Design for Non-Designers: Fonts

August 14, 2011 , 12 Comments

As stated in my previous post about enhancing your website with graphics, I am not a designer. Despite this, I have often been asked about what fonts I use or how I created a certain text effect during webinars or after posting a new video.

So, in today’s post, I want to share with you what little I know about selecting and using fonts for websites, video presentations or any other purpose, in such a way that it makes people go “wow, that looks neat”.

Headline-Fonts & Body-Text Fonts

Almost all discussion of fonts in this post concerns headline fonts. Those are fonts you might want to use as design-elements, in logos or graphics (such as the one on the top left of this post), on large slides in presentations, or even on billboards and fliers.

When it comes to fonts for larger bodies of text, all that matters is readability. Here are a few very simple guidelines for picking body-text fonts for websites:

  • Stick to the Classics
    Don’t get fancy when choosing a font. Some of the most popular choices are Georgia, Verdana (which is specifically designed for on-screen reading) and Helvetica. When in doubt, pick Verdana.
  • Size: 14px
    When you look at some well-designed, stylish WordPress themes, you’ll find that they often use a very small font-size for the body text. The problem is that a small typeface looks better and more stylish in many cases. A larger font almost looks crude in a sleek, minimalistic design. However, your site visitors aren’t taking a step back and looking at your overall site design through squinted eyes. They’re trying to read your actual content. So, set your font-size to 14px or even slightly above, to make it more pleasant to read.
  • Up the Line Height
    Another readability factor is the line height (i.e. the amount of space between two lines of text). I recommend increasing it to at least 150% of your body-text size (e.g. font-size of 14px and line height of 21px), to give your text some room to breathe and make it easier on the eyes.
  • Black on White
    Whatever you do, don’t have a dark background with light text on it. Yes, that may look very stylish but it also strains the eyes much more quickly than dark text on a bright background. There’s nothing wrong with deviating from the standard a little, but when in doubt, just go with black text on a white background. It’s a combination that never fails.

Where to Find Free Fonts

dafont-logoFinding good, free fonts is very simple. First, there are probably already plenty of good fonts on your hard-drive and you can use them directly inside PowerPoint, Photoshop or wherever else you want to use them. Secondly, you can find many great fonts by visiting  DaFont. There are thousands of fonts available there and many of them are free to use, even for commercial purposes.

If you look at the categories list across the top of the site, you’ll find a few under the title “Basic”. That’s where you’ll find most, if not all, of the best fonts to use. Why not go with categories like “Groovy” or “Runes” or “Retro”? Because the number one rule for good font design is the same as the number one rule for good graphic design:

Less is Better

With fonts, subtlety wins. The font-design should never be more noticeable than the text it spells out. On the flip-side, a font that turns heads, an exciting, fancy font with lots of flourishes, a glamorous font that begs for attention is always a bad font.

Here are some examples. Let’s say you are looking for a modern, even futuristic font. What you should avoid is a font like the one below that just screams:

Overly Futuristic Font

Instead, you should go for something much more subtle:

Modern Font

If you look at that second font and think “that doesn’t look particularly futuristic” then I’ve made a good choice. Whatever’s special about a font should be so subtle that it’s hardly noticeable.

Mixing Fonts

Just like when you’re mixing colors, when you’re mixing and matching fonts, it’s far easier to get it wrong and mess things up than it is to get it right and find a good combination.

Generally, you should stick to two fonts: one headline font and one body-text font. The two fonts you choose should either be matching or contrasting. Matching is when you use the same font, just different sizes and maybe different styles of the same font (e.g. bold and regular). Contrasting is when the two fonts are very clearly different. When chosen well, contrasting fonts create the most visually pleasing effect.

The one thing you need to avoid is picking conflicting fonts. A visual conflict happens when the two fonts are quite similar, but not the same. Even if you don’t register it consciously, there’s just something slightly off-putting about conflicting fonts. Here are two examples:

[one_half_first] fonts-conflicting [/one_half_first] [one_half_last] fonts-contrasting [/one_half_last]

In the contrasting example, I also added bolding to the headline, to further improve the contrast.

It’s best not to mix more than two fonts and two different font sizes (one for the headline, one for the body text). Of course, in some cases a third or even fourth font-size can work and make sense, for example when you add further sub-heading styles to a longer document or piece of online content. Just remember that mixing too many different font sizes and excessively mixing text-decorations makes a text look messy.

There’s one way to get away with adding a third font (the only way I know of, anyway) and that’s by using a handwriting-style font. Handwritten text can be a great way to highlight an element and add a personal touch and in most cases, it doesn’t conflict with the other fonts on the same page or slide. An example of this can be found on every one of my posts: at the bottom, there’s an image of my signature. Technically, that’s a handwritten font (it’s my actual hand writing) and it’s the third font on the page. It works, though.

Here’s an example of mixing three fonts on one single slide, taken from a presentation I did for SECockpit:


Segoe Script is a free font, which is already installed on most systems and which is a safe bet if you’re looking for a good handwritten-style font. There’s also an entire category of handwritten fonts on DaFont.

My Favorite (Free) Headline Fonts

Here are some of my favorite headline fonts. They aren’t the only ones I use, but they’re the trusty ones I always like to come back to:

My favorite headline fonts.

As you can see, they become a bit more adventurous toward the bottom of the list. Myriad Pro is already installed on most systems, as are Vegur and Trajan Pro. Bebas is only available in all-caps and Code as well as Nevis look best (in my opinion) when used with all-caps.

Text Styling Video

Here’s a quick video demonstration about my personal dos and don’ts of styling and applying text-effects to fonts.
[thrive_borderless type=’custom_code’]

Download Video

One final thing: whatever you do, don’t use Comic Sans.

P.S.: If you’re wondering why I added a blue highlight behind the sub-headlines on this page, here’s the reason: with all of the font examples, the page was looking quite messy and the sub-headlines no longer stood out. Because of this, they no longer gave the page a structure, like they’re supposed to. The page still looks a bit messy, but at least it’s nicely broken up into segments again, thanks to the highlights.

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Great post Shane, as usual; you seem to be one of the few internet marketers out there that has any eye for design. Keep up the good work! Benedict

  • thanks Shane for your post … i was having many of troubles with fonts … now i understand that’s well … thanks for post

  • Very timely for me. Recently I read an article by Michael Campbell on fonts and he jolted me out of my Arial idiocy into being a verdana 14 man!

    I was looking for a good headline font to use too and I’ve tried Georgia and like the combo.

    How about something on blog themes next Shane – that ties the graphics and fonts together?

    • Hi Alex,

      I’ve made a video about WordPress themes here. I have lately been on the lookout for the “perfect” affiliate/niche-site theme. Something clean, simple and streamlined, that also loads quickly. It’s not easy to find such a theme, it turns out. Actually, WordPress’ own twentyten theme is really good, with a few tweaks added.

      But mostly, I pick individual themes for each of my sites, to match the purpose and style of the site as closely as possible.

  • Hello Shane,

    Thanks once again for the information that you are providing us at no charge.

    I’m trying to find where to change the front style and line height in my wordpress admin. Can you help?

    Corey Hoffman

  • Hi Shane

    Just a note for those who like doing a bit of design, they might want to look at the Headway theme for WordPress. It has a great visual editor and you can make a site look any way you want it. Just a few clicks to change fonts, colours, layout etc.


  • Hi Shane

    Would you mind sharing the font you use in your keyword research modules (thank you btw) I love how clean the layout of those pages are and I love the font.



  • I think most bloggers are younger and still see great. I’m in my early 50’s and miss the eye sight I had in my 30’s.

    Most use a font size of 12. I have a lot of readers older than even me. They want larger than 14.

    I try to use 14 even though its not the normal. It sure is easier for those of us that hate to wear our glasses. :)

  • Thanks for the info. My website readability has been nagging at me for a while and I just couldn’t put my finger on it. 70% of my readers are over 55 and we have the worst eyes.

    Thanks to you I increased the spacing between my lines of text. Wow what a nice difference. Our eyes follow a line so much easier as its now more difficult to get lost in the line above or below when our eyes do a carriage return. I spaced my lettering out a little and the crowded congested look disappeared.

    If you look at my site, do you have any other ideas that I am missing?

    Again thanks for the info.
    Chris Van

  • Thanks for this article, currently I’m making a senior exercise website. Keeping the fonts large but to tell which font size is best is a brain teaser.

    After reading your article,it confirmed Verdana, to be a correct choice. The individual letter are slightly larger and spaced apart. Most science magazines use arial but I find the letters placed closer and pulled vertically.

    The background of my website is white for ease of reading with a touch of color to outline science fact boxes. Will cut down the length of explanations, as you mention above. Once I finish my website & the hosting site publishes it, I’ll write back for opinion of the website.

    Shane, I came across your tube clip by chance and now follow your site. Very impressive and you make a good role model.

    Personally I see first hand how college is not preparing students. My son is good with computers and learned on his own. He did a PhD & Master’s project for extra college credit but no credit was given upon completion. He should finish his BS in CS this December. He says he is only pleasing me & not learning anything relative to computers in college. This ‘get a degree’ advice has come back to bite me. Is it possible that he can ask you a few computer related questions by email?


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