagement and agreeableness. However, it can be a tough sell, so have a few system fonts in mind you can fall back on.
  3. If your brand font is a system font, then don't reinvent the wheel just for fun. Stick with the brand font unless you have a compelling reason not to.

For a list of system fonts take a look at this post on Indezine.

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