How to choose a font

Audience: Computer users. Programmers. User experience designers (UXD).

Every computer-user has a different strategy for choosing the best font for long
periods working at the computer. They all involve many metrics, strategies, and
rubrics. Based on that, they are probably all wrong. Well not really, they are
right based upon experience, and experience is really all that matters.

I was curious about whether my experience had any basis in reality, and I really
wanted to dig into what is the “right way” to choose a font for any particular
user or situation. The following are notes and ultimately a decision on what is
the best for me. Hopefully the notes alone are revealing and help you reach your
own conclusion, too. At the very least you ought to be educated, informed, and
probably surprised, too, about some of the factors involved in font selection.

What’s the most readable font for the screen?

Serifs are tips for the reader’s eyes for flow.

San-serifs are better for low-res.

Simultaneously states that is no difference between serif and san-serif.

Rec: Helvetica/Arial

Comment recommendations:

Designed for digital, Hermann Zapf’s Optima, or as a backup Verdana

Designed for digital, Open Sans

Both, Calibri

San-serifs are easier on the eyes as you get older, citing retinal tears

Time to change your fonts

Designed for screen: Verdana, Trebuchet MS, and (the serif) Georgia.

Easy to read, available on virtually all machines.

Let go of times new roman, Arial, and Helvetica.

Traditionally a serif font was used for the main body of a document, and
sans-serif for headings. Today, those principles are often reversed.

The Best Fonts to Use in Print, Online, and Email

Popular serif fonts are Times New Roman, Palatino, Georgia, Courier,
Bookman and Garamond.

Some popular San Serif fonts are Helvetica, Arial, Calibri, Century
Gothic and Verdana.

It’s been said that serif fonts are for “readability,” while sans-serif
fonts are for “legibility.”

Best fonts for online: go with sans-serif.

2002 study by the Software Usability and Research Laboratory:

  • The most legible fonts were Arial, Courier, and Verdana.
  • At 10-point size, participants preferred Verdana. Times New Roman was
    the least preferred.
  • At 12-point size, Arial was preferred and Times New Roman was the
    least preferred.
  • The preferred font overall was Verdana, and Times New Roman was the
    least preferred.

For easiest online reading, use Arial 12-point size and larger. If
you’re going smaller than 12 points, Verdana at 10 points is your best
choice. If you’re after a formal look, use the font “Georgia.” And for
older readers, use at least a 14-point font.

Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, an e-commerce consultant, did a series of tests in 2001. He also came to the conclusion that the sans-serif fonts are more suited to the computer screen.Some of the highlights of the test results
were that at 12 points, respondents showed a preference for Arial over
Verdana – 53% to 43% (with 4% not being able to distinguish between the
two).Two-thirds of respondents found that Verdana at 12 points was too
large for body text, but Verdana at 10 points was voted more readable
than Arial at 10 points by a 2 to 1 margin.In conclusion, for the best
font readability, use Arial 12 point or Verdana at 10 points and 9
points for body text. For headlines, he suggests using larger bold

Comments: Good.

My comments: no links to cited papers

Which font is the most comfortable for on-screen viewing?

Post: Advice to use san-serif is outdated and inappropriate for today’s
high resolution screens. San-serif or not is irrelevant; instead the
measure of success is to use a large font that was specifically designed
for on-screen usage. For inspiration, look at the free fonts listed at
the Google Web Fonts directory, especially Vollkorn or the Droid Serif
font which was particularly developed with small font size in mind.

GCR: That post is confusing because he later explains that we are not
there yet, but rather getting close.

Post: Sans-serif are best for on-screen.


Droid Serif

The Design of a New Math Font Family


Font readability

Legibility refers to being able to read a text in bad conditions.
“Legibility is concerned with the very fine details of typeface design,
and in an operational context this usually means the ability to
recognize individual letters or words. Readability however concerns the
optimum arrangement and layout of whole bodies of text”

Studies that contrast serif vs. non-serif fonts seem to be

There are some ground rules one can find, like:

  • Don’t make long lines nor too long paragraphs
  • Use wide fonts such as Palatino or Verdana for small fonts
  • Use spaces between lines, e.g. about 1.2 at least. E.g. in Word 2007,
    1.15 is the default I believe. to be controversial.

Sans serif: Verdana (a humanist font) or Arial

Serif: Georgia

Some references for studies and research done on fonts.

“two roles for type: a functional role (relating to legibility) and an
aesthetic/semantic role, which impacts the “apparent ‘fitness’ or
‘suitability’ for different functions, and which imbue it with the power
to evoke in the perceiver certain emotional and cognitive response” (p.

In her study: Calibri came out as a winner against Courier New and Curlz.

GCR: Very exciting and interesting with good links

The Effect of Typeface on the Perception of Email

People take Calibri seriously via this study.

Know Your Typefaces! Semantic Differential Presentation of 40 Onscreen Typefaces

Study showing how people emotionally react to certain fonts.

The Academic Evidence Base for Typeface Readability


Young people like serif; older like sans-serif.

Bibliography on font readability

Links to papers on font readability.

Best Fonts for the Web

Serif: Georgia. It was designed especially for screen. Other options are

Sans-Serif: Tahoma. Geneva, Tahoma, and Verdana were designed especially
for the screen. Tahoma in particular is cited for legibility. Another
pick: Lucida Sans Unicode: Cited as remarkably legible for some reason.

Monospaced: Monaco/Lucida Console.

GCR: Great article.

A Comparison of Two Computer Fonts: Serif versus Ornate Sans Serif

Another study, unsure what to conclude from it.

A Comparison of Popular Online Fonts: Which Size and Type is Best?

Excellent details.

Tahoma and Verdana, sans-serifs, were designed specifically for viewing
on computer screens. J, I, and 1 were made distinguishable. Tahoma is
wider than Verdana.

Great article but leaves so many questions and stuff unanswered and

A Comparison of Popular Online Fonts: Which is Best and When?

Big fonts generally don’t matter and are easy to read.

Tahoma is well-read.

Verdana and Georgia have good legibility.

Whole other range of evaluations: personality, elegant, youthful and
fun, business-like,

Most legible: Courier, Comic, Verdana, Georgia, and Times.

1.1 Thoughts

  • Ideals
  • Current state of technology along with aging-eyes means that
    sans-serif is the best option
  • Emacs suggest mono-spaced fonts for coding
  • Experienced teaches me that Unicode support is mandatory
  • Matching
  • Prefer fonts that focus on legibility over emotional evocation
  • Results: Verdana, Calibri, Tahoma, Lucida Sans Unicode, Lucida Sans
  • Notes: Best Unicode Fonts for Programming
  • DejaVu Sans Mono: best Unicode support
  • Based on Andale Mono, a monospaced san-serif designed for coding
  • What are the best programming fonts?
  • Tons of coding related fonts. Why not for reading?!
  • Source Code Pro is highest ranked, then Consolas, and Monaco
  • Font Survey: 42 of the Best Monospaced Programming Fonts
  • The options, although only 42, are insanely overwhelming.
    • Comments
    • There isn’t a ton of digestible info available on Unicode support for
      the fonts that I listed.
    • I am recalling now that my original selection of DejaVu Sans Mono was
      specifically for its excellent Unicode support; specifically that it
      had better support than Lucida Console which is monospaced but lacked
      characters and looks at least as nice.
    • Seems like it is just haphazard and quasi-scientific how people are
      choosing fonts; and maybe even designing them.
    • Founds evidence that Lucida is just fine for display; and thus
      DejaVu Sans Mono is fine for display.
  • Conclusion
    • DejaVu Sans Mono is the best available font for computer work.

3 thoughts on “How to choose a font”

  1. Older fonts contain amazing amount of fine-tuning and precise pixel art for display on screen. They look perfect on monochome screens of standard resolution. On modern screens with clear-type enabled, they do not look so good: the vector outlines of Tahoma Bold express a more bold (heavy, black) version than the embedded bitmaps for standard 8 and 10 point sizes, and the font becomes more difficult to read. Most fonts that predate clear type, and haven’t been hinted for it, have a sheer amount of color fringe, usually purple. (Most pronounced in Courier New.)

    I prefer pixel-perfect fonts on GUI rendered in monochrome: the kind of “screen” that Tahoma and Trebuchet MS were made for. I do not find them harder to read on an LCD, as has been claimed multiple times. Since they are pixel art, they benefit from accurate addressability of pixels and no fuzz. I strongly dislike ClearType; it is only better with fonts made for it by Microsoft – Consolas, Segoe. Adobe’s OTF greyscale render, and the one used in PDF-Xchange is good enough.

    With a high quality renderer, most serif fonts look good in body copy on screen. I like Google’s abandoned Giovanni. Adobe’s PostScript fonts tend to look better on screen in general, compared to TrueType without precise hinting. Adobe has many serif fonts with reduced contrast, and optimized Caption optical sizes, which are closer to hinted screen fonts with all strokes having the same 1px width. Most free software fonts and those from Bitstream have horrible hinting and they require high dpi or a supersampling renderer. Most fonts from Monotype, ITC and Bigelow and Holmes are almost as good as Microsoft’s classic web fonts.

    Georgia’s lowercase, old style numerals are unusual add a bouncy decorative flavor to it. Most other fonts have normal digit glyphs and may only offer old style as options buried in the symbol set or opentype tables. This font transforms into what look like 3 different families depending on the pixel height, as the resolution becomes high enough for its Contrast and serifs. At screen height it looks more like a slab-serif font, similar to Chapparal. Perhaps I see Georgia as old style because it was featured in Microsoft’s Age of Empires II.

  2. Thanks for sharing that j7n.

    My research narrowed it down to:
    – Programming: DejaVu Sans Mono
    – Printing on paper: Garamond
    – Publishing to the computer: Georgia

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