Mastering Web Typography: Essential Guidelines for Readable Online Text

Mastering Web Typography: Essential Guidelines for Readable Online Text

Unveiling the Art of Typography in Website Design

In the vast world of website design, one aspect often underestimated is website typography — the science and art of arranging text that is easy to read and digest when presented on a screen, whether on a desktop monitor or a mobile device. 

How text looks and feels profoundly influences how users perceive and interact with web content, both positively and negatively. If the information presented is easy to read and digest, they will likely stay a little longer. If it’s not, the chances that they will bounce are very high.

As a website designer, I spend a lot of my time researching and looking for inspiration from other website designers, looking at what works and what doesn’t. Not just layouts and functionality but also the typography chosen for that particular website. Was it chosen specifically for that industry as part of the branding, or was it just randomly picked? Ultimately, does it work? 

While onboarding a new client, one of the questions I ask is if they prefer the typography of a particular style or font that they wish to maintain; perhaps they have already had their company branding professionally prepared, which makes my work more straightforward if they have. 

In this introductory guide to typography, we’ll explore the fundamental principles of web typography, delving into essential rules and practices to ensure text is visually appealing and effortless to read and understand.

Understanding Typography for Websites

Key Elements of Web Typography

Typography, although often overlooked, plays a pivotal role in website design and differs somewhat from print typography as we have to cater to much more user interaction than the printed format, such as shorter attention spans, scanability, accessibility, and different mobile devices. 

From typefaces to font styles and spacing, as a web designer, understanding the fundamentals of typography is crucial to creating a website which provides a user-friendly reading experience.

Body Content: Typography defines how text appears on a page or screen. It involves various elements such as typefaces, fonts, kerning, leading, and hierarchy. These elements all work together to determine how readable and engaging text is on a website.

Typefaces and Fonts: A typeface is a specific style applied to alphabetic and numeric characters, while a font represents a variation within a typeface, such as the weight (i.e. bold or light), Size (i.e. 16px or 24px) or styling (i.e. italics). 

For example, Arial is a typical typeface which comes in various font styles, such as; “Arial (12pt)”, “Arial Bold (16pt)”, “Arial Bold Italic (20pt)”, and “Arial Italic (20pt)”

Type face and fonts

Serif and Sans-Serif Fonts: Most typefaces offer two font styles, Serif and Sans-Serif.

A serif is the small artistic ornaments attached to the primary stroke of a letter, the little rounded ends or flicks. Fonts with these decorative touches are called serif fonts, and those without sans-serif fonts (“sans” in French means “without”).

difference between sans-serif and serif

Sans-serif fonts, such as Arial or Helvetica, are often preferred for the main body of text due to their simplicity and ease of viewing. In contrast, Serif fonts are often used in headings so that the text stands apart from the body content. You may also come across Script in headings; however, as a web designer, I only use Script to achieve a particular look and feel for the site. For example, I may use Script for a fancy heading on a wedding photography website but stay clear on an engineering website as it doesn’t fit with the theme and style of the overall website.

Kerning, Leading, and Hierarchy: Kerning refers to the horizontal space between specific characters, ensuring they fit together well. Leading is the vertical spacing between lines of text (more commonly known as single-spaced or double-spaced), contributing to readability. Hierarchy involves organising text using different font sizes, styles, and weights to guide readers through content sections. For example, this article uses different font sizes and weights in a hierarchy for the headings, subheadings and main body content, which makes it easier to read and scroll through.

kerning and leading

Best Practices for Web Typography

Guidelines for Optimal Online Text

Creating text that is easy to read and digest requires adherence to best practices in web typography.

Body Content:

  1. Font Choice and Readability: Choosing the right fonts impacts text readability. Sans-serif fonts are preferable for body text due to their clean appearance. However, serif fonts can effectively contrast and emphasise headings and titles. Limit the number of fonts used for a website to a maximum of two. Too many fonts on the same page can make it look scrappy, disjointed and unorganised; use font-paring practices to ensure the fonts work well together and are compatible but distinguishable. 
  2. Text Sizing and Spacing: Ensuring appropriate text sizes and spacing between lines and paragraphs is vital for readability. A minimum font size of 16px is recommended for body text to accommodate various screen sizes and improve legibility.
  3. Colour and Contrast: Choose the colours of your fonts carefully to ensure optimal colour pairing when it comes to the contrast between text and background. One of my pet hates in web design is when a client insists on having text overlaying an image which clashes. Adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) ensures text is accessible to all users, with a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for most text. Use this free online tool to check your website’s font and background contrast.
hierarchy example

The Impact of Typography on User Experience

Enhancing User Engagement Through Text Design

Body Content: Typography significantly influences website user experience (UX). A well-designed typographic layout improves readability, encourages more prolonged user engagement, and helps visitors intuitively navigate content.

  1. User Engagement and Readability: Easy-to-read text ensures visitors can consume content effortlessly, leading to increased engagement and longer time spent on the website, reducing your bounce rate, and improving your SEO score. Clear headings and subheadings enhance content scannability, allowing users to locate information quickly.
  2. Impact on Conversions and User Trust: A visually appealing and well-organised text layout instils a sense of professionalism and credibility in users, potentially increasing conversion rates and fostering user trust in the website’s content.

Conclusion: Mastering web typography is essential for crafting visually appealing and highly readable website content. By understanding and implementing the fundamental principles of typography, website owners and designers can significantly enhance user experience and engagement.