By Nick Babich
Typography can make or break a product. Here’s how to excel at it
Communication plays a vital role in design. In order to be successful, your products have to clearly communicate their intent and purpose. When we talk about communication, we usually mean text, because the purpose of any text on your website or app is to establish a clear connection with users.
Typography plays a significant role in this process: Good typography makes the act of reading effortless, while poor typography turns users off. As Oliver Reichenstein states in his essay “Web Design Is 95% Typography”:
Optimizing typography is optimizing readability, accessibility, usability(!), overall graphic balance.
This statement is relevant not only for the web, but for all UIs.
How to Make Typography Work for You and Your Users
There are a lot of conflicting opinions out there about best practices for typography, and there isn’t one strict set of rules that apply in every case. However, there are several things you can do to make sure the typography is honoring the content and improving readability.
Here are 10 practical recommendations and tips that you can use in your projects:
1. Keep the Number of Fonts Used at a Minimum
Using more than three typefaces simultaneously can make your app/site look busy and unstructured. It’s better to limit the number of used font families to a minimum (two is plenty, one is often sufficient) and stick to the same ones through the entire website/app.
Start by selecting a typeface for your body text
This is a very important decision which will affect the decisions of any other typeface like headlines. Body text is the most common element in a product. This is what all your users will see and experience. As a result, the look and feel of your body text will have the greatest impact on the quality of your design.
Stay with one font until you master it
For beginners, it’s recommended to stay with one font until you have achieved mastery of that font. Play with the styles. Modern typefaces already come with many different styles, which means they share common distinct weights. Typefaces with a larger range of styles can help you differentiate text in special contexts, like a button or a label. A good example is San Francisco typeface from Apple.
Ensure font families complement each other
If you still want/need to use more than one font, ensure the font families complement each other. Take the example of fonts combinations below. The combination of Georgia and Verdana (left) share similar values that create a harmonious pairing. Compare that to the pairing of Baskerville and Impact (right) where the heavy weight of Impact vastly overshadows its counterpart.
2. Choose the Proper Font Size
The size of your text has a huge impact on the experience of reading something on screen:
- Text that is too small can cause the reader to strain. As result, users will skip most of the information presented. This is especially true for mobile, where tiny type on a small, bright screen can be a headache for users.
- Text that is too large can also cause problems. Large text can be distracting and tends to call attention to itself.
That’s why you should always start with a comfortable font size for your body text. While it’s impossible to provide a one-fits-all solution for the font size, a general rule of thumb is:
- For desktops: Use 16 px font or higher for body text. It’s not too big and it’s comfortable to read.
- For iOS devices: Use a text size that’s at least 11 points (it’s legible at a typical viewing distance without zooming).
- For Android: Minimal readable font size is 12 sp, but it is highly recommended to use at least 14 sp for the main text.
Tip: Selecting font size can be daunting. But there is a technique that can help you — a modular scale. A modular scale is a sequence of values that can be applied to determine the size of your text styles in a harmonious way. You first choose a ratio — For example, the golden mean 1:1.618 (scale factor). Then you pick the base size of your text, for example, 16px. After that, you multiply to get the sequential numbers: 16px, 26px, 42px, 68px, 110px. You can use a tool like Gridlover to find a proper font size for different scale ratios.
3. Justify Left and Mind the Gap
In the Western world, type is read top to bottom and left to right. By justifying type left, you make the text easier to read. The eye is able to find the edge and this makes reading the copy much easier: A consistent left (vertical) edge assists readers by providing a place for the eye to return to after finishing each (horizontal) line.
It’s also important to mind the gap and avoid having a single word on the last line of a paragraph (otherwise known as a widow):
4. Choose a Typeface that Works Well in Various Sizes
With the growing popularity of type design, the sea of typefaces from which to choose gets bigger each year. Users will use your app/access your site from devices with different screen sizes and resolutions. Since a majority of UIs require text elements of various sizes (button copy, field labels, section headers, etc), it’s important to choose a typeface that works well in multiple sizes to maintain readability in every size.
It’s essential to make sure that the typeface you choose is legible on smaller screens! Try to avoid fonts that use cursive script, such as Vivaldi (in the example below): although they are beautiful, they are difficult to read.
5. Use Fonts with Distinguishable Letters
Legibility is a measure of how easy it is to distinguish one letter from another in a particular typeface. However, not all typefaces are created with legibility as a primary design function. Many typefaces confuse similar letterforms, specifically with “i”s and “L”s (as seen in the image above). Another common legibility issue is poor letter spacing — set together, an “r” and “n” can easily become an “m”. You need to avoid these kinds of fonts because people will have problems reading them on small displays.
6. Limit Line Length
Line length is the horizontal distance of a block of text. Unfortunately, long lines are probably one of the most common design problem on the web. Having the right amount of characters on each line is key to the comfortable reading of your text. The generally accepted, ideal line length for comfortable reading on desktop is around 60 characters per line, including spaces (according to “Typographie”by E. Ruder). This line length has a positive impact on reading rhythm: Our mind is energized when jumping to the next line (as long as it not so frequent).
It’s rare that 60 characters extend to the edge of a desktop screen, but on most mobile devices 60 characters (if displayed large enough to be legible) extend beyond the boundaries of the visible area of the screen. A rule of thumb for mobile typography is to stick to 30–40 characters per line (line length for narrow columns of text in newspapers or magazines).
Below is an example of two sites viewed on a mobile device. The first one uses 50–75 characters per line (optimum number of characters per line for print and desktop), while the second one uses the optimal 30–40 characters.
In web design, you can achieve an optimal number of characters per line by restricting the width of your text blocks using em or pixels.
7. Avoid All Caps
All caps text — meaning text with all the letters capitalized — is fine in contexts that don’t involve reading (such as acronyms or logos), but it’s better to avoid all caps when your message involves reading. As mentioned by Miles Tinker, in his landmark work, Legibility of Print, all-capital print greatly retards the speed of scanning and reading in comparison with lower-case type. Don’t use all caps in text blocks longer than one line of text.
8. Don’t Lose Your Rag
A rag is the edge of a block of text. When text is justified, the words on the line are spaced equally so that there’s no rag on either side. It’s better to avoid using forced justified type because it results in inconsistent whitespace.
Ragged right text has an additional benefit for mobile users. A lot of factors can distract a person from reading (such as an incoming call). A rag creates a random shape down the right-hand column that helps the eye easily relocate its last position and re-engage with text copy.
9. Don’t Minimize Spacing Between Lines
Typography is all about spacing. In typography, we have a special term for the spacing between two lines of text — leading (or line height). In word-processing software, this concept is usually referred to as “line spacing.”
Bad leading leads to text that looks crowded. By increasing the leading, you increase the vertical white space between lines of text, generally improving readability in exchange for screen real estate.
Good spacing aids readability. Properly using white space has been proven to increase comprehension: It gives readers the perception that text isn’t too dense and feels easier to read. A simple rule is your leading should be wider than your word spacing. As a rule of thumb, leading should be about 30% more than the character height for good readability.
“The main factors that will influence the readability of your text are a good balance between font size and line spacing”
10. Make Sure Your Text Has Sufficient Color Contrast
You should use color and contrast to help users see and interpret your text. Contrast is particularly important when designing for mobile because of the potential for distracting glare.
The right amount of contrast is a tricky thing and quite often designers face following problems:
- They choose text color that is too similar to the background color. This makes text hard to read.
- They create too much of a contrast between the text and the background. This also causes readability issues. One of the most common issues is light-colored text against dark backgrounds (white-on-black combinations). Forcing users to read white text on a black background for a long time can strain the user’s eyes.
WC3’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a good place to start if you want to master color contrast. They set minimum standards for contrast so that users with different visual abilities (including the people with moderately low vision) can read your text. The W3C recommends the following contrast ratios for body text and image text:
- Small text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 against its background. A ratio of 7:1 is preferred.
- Large text (at 14 pt bold/18 pt regular and up) should have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 against its background.
Tip: Ensure sufficient color contrast for your text for best readability. You can use a contrast ratio tool to quickly find out if you’re within the optimal range.
Bonus: Helpful Resources
I’ve also prepared a list of resources that will help you improve your typography skills:
- Professional Web Typography is a starter guide for learning about type.
- Google Fonts and Typekit will help you discover typefaces for your next web or mobile app project.
- Gridlover (we’ve mentioned this resource before in section 2, but it worth to say it again because it’s an excellent way to create your modular scale.
- Just My Type is a collection of font pairings from Typekit.
- Typewolf is a great source of typography inspiration.
Good typography not only makes us read but also makes us feel. Typography is a skill that every designer needs to master in the digital age. As with any design project, guidelines and tips are just a place to get started. The first piece of advice is to practice. You only really learn something by doing it. The more you try text styles on, the better idea you will get of how it looks and works for your users. Take this practical guide as a starting point on your road for crafting typography for your screen design.