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Website fonts... A very simple guide

Choosing a website font is like deciding on a party outfit. Get it right and you look cool. Get it wrong and everyone thinks you’re a plonker.

Your font sends a message. It tells your reader where your business stands, lets them know how seriously they should take you and, crucially, whether or not to believe what you say. So what’s the right font for your website?

Well, there’s a short answer and there’s a complicated one. Let’s start with the short one…

A font that’s easy to read.

Why simple fonts make money

There are 200,000 fonts out there, just waiting to baffle you with their diversity.

But don't worry because when it comes to websites, there are only two. Simple fonts and fancy fonts. And simple fonts make more money. Why?

Because if you want your reader to take a specific action - say, buy your stuff - they’re more likely to do so if you ask them in a simple font. You don’t have to take my word for it. Boffins have proved it.

In 2008, a pair of researchers from the University of Michigan carried out an experiment.  They gave an exercise to two groups of people and asked them to guess how long it would take. One group got a simple font (Arial) and the others got a fancy font (Brush).

The fancy font people estimated it would take nearly twice as long. Actually, let’s just say that again… nearly TWICE as long. Look, here it is…

The experiment was called "If It's Hard to Read, It's Hard to Do". And guess what? The simple font group said they were significantly more likely to do the exercise.

Which font? The complicated answer

OK, you’ve decided to wear something simple to the font party. Which wine do you bring? Choosing a font is like choosing wine. Most people won’t care as long as it’s drinkable. But there will always be someone (usually a graphic designer) who turns their nose up. Actually, don’t worry too much about graphic designers. They have 10 types of Helvetica. All of them look the same.

Here’s a simple rule for website fonts…

Avoid the serif. If you’re thinking “What the hell is a serif?” it’s that tail bit on the letters. Here are 2 examples of serif fonts. The first proves the rule, the second is the exception:

Times New Roman is the granddaddy of serif fonts and actually, that's why you should avoid it. It’s old-fashioned - and not in a good way. More importantly, serifs look messy on low-resolution monitors.

Georgia is a web-optimised serif font. The New York Times uses Georgia for its on-line publications so who am I to argue? It's beautiful. I could write complete rubbish in this font and still manage to sound authoritative and clever. Spammity-spam wibble. See?

Now, leaving Georgia (reluctantly), and moving on to the sans-serif fonts, the ones without tails. The Manx cats of the font world.

Verdana. Researching this blog, I asked a few web designers to give me their safest bet for a website font. Most of them said Verdana. It’s broad, spacious and modern without trying too hard. In short, it’s one of the most readable fonts out there.

Impact. Microsoft designed this font specifically for website headlines. It works pretty well for those. For heaven’s sake, avoid using it for body text. You'll give your reader a headache.

Tahoma is quite similar to Verdana, but with a narrower body and tighter letter-spacing. Again, a lot of web designers like it. Apparently, it's good for technical stuff because the upper case 'I' is easily distinguishable from the lower case 'l'. Frankly, that's lost on me. I just like the way it looks.

Trebuchet MS is another Microsoft-designed font, described as one of their "core fonts for the web". Evidently, it's named after a Medieval siege engine because it "launches words across the internet". OK, icky. But it does work on websites.

Arial. Now, the trouble with Arial is that it's used absolutely everywhere. And yes, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that this site uses Arial. Most of the web designers in my straw poll got snobby about Arial. Personally, I’ll live with that because it’s simple, readable and kind of sensible.

Comic Sans, on the other hand, makes you look like an idiot.

Helen Beckingham is an SEO copywriter at Keyword Copywriting. Expert scribbler on websites, blogs and e-books, rather good bassoonist, terrible singer. Contact helen@keywordcopywriting.co.uk or click here