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What Your Font Says About You: The Serif vs. Sans Serif Debate

Jun 30, 2011 4:56:00 PM

According to a Six Revisions article published last fall, 60% of websites use sans-serif typefaces for headlines, the most popular being Arial, Helvetica, and Verdana.

Clearly, sans serif is for the cool kids. This has been a trend especially for B2B websites, because fonts that are sans serif are perceived to be contemporary and easy to read. Good for the low-resolution displays of computers, sans serif has a clear letter distinction many believe is lacking in serif fonts, especially at text sizes.

Why we love sans serif:

  • Clean
  • Modern
  • To the point
  • Business-like
  • Friendly

Many technology and construction companies rely on the use of sans serif to depict their modernity, including global empires like Facebook and Caterpillar. For Shawmut Design and Construction, a construction management firm, sans serif works efficiently not only with their branding, but with an interactive feature on their site called the “Shawmut Advantage.”

Here, having a sans serif font works to support the clean, conceptual feel of the design.  It works a little differently for business consulting firm, Bain & Company. While this company is generally considered to be more traditional, their new branding efforts have led them to the contemporary feel of sans serif.

And while I do support sans serif and everything it has done for the world of web design, I have a confession: I’m here to defend the honor of the serif font. I believe that the (seemingly) out-of-date, stuffy serif is poised to make a comeback.

Why we really love serif:

  • Elegant
  • Established
  • Quietly confident
  • Classic
  • Sophisticated
  • Not overused

It used to be, back in those ancient days before the advent of the Internet, that serif fonts were generally considered easier to read, because they connect letters and have “tails” that help ease the reader through dense content. Once computers came along and screen resolution was in its infancy, many made the switch to sans serif because of on-screen readability.

But today technology has advanced us to a place where the serif can feel safe to reside on the web, and now that sans serif is the norm, using serif fonts in your branding and web design is one way for your business to break the mold. As a designer, I’ve been pushing the use of serif fonts because of their roles as differentiators; they can now take on a very fresh look, while still portraying the feel of an established company.

Further, a UK search-marketing firm, has utilized serif fonts wonderfully in their web design.

Still torn? For a creative solution, you can try mixing fonts. Many people who don’t understand typography are afraid to mix fonts, but as a practice it’s fine as long as it is minimal and consistent. The outcome actually creates a lot of visual interest, like what Jump Associates did for their web design.

This only works if you don’t use more than two fonts or use them in a random way. Such a jumbling of fonts can create disarray and reflect a feeling of brand confusion.

Where do you land in the debate of serif vs. sans serif? What does your current website use, and how has it suited you?

Tags: technology / web design / B2B / branding / brand messaging / font