When it comes to designing your business website, there’s a lot to pay attention to.
Between producing your content, selecting the right header image, and making sure you’ve connected your social media channels – some of the fundamental design elements may take a backseat, such as your website’s fonts.
If you aren’t an experienced designer, one of the questions you’re probably already asking is "which font is the best for my website?"
After all, it is crucial to understand how a typeface can fit your brand and voice the best.
The short answer is: It depends on your business.
But the good news is that it doesn't matter as much as you think.
Choosing a specific type of font can say a lot about your business.
Just like choosing the right outfit when you are attending a dinner event that you’re holding, the font you use for your website can set a tone and a mood for visitors.
Do you want to appear casual and friendly, or sophisticated and refined to your dinner guests?
Fact: Most fonts are bad
Unfortunately, most people simply spend too much time and energy worrying about this question. These folks have little to no knowledge about designing a world-class website, and yet they have too much anxiety worrying about picking the perfect font.
If you go to a font repository website such as Font Squirrel, you’ll easily find that there are thousands and thousands of fonts. Over half of the fonts available aren't worth being used at all.
Which means MOST fonts are bad fonts.
Designing a high-quality typeface takes a lifetime of dedication and study. Not only does it need to be effective, but it also has to stand the test of time.
Even then, very few typeface designers have what it takes to make a font worth using, out of the many thousands available.
That is why many of the fonts you’ll find by searching around for free fonts on the web are going to be designed by second-rate designers, for second-rate designers.
Many of them are going to have "gimmicks" to their design, such as being made from Swiss cheese, because that's what second-rate and amateur designers will tend to search for.
What makes a good font?
A well-designed typeface will not have gimmicks.
It uses an extremely subtle form that isn’t overly flashy, and yet it can express language and emotions, while also evoking the technological and cultural factors that shaped the typeface itself.
While creating a good font is not your job but a web designer, it’ll serve you well to know a few traits that exist in almost all good fonts:
1. High legibility
You know how people hate reading the handwritten prescriptions from their doctors? That’s what poorly legible fonts do.
If the font cannot be easily read, it creates friction for the reader.
When it comes to legibility, there are 2 schools of thought. Some people argue that sans serif fonts are more legible than serif fonts, and vice versa (More of serifs and san serifs later).
In general, when you’re choosing a font for digital media, such as emails and websites, a san serif font is easier to read.
A good font has uniformed stems and clear crossbars, with consistent thickness across all font sizes, making them easy to read whether they are used in big or small sizes.
Good fonts also have clear letterforms that remove any ambiguity. This means that a reader won’t see a ‘0’ as an uppercase ‘O,’ or a ‘1’ as a lower case ‘l.’
2. Very scalable
When it comes to publishing on digital media, a good font allows excellent scalability across every browser, screen resolution, and even internet connection speed.
When displayed on a screen, the font renders sharply regardless of the font size, making it a comfortable reading experience for a user on any device.
A good font also offers scalability that let users with dyslexia or any similar reading disabilities read it without trouble.
A wide variety of styles and weight
A good font comes not in just one type, but a range of styles and weights (called a font family).
A font family includes a light, regular, italic, condensed and more variants of the same font.
The different variants allow web designers to use the font across different types of content, such as headlines, subheadings, paragraph texts, footnotes and more.
Good fonts don’t go overboard with the different styles and weights either, as an excess selection can weaken the contrast and put an unnecessary cognitive load on the reader.
At the end of the day, it’s all about giving you as a creator the ability to achieve the right visual hierarchy for your text content.
Has a personality of its own
Measuring a font’s personality can be tough because great fonts can trigger memories, imaginations and even emotions.
A font can look loud or subtle, heavy or light, fast or slow. Good fonts inject their personality into your content, whether it’s modern/classical, traditional/novel, luxurious/budget, factory-minted/ hand-made, serious/light-hearted, somber/happy, trustworthy/ambitious - The list is endless.
Fonts with great personality clue the readers into the intent of your content, whether it’s your emails, business websites or your app.
In marketing, they clue the readers into the emotions associated with your branding, even before they read a single word.
How to choose the font that is right for your business?
As mentioned earlier, with thousands of fonts to choose from, one could potentially spend an eternity picking the perfect font.
Any designer worth their salt takes tremendous care in selecting the perfect font to use on their website or other projects.
Here are just a few of the factors you can ask yourself:
- What size will it be displayed? Will your readers be consuming your text content mainly on a small screen smart device, or in front of their desks on their laptops?
- What display technology (screen or paper) will your content be shown on? Will your content be displayed on conventional LED/LCD monitors, e-ink (like Amazon Kindle readers) displays, large outdoor displays, etc.?
- Do you know who designed this font? What's the historical context of the designer? What was the original purpose of this font? For example, Comic Sans was initially inspired by comics and children’s books, and Courier was created for its semblance to typewriter typefaces.
- Is your content meant to be scanned quickly, or digested linearly? Do your readers have the time to skim everything through in one sitting? Serif fonts are supposedly better for speed readers because the letters can be easily recognized.
- Does the font match your message or brand identity? If your website content is about construction steel framing, using a light font might not convey the sense of authority or trust with your readers.
And on, and on, and on...
A professional website builder will use their built up knowledge and experience to ask the right questions and make the best decision faster than a novice designer would.
If your goal is to be an at-least-halfway-decent designer, spending your time and mental energy trying to match this level of consideration will just hold you back.
A business website would be one such project that you would like to get it completed as soon as possible so you can quickly move on to other marketing efforts.
Understanding font classification
It’s easy to see the difference between Helvetica, Times Roman and Grotesque fonts. But typography is a whole subject by itself.
Fortunately, you don’t need to know everything except the basics, such as font classification: the serif, sans-serif and script fonts.
Here’s a quick lowdown of each type, and what are their typical uses:
Serif fontsare commonly found in print medium (books, newspapers, etc.).
A ‘serif’ is a small line that attaches to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol.
For fonts, the ‘serif’ line can be stylired in different ways to achieve its own distinctive look.
Serif fonts are often considered to be more classical and elegant and will speak to an older audience.
Sans serif fontsare the opposite of serif fonts. They don’t come with serif lines attached.
These are supposedly better suited for computer screens and smartphones. This is likely the main reason why you’ll mostly find a sans serif font on most websites.
Unsurprisingly, they are much more appealing to younger readers.
Script fontsare modeled after 17th-century handwriting styles.
As with most font types, script fonts come with their own subsets, which falls under the category of formal and casual variants.
For example, cursive writing is a type of casual script. If you want to grab some attention with your text, a script will undoubtedly help you attain it.
However, it’s wise to keep this style limited to headlines or titles, as using a casual script as paragraph text will make things less readable to your readers unless you are trying to achieve a classic look.
Always script in your website design sparingly, or it will wear out its appeal.
Forget about font pairings
As if navigating a minefield of bad fonts wasn't bad enough, you also have to which can go well together.
With thousands of fonts at your fingertips, you need to think about the millions of different possible combinations.
Even Google’s own font directory, Google Fonts add to the confusion by showing "popular pairings,” that is different, but the differences are almost impossible to tell at a glance.
Google has noticed that these fonts are used together commonly, so they're perpetuating this lowest-common-denominator choice by recommending it to you.
For example, it recommends Open Sans and Lato as recommended pairings for fonts.
If you observe both fonts closely side-by-side, other than Open Sans has a boxier form and larger height, you’ll find that these two are (almost) the exact same font.
There is nothing to be gained by paring similar fonts together. In fact, a mismatch of fonts can do more harm than good: no harmony in the design, increasing internet bandwidth, and more importantly: wasting your time and mental energy.
What are the best practices when working with fonts?
Use one font per project
Since pairing fonts do more harm than good, the obvious way to go about this is to simply use one font for each project, which in this case is your business website.
In fact, I find that no other website design choice has a higher stress-to-results ratio than choosing fonts.
Most people spend too much time stressing on fonts because they're tangible. It’s a common fallacy to believe that by changing up the font, we can magically make our website perfect.
So do yourself a favour and just pick ONE font to use in your next project. Once that choice is made, notice how your focus shifts towards other crucial factors of your website design.
Have a small number of "go-to" fonts
Fonts can make a big difference in what your website conveys, but you can get most of the effect you're looking for by choosing your one font out of a few different fonts in your repertoire.
Limit your choices to just a few different fonts. You don’t need a completely different font for every of digital content that you produce. Here are a few recommendations:
- Georgia for a sophisticated serif
- Helvetica for a clean and neutral design
- Lato for a friendly and "natural" look
- Raleway for a more modern geometric look
From just these four choices, you could pick a font that suits your business identity and objectives. These fonts will work just fine for virtually any type of website, or any other content.
Restricting yourself to just one font also creates consistency for your readers, and this conveys trust and legitimacy to your business too.
This is also the reason why many big companies spend lots of money designing a single font and stick to it across all their communications.
Focus on your content
The key to creating a great website is to keep things simple. Reducing the factors that can cause stress to you.
Only when you limit yourself to a handful few factors to work on, you reduce your anxiety and can start to add more practical features to enhance your website.
Once you've decided that you're only using one font, and you start using that font, you'll start to notice things that really make or break your website.
Things such as content, CTAs, and navigation holds more weight in the grand scheme of things compared to your font.
Also, with just one font to use you can get creative with how you use your typography. Experiment with little all-caps here and there (for very short pieces of content), underline or strikethroughs, and also bolds/italics.
There are plenty of ways to express yourself and your website content typographically without worrying about fonts.
Stop following trends
When it comes to your fonts, you want to make sure it matches your business identity almost perfectly.
Trends are exactly that: trends.
Just because you see somebody looking good with a beard doesn’t mean you can look just as great with a beard too.
This same logic goes for your online presence too.
Don’t just follow design trends blindly just because they look good. Sometimes they work against what you are trying to achieve regarding your branding or marketing objectives.
If the font doesn’t match your style or brand, then don’t go for it. Play it safe and fall back on the tried-and-true fonts.
Even though going for a “bold” design is the way forward, your main concern is still about achieving your business’s online goals, which is to be memorable to your audience and true to your values as a business.
You can go a long way in your website design by focusing on the things more tangible than picking that "perfect" font.
As long as the font serves the business purpose of your website content and gets the job done effectively, you should just use it and move on to the other things that matter.
About Murray Dare
A digital marketing consultant and entrepreneur,
Murray runs his marketing agency Murraydare.co.uk and several online startups.
Murray has helped startups and businesses achieve online success through a considered approach to marketing.