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Fonts as a Design Element, Part 1

Choosing your font

The Pragmatic Web Designer uses fonts as a design element. Fonts like images, beautiful colors, and user-friendly navigation are design choices. A font can either enhance or detract from the theme and feel of your web design. Successful web designers understand this and know or learn which typefaces are most effective. The rules in the web environment are anything but arbitrary, so they need to be followed if a website is to engage the reader rather than turn them away.

There are many fonts out there, so many that choosing a font for your website can be overwhelming. The choice is important, however. Certainly, you want people to read the useful content provided on your site. The intricate details of a font, such as weight, kerning, axes, strokes, and counters, affect how we read, although we are rarely conscious of it. The font that you choose could determine how much text is read and how effective your site is.

Yes, there are thousands of fonts from which to choose, but only a few are successful on the web. Readability and availability are the issues. First, consider the difference between two popular font types: serif and sans serif.

Serif or sans serif

Serif fonts are fonts that have fine cross lines at the ends of the letters. Because the lines make each character more distinctive, serif text is typically easier to read in print but generally harder on a monitor, particularly at smaller sizes. Serif fonts have been used for centuries in printed books, magazines, and newspapers. Consider a serif font for your website if you wish to convey warm, personal, artistic, distinguished, traditional, conservative, or intellectual qualities. Serif fonts are effective as headings or for text and documents intended to be downloaded and printed. The most common serif font is Times New Roman and happens to be the default for most windows-based browsers.

Sans means ‘without’ in French, so naturally, a sans-serif font doesn’t have embellishments at the end of each stroke. Sans serif fonts are generally thought to be better for the web. This was particularly true when computer screens didn’t have a high enough resolution to capture the fine details of the serifs. They could appear blurred and unclear. Even today, on a screen, sans serif fonts appear more readable. Sans serif fonts convey technical, cool, clean, crisp, youthful, modern, or uncluttered qualities. The most popular web font at the moment seems to be Verdana. It is a sans serif font and looks good on both PCs and Macs. Because of this, it is one of the most popular, widely-used fonts on the web.

Availability constrained by technology.

The range of fonts that web admins can reliably select for their pages is not as wide as you may think. Some fonts look better on PCs (such as Arial), while others are best viewed on Macs (like Helvetica and Geneva). Even more limiting than avoiding Serif fonts (perhaps less of a requirement with today’s hardware), web designers have long been limited by what fonts website users have installed on their computers.

The list of universally available fonts is slowly growing, with additional fonts such as Cambria and Candara coming into the picture. In an ideal world, all fonts would be loaded onto all systems to open up design possibilities. Until then, conventional wisdom suggests that you use Web safe fonts from the following list.


  • Times New Roman/ Times
  • Georgia

San Serif

  • Arial Black
  • Arial/Helvectica
  • Comic Sans
  • Tahoma
  • Trebuchet MS
  • Verdana


  • Courier New/ Courier

By selecting one or more of these fonts for your website, you will be able to control somewhat how your text will appear in most browsers. Using Cascading Style Sheets, which is the underlying technology used by a web page to control its appearance, web designers can specify a list of fonts to be used. In CSS, your font-family code might look something like this:

p{font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif}

The first three fonts are pretty common, and chances are most computers will have at least one installed, but in case one doesn’t, you provide the computer generic sans-serif font for the browser to use.

Technology advances

Google Web fonts are an amazing free resource for web designers, as seen at the LearnWebDevelopment and Fox News sites. A web with web fonts is more beautiful, readable, accessible, and open. This newer approach makes it quick and easy for everyone to use a broader selection of web fonts, over 500 font families, and counting. Google’s API service makes it easy to add Web fonts to a website in seconds. The service runs on Google’s servers which are fast, reliable, and tested. Google provides this service free of charge. [Author’s note: To learn how to add Google Web fonts in WordPress themes the right way, optimized for the performance, go to]

Breaking the rules

Occasionally, there will be times when the “artist” in us desires to break the design rules. Thus, if you absolutely want to ensure your text displays in a specific font, you will need to make that text an image. Just be aware that if you want to make any changes to the content, you will have to edit the image itself, which is much more tedious than going in and editing text. This should be done sparingly as search engines won’t recognize the text in the image. Using images for your text will also increase the download time of your pages. However, there are places where it’s appropriate to use an image to display text. A good example would be your company logo.

Remember, you are the designer.

While fonts may not seem as important a design element as color and graphics, thoughtful consideration should go into your selections. The fonts will convey important information about your company, products, and services. They will help visitors successfully navigate your site and interact with you. Most importantly, the right fonts will contribute to your site’s overall visitor experience. If it’s positive, your content is read, and you have made the right choices.

Dr. John Elcik is a Pragmatic Web Designer. He is passionate about the application of web technologies to marketing communication issues. His specialties include web design, social media, and customer relationship management technologies. His search for the “right” font has been a pragmatic one. It has never been about looking for something unique and distinctive that expresses his particular aesthetic taste. Rather, “appropriateness” is the acid test that guides his choice of font. His favorite fonts are: Takoma, among the san serif, faces for body text, and Georgia, among the serif faces for headings. Typefaces that have several weights (light, regular, bold, etc.) and/or cuts (italic, condensed, etc.) work are good choices to become your personal “workhorse.”
Pragmatic Web Designer uses Fonts as a Design Element

Dr. John P. Elcik, IV
The Pragmatic Web Designer