Most people don’t think too hard about choosing fonts for a website. This is certainly true for people who design their own sites using off-the-shelf web builders and templates that may offer only a handful of options. But it may also be true of certain professional web designers who allow themselves to get hung up on grand design elements like overall layout and color palate, and consequently lose sight of small but vital issues like font choice.
This is arguably understandable, since font seems like such a minute aspect of the experience that people have with the websites they visit every day. But even though choosing fonts for a website isn’t the kind of thing that will leave site visitors praising your skill every time they see the result, it doesn’t mean that result isn’t important. As a matter of fact, for some website and some audiences, it can actually be among the most important design elements a person will deal with.
An Element that’s Invisible… Until it Isn’t
The fact is that a lot of the effects of good web design are completely unconscious for the consumer. There are rare instances where web users might be continuously aware of a design element, but they are generally situations in which that element is something new or novel, such as 3-D models of products or fully-interactive walkthroughs of locations. Even then, the novelty will inevitably wear off over time. But normal, mundane design decisions like choosing fonts for a website can have a much more subtle, yet much more lasting impact.
Ironically, those effects tend to be subtle enough that users don’t really notice them when they’re around, but significant enough that the same users miss them when they are gone. When simply going about your business online, it’s fairly easy to forget that anyone even made a deliberate effort at choosing fonts for a website. But if the site undergoes updates and someone decides to change the font, then that’s a choice you’ll almost certainly be aware.
There was a pretty clear real-world example of this recently, which you might have noticed if you’re active on social media. Over the course of a few days, Twitter updated its apps and its web interface with a handful of new design elements. Among these was a font that the social media giant had designed specifically for its proprietary use. That font is known as Chirp, though most people weren’t aware of that when they started passionately discussing their responses to it.
As with any sudden change, many of those responses were negative purely by virtue of the fact that people are averse to change. But as users began adapting, some people embraced the new appearance, while others refined their attitudes to include more substantive complaints than just, “It’s too different!”
Font Choice and Accessibility
The positive and negative feedback are things that Twitter will certainly have to take into consideration as it evaluates the impact of its latest update. For instance, accessibility considerations might compel the company to implement another version of the site if it turns out that there is any credibility to the recurring claim that some users are experiencing headaches from the new font.
It bears mentioning that this is actually a complaint that many people have lodged about mny different fonts. It’s something to take into consideration when choosing fonts for a website, and it may even call for web developers to focus group a new design scheme or carry out long-term analysis to make sure that there aren’t any unusual effects from long-term reading on the site.
In fact, that analysis should be repeated with every substantive update to the site, since different background colors and surrounding elements can interact with various fonts and exacerbate any neurological effects they might have. Such effects are rare, and designers certainly shouldn’t dwell on them when choosing fonts for a website. But the history of adverse reactions to font choice underscores the little-appreciated importance of that design elements, as well as the fact that it’s always possible for otherwise intelligent choices to backfire in some unforeseen way.
This also goes to show that it’s a good idea to have secondary design choices in your back pocket. This is as important for public relations as it is for the design aesthetic itself. If people have legitimate complaints about a site’s appearance, the designer shouldn’t be so married to it that they’ll sacrifice visitors’ comfort to keep it intact. On the other hand, if the designer is deliberate in choosing fonts for a website, they should be prepared to stand behind the choice by finding an alternative that tweaks the appearance but doesn’t sacrifice too much of the role it’s supposed to play.
Setting the Tone for a Site
When choosing fonts for a website, a professional designer is choosing something that is going to establish and preserve the tone for all of the written content a client provides. Again, ordinary visitors may not be consciously aware of this, but that doesn’t mean their attitudes toward a brand aren’t shaped, in part, by the font.
Even if you only have a passing familiarity with graphic design or web design, you probably have some idea of how this influence plays out. There are some fonts much more familiar than Twitter’s Chirp which ordinary people have seen in enough contexts to understand how they are better suited to some situations than others.
Comic Sans may be suitable for an invitation to a birthday party but doesn’t belong on a pamphlet in the doctor’s office. Times New Roman is a safe choice for school papers or journalistic publications, though it may cause some viewers to conclude that you’re a little too buttoned down and traditional.
Donna Lamar, Twitter’s Global Executive Creative Director, publicly highlighted the role of font choice in shaping a brand’s image when she commented on Chirp’s development early this year. “Chirp strikes the balance between messy and sharp to amplify the fun and irreverence of a Tweet, but can also carry the weight of seriousness when needed.”
Assuming that your own website aspires to Twitter’s mix of serious and jokey content, can its font do that? Of if your brand has a more consistently light-hearted or consistently serious identity, are you capable of choosing fonts for a website so they get that image across, instead? If not, find yourself someone who can, because the impact of a font on web design may be subtle, but it cannot easily be overstated.